This letter has been pin-balling across my brain for a while now. When I saw you in a few days, I was going to ask you if it was okay for me to write about your medical odyssey. I hadn’t shared your diagnosis or prognosis with many people. Maybe because saying it out loud felt like leaving the truth in wet cement. Maybe I still struggle with sharing what no one wants to hear. That doesn’t matter now. I can’t ask you and I won’t go into the details without your permission. I’ll just say this: Disease isn’t a stranger. We’ve exchanged words. But I’ve never known a sneakier, dirtier thief than ALS. I was going to write about how it stole your ability to bring food to your own mouth, to turn up the volume on Jeopardy, to even leave your chair, to give real hugs. Though it overtook your limbs and lungs, it could never conquer your brain–your big, beautiful brain. It never dulled the wicked mischief in your eyes. Thank God.
That’s what I’ll write about instead. Your light.
I’m sitting in your desk chair now, surrounded in 360 degrees, by your comforts. There’s a picture from Disney up here and you deserve full credit for our family’s collective obsession with the magic. Thank you for teaching me to raise my arms and lift my feet and laugh-scream all the way down the biggest hills. Less control, more tummy flops. This is max mode and it’s a good rule for coasters and for life.
There’s a deck of cards next to me, too–a deck of cards was never far from you. You loved games and wages and bets. Spades, Monopoly, Risk. You loved teaching us–not just the rules, but the strategy–and how to beat everyone we played (except you). You taught me how to funnel that electric surge of competition, learn from each turn and lose graciously–usually by asking for a rematch. Bed times were a pretty strict business when we were growing up, but games were the exception. We’d stay up til the wee hours playing, with you holding court at the head of the table.
It was a while before I learned how cool you were because you were such a firm curmudgeon with the rules. MTV was blocked. My curfew was always earlier than my friends’ and Mom had to sweet talk you into letting me do just about anything, or so it seemed. Do you remember the time I confessed to having one sip of one warm beer when I was 15? You grounded me for the entire summer. But when our neighbor’s daughter had a party when her parents were out of town and the house was wrecked, she came to you and Mom. Y’all cleaned her house, patched dry wall and assured her that she wasn’t going to die. Cause you were awesome.
Up here in your office, I’m also in your library, near to your leather-bound treasures. We’ve always shared a kinship with books, the smell of the ink-steeped pages, the characters, the poetry of it all. Words are powerful, you said. We marveled at how the masters stitched syllables together, how they could manipulate your emotions. We geeked out over allegory, allusions and etymology. You could even read Latin and Elvish because you were never not learning. We had a shared love of words and conversation. In any parcel of the universe, from the most posh spots in Europe to the bleachers in the Little League park, words were your connectors; you found common ground and talked to anyone. But I think you were happiest when words weren’t required. You perfected the art of just being, comfy in the living room, sharing air, surrounded by us. Unscripted. Unfancy. Your favorite story was us.
You took your last breath in your living room and I know you heard my goodbye through the phone. Mom promised me. The hole you left is deep, wide and unfillable. It’s so vast and vacant, I think, because your presence was a force. You were always there, front row, for every hurt, every joy, every promotion, every failure, every thing. But the emptiness reveals how full and complete it was to know you and love you. The day you died, Case made a power point for you and he recounted how you made him laugh. Do you remember the fly on the table in that restaurant at the beach? And the song you and Case wrote about Ozzie to the tune of “Gaston”? Case does. And, that night at dinner, Tucker asked if he could pray. Instead of saying grace over our pizza, he gave thanks for your beautiful soul and all the life we had. This has shown me more of my sons’ hearts. But you already know them.
And I know in my bones that you’re home and you’re whole. Thank you for leading me to the way, the truth, the life. Thank you for choosing the words for your service yesterday to remind us that God’s ways are higher than ours and He’s our ever-present strength. We’ll all be calling up that assurance in the weeks to come. And thank you for adoring our mother, in the highest, most beautiful way you can love a person. Your union holds us all up. What a privilege to be part of your adventure and witness such an incomparable expression of the truest love.
Speaking of our better halves, Mom’s making Jeff an egg sandwich downstairs, trying to keep everyone full. Tim’s teaching the boys to play pool on your table; they do have your shark skills gliding in their blood. Lindsey and Brad are potty training Callum and I know you’d be appropriately rolling your eyes as we sing “potty power” at max capacity.
Pain still pricks. A shock. A pop. Then I slide into puddles of numb. Relief and guilt tangle up in this hairball of grief. Mostly, though, gratitude floods in. It overwhelms me. I’m so grateful that you were my Dad. I’m so grateful for four decades of you–a rare soul of fun and love and light. It’s been an embarrassment of riches, enough to sustain us for a thousand lifetimes. We’re also buoyed by our community of beautiful humans, a constant lift of care and prayer. They’re remembering your smile, first and most, your laugh and your stories. Alison wrote that you were the best of the best and that there’s so much of you in me.
Oh, I pray so, Dadda. And I pray that the you in me grows to be a woman who always makes you proud, who–like you–makes everyone within my splash zone feel treasured and special and perfectly made. I pray–like you–to love my people with reckless, fearless abandon. And I pray to steadily encourage our boys to chase their wild hearts and God’s purpose without apology.
I can’t wait to see you again. To hug you with full force, when you have an eternity of divine air to breathe in and tell jokes and pitch sillies. If there’s good red wine up there, save a glass of that miracle for me.
Until then, I know you know that I love you. And I mean it. And my memory of you will never change.