In honor of the fifth anniversary of my Dad’s passing, I wrote him a letter. I am sharing this today, hoping that it may resonate or provide comfort to someone else who is also grieving. – Liz
It’s been 1,826 days since you took your last breath with us surrounding you. Those final days were so ugly yet so beautiful at the same time. I remember the peaceful silence in the room the moment you went to Heaven. I remember walking down the hall and falling into Jonathan’s arms in tears, terrified of what the future would be like without you. I remember the way the nurse perfectly creased the blanket over your torso, put your glasses back on, and folded your arms across your chest. And I remember the ultrasound photos my brother put under your hands – the photo of your grandson you’d never meet. It’s an odd thing how life comes to a screeching halt, yet keeps moving forward at the exact same time.
And just as the rest of the world keeps moving, I had to run an errand later that day. I was in an elevator with a stranger who was complaining to me about her difficulties finding a parking space. She asked me a question, inviting me into her vent session. I calmly turned to her and said, “I just watched my Dad get zipped up in a body bag, I’m really not worried about a parking space.” I still laugh thinking about how awkward those next few seconds were for that lady before the elevator doors opened. But, it was that moment that my outlook on life changed forever. Life is short – don’t allow trivial things to ruin your day.
Every year I question whether or not it’s time to stop writing this letter. I think about you daily. The lessons you taught me are ingrained in who I have become. Maybe I don’t need to share my grief journey publicly anymore. And every year leading up to the anniversary of your death, I get a note from a complete stranger who came across a previous letter telling me of the impact it had on them. Sometimes it’s because they experienced a loss and can relate. Sometimes it’s that the letter helped them better support a grieving friend. I got one that talked about how the letter helped them reexamine the kind of Dad they want to be. And sometimes it’s someone who knew you and they share a new story I had never heard before. So here we are, five years without you, and I am still hearing from people who still think about you and the impact you had on their lives. I love those stories, so I am writing to you again – both to provide that support to those who need it AND in hopes to get more stories about you. I hope those stories never end.
This year on Christmas Eve, you were reunited with your Mom. It was a fitting day since she always hosted Christmas Eve at her house. When I think of those parties, I think of running around wild with my cousins, not having to eat my dinner and still getting to eat all the treats in the world. I could only imagine Grandma reuniting with you and Grandpa – first shaking her famous finger at you both and then asking for a “squeeze” and embracing her Bill and Billy. While that image made me smile, I couldn’t help but feel lost. It was the end of an era. Some of the greatest moments in my life are centered around my Grandparents. You did a great job raising your Mom and Dad (as you liked to say). Your favorite stories, your greatest life lessons came from those two. They shaped you and you shaped me. And that part of my life is gone. I’m so grateful that I understood how fortunate I was to have tight, meaningful bonds with the three of you while you were still alive. But with that blessing comes the deep hurt in realizing my children will never experience life the way I did – they will never really know three of the most important figures in my life – the ones who made me the person I am today. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
I’ve heard this Irish blessing many times over the years., but this year it really struck me.
May God be with you and bless you,
May you see your children’s children,
May you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings.
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.
I never realized how powerful a blessing that was. What a profound wish for someone’s future. May you see your children’s children. You never met my kids. And to me, that’s the biggest loss of all.
Your granddaughter is a little firecracker. She loves to swim. You would have a ball coming to the pool with us. She is the littlest one in her swim class, yet still manages the biggest jumps, the highest splashes, and the loudest laughs. Your grandson loves the pool, too. He shrieks with joy the moment he gets in. He puts his face in on his own. I just need to get him to stop drinking the pool water, although you’d probably tell me I drank pool water and I turned out just fine. And I’m learning how to get to your levels of productivity. While my daughter is in her swim lesson, I take my son in the pool. I’m working on mastering your skill of swimming laps with a kid hanging on as if you were a raft, so you could work out and play with your kids at the same time.
Your grandkids love puzzles just like you. Sometimes I watch my daughter on the floor looking for the next piece and imagine you there next to her helping while her brother comes along to tear it all apart. You loved to sit on the floor next to the coffee table and work on puzzles with us for hours. Although you aren’t here to enjoy that time with your grandkids, I am. And I hope one day they’ll look back and fondly remember doing puzzles with me – the same way I remember those moments with you.
Remember when you accidentally left your phone in your pocket when you went kayaking? And it got ruined in the water? Well, that dead phone is a toy for your grandkids. I constantly find your granddaughter holding it up to her ear pretending to make calls. She is always saying “I’m talkin’ to my cousins” and telling them about all the fun things she wants to do with them. She loves her cousins as much as you loved yours – as much as I love mine. There’s nothing more fun than a whole bunch of friends built into family. You’d be beaming with pride seeing your eight grandkids play like crazy. And I’m sure your lip quiver would come out listening to the loud cries of your granddaughter’s devastation when we have to take her home for a nap or bedtime. The greatest gift you gave us was family and that gift continues on with the next generation.
