On my 35th birthday in 2005, I got a call from my sister telling me that Dad's cancer had reached his bones, and that it was only a matter of time. I needed to come home. Ron, the three kids, and I were there the next day, May 18, and stayed until he died on June 5.
Ron and I stayed with my mother for another week before heading home to Pittsburgh. She had two of my sisters and a brother right there in town with her, as well as my niece, who'd been living with my parents that summer in order to help out with Dad's care. Before we left, I asked Ron to copy all of Dad's computer files so we'd have them if Mom ever needed them. Dad had written and published a number of books by then, and Mom, God bless her technophobic little soul, was far from computer literate. Those files came in handy a few months back when a publisher agreed to take on a book my parents had self-published years earlier.
I was going through the files again yesterday, searching for an autobiography/biography my dad had written a long time ago for my seven siblings and me. Mom had been reading through her copy and found she was missing some pages. I found the document and told her I would print it out and mail it to her this week (she freezes at the word 'download').
I also came across a document my father had started, entitled "To All My Children." He wrote it less than a month before he died--right before he slid downhill quickly. I recall reading it that June, but he never gave it to any of us kids. Reading it now--five years later--it affected me more than it did even then. Here it is (all of the misspellings are in the original):
I’ve been putting this letter off for too long thinking I would be closer to normal and could really say the things I want to say. Normal seems further and further away so I’d better start it now. This is not a personal letter to each of you – I plan to do that after I finish this collective missile but I want to put some thoughts into single letter, thoughts that I would be merely repeating to each of you. It has been repeatedly stated by our Church authorities that “the greatest thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” And that’s where I want to start.
I has disturbed me somewhat that all the plaudits in our lives – as small as they may be – have been directed at me for my teaching, my firesides, books, and not toward your mother who is a better person and disserve them more I do. And I guess that is why she is a better person. She has never indicated a desire for them as long as I receive them.
I know this is a really personal thing to share, and I hesitated to put it here for that reason. But my father adored my mother and was never ashamed to say so. Their marriage was never perfect. In fact, they both admitted that there were times when they didn't know if they'd make it. But they did: 52 years. And there's nothing to hide about the love he had for her.
The reason I think this affected me so much more now is because, first of all and most obviously, I miss him. I've been writing for the last several years, which is something he had been encouraging me to do for as far back as I can remember. But I had three kids at the time he died, and very little free time--certainly not enough to write what I wanted to. I've thought many, many times since I finally made the free time (because I've realized you don't 'find' it...ever) of how glad he would be for me. Not only proud, but glad because he wanted me to be able to say I wrote, and not just that he had a daughter who wrote. And I wish I had made the time earlier so he would have known.
It also affected me, however, because more important than me being able to call myself a writer is me being able to call myself a mother. Nothing I ever create, regardless of how proud of it I am, will ever make me prouder than my children. I know this letter was about Dad praising Mom. But I realized a long time ago that an author's intention means very little once the reader gets hold of the writing. For me, this letter is a testament to what matters. It's not the praise and the plaudits that make our lives memorable; it's the love.
When I first read this brief letter, I scanned his other files, looking for the letters he had planned to write to each of us. They weren't there. He ran out of time. And I was disappointed not to find them. I wanted to know what he wanted to say to me--not just what he wanted to say to all of us.
But, in fact, it's irrelevant. He said all that he needed to right here. I already knew he loved me and was proud of me and knew I felt the same way about him. It's fitting that his final words to all of us were these. My father loved my mother, and he thought she was a better person than he was. What child, regardless of their age, isn't a better person for knowing that?