Even though things weren’t always perfect in my home, I somehow thought they were. I was a kid after all. I had nothing to compare it with. What else did I know? How would I know that other dad’s didn’t drink, fall down drunk, and take off for weeks without being heard from?
Mom standing by the front blinds at night watching for Dad to come home was a familiar sight to me. It was my normal. And sooner or later, he came back. All was well then. Dad was the one I knew from afar, sleeping all day and then dressing in a hurry at 4 in the afternoon to be at his nightclub by 5, while Mom was our anchor—stable and always home. It’s just how things worked at our house. I was happy. And to top it all off, after we moved to Delavan, I had friends, good grades and life was good.
We joined the Delavan Methodist Church. My favorite stained glass window was of Jesus carrying the lost lamb on his shoulders. Jesus. I loved Him. I did this thing at church where I kept track of how many times in a sermon the minister mentioned Jesus. He was good. He could go months without mentioning God or Jesus, which irritated me. A few years later, the congregation was gifted with a new minister; Rev. Hinkleman and his wife and three children.
For some wonderful unexplainable reason our family instantly bonded with them. Even Dad did, a total non believer. (And Rev H mentioned God and Jesus in every sermon until there was no longer need for me to count.)
By now Dad had developed aggressive cancer and spent more time in the hospital than at home. The entire Hinkleman family stood by us offering emotional support. We visited back and forth and soon they were not only the spiritual leaders of our church, but dear friends.
No longer able to work or walk, it seemed as though Dad stayed at the hospital more than he stayed (bedridden) at home. He was no longer addicted to alcohol. He was really addicted to pain meds particularly morphine. It wasn’t unusual for Dad to be up all night crying out in pain. During these times I didn’t have anyone over. It was a private family matter. Mom would sit with Dad during the night but it was difficult when she had to be up during the day to see to us three kids. Then Rev H and Gordon Yadon (town historian and postmaster) came to the rescue. They took turns sitting with Dad at night so mom could rest. Rev H read the Bible to Dad and Gordon discussed history.
By this time I was in high school and knew since middle school it was unusual for my dad to be like he was. I found out most dads played with their kids, did things with them, went to see them perform in plays, attended school conferences, interacted with them. None of this happened between us. Yet I loved him. Dad had these beautiful blue eyes that smiled at me. They spoke volumes. I felt his love. It filled the room when we were together and it was enough.
One evening when Dad was at the hospital, the Hinklemans came for dinner. They knocked on the garage door, the place all good friends knocked. Karen, my older sis, my mom, my younger brother Russ and I, all stood at the backdoor taking deep breaths.
Mom said, “Okay they are a demonstrative family and will hug us when they come in so brace yourselves.” We made a collective sigh and stiffened more with each embrace. Today I laugh at that memory. I also find it odd that we considered a hug would be odd. To me it’s normal. I have become a hugger. A bear hugger. I also tell people I love them all the time. It’s who I am today.
I wear my feelings on my face and my heart on my sleeve. It’s the only way I can be.
Several months later, I was called out of school. Dad was dying. I was to pick my brother up from his school and Karen was on her way home from Chicago. Hurry. You can know the year, month, day, hour, second someone will pass from your life but it’s always a surprise when it arrives.
Russell and I arrived in Dad’s private room. Mom sat waiting for her children to gather. Two thirds of us were now there. Karen was still to arrive. Dad was barely awake, had a breathing tube in but couldn’t speak. I stood over his bed and took his hand in mine. I looked into those watery blue eyes I loved so very much knowing time was limited of ever seeing them again. How would I manage that? Then he smiled at me.
Russ was upset and left the room.
All of a sudden I knew I had to tell him that I loved him. What possessed me to have withheld those words from him for so long? Wouldn’t he have enjoyed hearing his daughter tell him, “I love you” ?
I turned to Mom. “Would you leave the room for a little while?” I whispered. She hugged me and left to find Russ.
I turned back toward Dad. His eyes now closed. “Dad.”
His eyes fluttered open.
“I have something to tell you.” My heart beat so rapidly I could hardly catch a breath but I had to, needed to tell him how I loved him before time took him from me and all I had were memories. And regret.
He looked weakly into my face.
“I love you Dad. I love you with all my heart.”
Those big blues widened. Filled with tears. He opened his lips trying to speak haltingly, trying to make a sound. But none came. Only gurgling from his throat. The oxygen machine whooshed. Wouldn’t it have been lovelier to have told him that I loved him when we were watching a storm come in off the lake, or during a commercial on TV, or riding in a car together? It would have made a perfect birthday gift. Better than a tie or another sweater.
I knew what he was trying to say. He was trying to say he loved me too. “I know you love me Dad. I have always known.”
Satisfied I understood, he settled back into the pillow and closed his eyes.
And then I wondered, why do we wait to tell someone how much they mean to us? Why do we wait to send someone flowers until they die? Why do we allow minutes, hours, weeks, months, maybe years pass before we reach out to someone who means so much to us? The Bible says no man is promised tomorrow. We have only this moment to say, “I love you.” Take this moment. Use it.
Are you waiting for someone to tell you they love you? They ache to hear these words.
From that day, to this, I never spoke with my mom without saying, “I love you.” I told my children every day until they left home that I loved them, and now whenever we speak, or see one another. It’s natural to us. We hug, we kiss. It’s the only way to be.
And so, I leave you with this song.
And to you, I love you. Always.