Your grandson is so much like you. His face is covered in excitement when someone walks in the room – he can make anyone feel like they are the most important person in the world. He is always smiling – just completely happy to be wherever he is at any time. He never needs anything fancy – he just wants to be with people he loves. Until it’s bedtime. Then he just wants to go to bed, get some sleep and get up as early as possible to take on the day and share in the joy of life. Just like you. He’s just a tot, barely walking, but he has your emotional IQ. He can tell when someone needs a laugh, a hug, or a pat on the back. He never knew you, but he sure does reflect your attitude each and every day.
Remember how you would always make us laugh after a bad fall? You’d immediately ask if we knew how the floor felt. You’d walk us back to where we tripped and point out a dent in the floor and suggest we apologize. We’d always start laughing and look in amazement at the teeniest little scratch on the floor thinking we made the mark with our “big muscles.” Guess what? Your granddaughter is now old enough to play this game. And she falls for it every time. She loves to check out all the “dents” she’s made throughout the house – proudly pointing them out on every walk down the hallway. My next goal is to master the Band-Aid removal. It took until I became a parent to truly appreciate that skill of yours. I wish you were here to tell me your secret.
This past year would have been an absolute blast to have you here. You loved to tell stories about the campaign trail with Grandpa – all the people you’d meet, the issues you’d learn about, the new neighborhoods you’d get to see. In fact, I met many people on my own campaign trail who knew you, heard of you, or were impacted by you. I was told stories about the way you changed lives, helped someone in a time of need, or just made their life a little bit better. I loved taking my kids out to campaign, decked out in Keating for Council shirts – the same logo Grandpa used more than five decades ago. More than once, I wished I could hang a picture of your grandkids in their campaign shirts on your refrigerator door at your office. You would have shown that picture to every person who walked by.
I started Election Day with tears in my eyes wishing you were there, knowing you would have had the time of your life that day. And then there you were. As soon as the polls opened, I ran into my cousin in the polling booth next to me. I went to dozens of polling locations throughout the city and nearly every site I met someone who knew you. I heard many stories about you, your parents, and your siblings. One gentleman told me about the time he met Grandpa in a laundromat and how he spent a significant amount of time standing there listening to what the man had to say. That was 50 years ago and the guy still remembered the way Grandpa made him feel. Another story was about how you stepped in to help a lost college kid through personal struggles and get her life back on track. She cried talking about the impact you had on her life. And then came the last five minutes before the polls closed. I was the last one left. It was dark, freezing, and eerily quiet. I looked up to the sky and thought how much I missed you that day. Three voters came in those final moments – one woman I never met who took the time just to come cast her vote for me. A young man I coached in swimming years ago. And an attorney who clerked in your law firm who shared stories about your kindness. And as they closed the precinct doors, your cousin texted me a picture of USS Cincinnati headed out to sea in San Diego. You weren’t there, but I felt you.
Winning my first election was special, but I missed you more the next day. The day after the election was always your favorite day – you loved to tell stories about getting to skip school and ride around in a truck with your siblings and cousins cleaning up campaign signs around town. That was something so important to Grandpa. Every sign must come down the day after the election. I always remembered that story you told, but it took until that day to understand the lesson. If you truly care about and respect your constituents, you clean up your signs in their neighborhoods. So I spent the day driving around the city, loading sign after sign into the truck. I couldn’t help but think how nice it would have been to have you there, telling story upon story every time we drove into a new neighborhood, past an ice cream shop, or down a side street you recognized. You would have had a soundtrack planned for the entire day filled with artists I would tease you about, but secretly enjoyed like CCR, Arlo Guthrie, and Johnny Cash. But most of all, it would have been time to hang like we always did. I miss our father-daughter time. A lot.
As time has passed, I’ve found my mindset has shifted. While my sadness will always be there, my focus has turned to what I had. All those stories you told, the lessons you taught, the experiences you shared with us – they’re starting to make sense now. And the most important lesson I’ve learned is that these little moments – the days in between the big ones – are where life happens. Those small, ordinary days are the ones that create the best stories, the fondest memories, and the most love. Those are the days I long for the most. And it’s made me realize how important it is to enjoy the little things with my kids. To be fully present in those insignificant moments. To smile and allow my daughter to pour her own milk and spill it everywhere and not immediately clean the wall when my son colors all over it. To read that extra bedtime book, give that extra squeeze, or dance to the Encanto soundtrack one more time before bed. It’s these little moments for me today that will be the big moments for them tomorrow.
Maybe I’ll have that Irish luck like my grandparents and “see my children’s children.” Maybe – like you – I won’t. But right now, I am blessed to be alive, to see my own children, and to have the opportunity to make the world a little bit better in the time I have left. I learned that lesson by watching you. I’ve understood that lesson by missing you. Thank you.
When I count my blessings, I count you twice.