In the Suburbs / Reflecting on a full life, well lived
The weather was cold and rainy last week as we arrived at the cemetery in Chicago where my dad is buried. It seems hard to believe that a year had passed and we were dedicating his grave stone. But the dedication gave us the necessary closure we all needed to move on.
I will always be thankful that the death of our close friend’s wife gave us the reason to come to Chicago last July and to see dad for a couple hours — our last visit. He looked and felt great, albeit tired, and he was already planning his 97th birthday party in October. He made a point of asking me to find him three books at the bookstore in Fairfield where I work.
The following Tuesday morning, just after our return from Chicago, my brother called to say that dad was gone. There were no explanations. Just shock.
And now, we were back. Just as the rabbi began speaking, the rain stopped, almost as if dad had asked Mother Nature not to rain on his dedication day. The rabbi asked if any of the three sons wanted to say something.
I leaned forward and mentioned how he had asked for three more books during our final visit. I explained that for the past year, I have walked over to the large print shelves in our bookstore at the beginning of every shift, looking for those three titles. Ironically, we don’t have them, but I’ve been tempted to order the books to keep in our library. That has been my way of mourning.
The rabbi said my father’s request was a very normal gesture, indicating that he wasn’t ready to move on. He pointed out that so many individuals, when they know that the end is imminent, will have a burst of energy to grasp onto familiar tasks once more. The rabbi recalled being told that, at the end, my dad was busy writing a letter to propose ideas for a new product. His regular routine continued.
The rabbi explained how important it is for any of us to seize one last opportunity to work on or complete tasks, no matter how mundane. As he spoke, I recalled a friend of ours who was dying of cancer in Florida. Another of our friends was with her and she chuckled a little as she told us that our friend, who was the queen of bill-payers, had surrounded herself with bills and was feverishly paying them as her life ebbed away.
“But at some point,” the rabbi said, “We have to let go. We cannot finish everything we have started.”
His words definitely hit home for me. We certainly have no knowledge of when things will end, but dad obviously still had things to do and probably missions to accomplish. At 96 1/2, his life was full, but maybe he wanted it to be a little fuller.
As the rabbi spoke, I glanced over at our little grandson, Lucas, who was quietly walking around the area, and I wondered what he might be thinking about all of this. A year ago, he had just arrived with us from his native China and was suddenly thrust into a funeral and a sea of strangers, hugging him, patting him on the back and welcoming him. Now, just a year later, he was trying to understand why we had come back that day.
Later, over dinner with my youngest brother and sister-in-law, my sister-in-law told us how organized my dad had been. There were no surprises. No unpaid bills, inheritance allocations were all in order. Even the funeral was prepaid. It couldn’t have been easier for my brother, who is the executor of the estate.
As we finished dinner, my sister-in-law, somewhat wistfully, asked, “Now that this is all over and family obligations are done, will you ever come back again?”
My wife and I were a little taken aback. “Of course,” I said. “Why wouldn’t we come back? You’re here. We still have our friend Alan here and Chicago will always be home. I can’t say exactly whether we’ll be back again this year, but we’ll certainly plan a trip.”
My sister-in-law and brother were relieved. Of course, I had to throw in a polite dig that we hoped they would pay us a visit also during one of their future vacations. They promised.
On the flight home, I reflected about the birthdays and anniversaries we spent with my folks and the wonderful times with family and friends. I realized that I never want to let that go.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.