There is an overwhelming sense of peace following the death of a loved one, once the body has been lain to rest and the final tears lay on the ground, soaking into the thirsty earth. There may be more tears in the future — maybe from a memory on the anniversary of a special holiday, or the radio played the loved one’s favorite song, or sometimes for no reason whatsoever — but for the moment an utter calm washes over your entire body.
Whether that peace is a result of the feeling of closure or is merely the product of chemicals released into your body after a good hard cry, it is difficult to know for certain. Some mysteries are better left unexplained.
I wonder if Luke Skywalker, standing at the pyre, watching as the metal casing that housed the body of the man who had once been Anakin Skywalker, his father, melt and burn away, felt that wave of release. Did Luke shed any tears for the father that had never been there for him, that had committed atrocities so heinous that he could not possibly be redeemed by a single act of selflessness?
My gut — and my own personal experiences — tell me he did.
My father was not a malicious man like Vader; he never killed anybody nor found himself on the wrong end of the law save for a short stint in jail for growing marijuana plants in our house (my mother was the one who turned him in for that, that’s how my family operated). He was just shiftless, with no desire to do anything that required any effort on his part. I was seven when my parents divorced (The marijuana incident was a large contributing factor) and I stayed with my mother while my brother Mark went to live with him and my grandparents. My mother remarried (my stepdad could fill up a year’s worth of blogs and send a psychiatrist’s kid to Europe for a month, but that’s another story) and we moved around really often. I never fully lost touch with my father but we never had much contact either.
I graduated high school in 1997, and by the start of college I was living in the world’s smallest apartment in Gallipolis, Ohio, my hometown. One day my father knocks on my door and informs me that he is moving to Columbus. He gives me a piece of paper with an address and a phone number to contact him. I never did. Like him, I suppose I was too lazy to put forth the effort. I will regret it until the day the blood lies still in my veins.
In the spring of 2005 I was working as a cage cashier in a casino in the southeastern corner of Indiana, about a half hour’s drive from my apartment in the suburbs of Cincinnati. I got the call that nobody wants to get.
“Your dad contacted us,” my stepfather said from the other end of the line. “It’s bad. You need to come home now.”
Like me, my mother and stepfather had moved to Cincinnati and lived in a house a couple of miles from where I lived. I rushed over there to find my mother grim-faced and my brother, Mark, sitting in the living room, his countenance an explosive mixture of emotions.
“Your father has terminal cancer,” my mother said. “It’s spread throughout his body, including his brain. The doctors don’t give him long to live.”
“Where is he?” It had been six years since I had seen him.
“In a nursing home in Gallipolis.”
It was a three-hour drive. “I’m leaving tonight.”
I have been subject to lengthier road trips in my life, the most notable being a sixteen hour drive from Cincy to Salem, Massachusetts, and yet that three-hour trek across US 32 through the hills of southern Ohio was the longest trip of my life. My brother rode shotgun, and while we talked and joked and sang along to the radio, a deepening sense of dread continued to creep on us as we came nearer to our destination.
I admitted out loud, “The closer we get, the faster I want to get there, and at the same time I want everything to slow down so we don’t get there at all. Ever.” Mark agreed. Anyone who has made a similar journey in their life agreed too.
We found him that night sitting up in his hospital bed, waiting for us. He looked bad, but not as bad as I had expected. The cancer coursing through his system left him rail-thin, but he retained mental acuity and the ability to talk. The three of us did a lot of talking that night.
A few days later my then-girlfriend (now my wife) would ask me, “Don’t you hate him? Aren’t you angry that he was never around?”
I answered, “There’s no time for that now.”
I think Luke Skywalker reached a similar conclusion as he held Anakin’s dying body in his arms, looking upon his visage for the first and final time. He could have been angry at him, hating him for the choices he made. He had every right to bear those feelings; his father wasn’t there for him. There was no steady hand to hold him up as he learned his first steps, no corporeal presence to advise and guide him through the murky waters of adolescence. Nobody would blame him for resenting his father in his dying moments.
In the end though, there is just no time for that.
Rage and anger over the past are like forest fires; they consume everything. They will lay your soul to waste, leaving naught but dry ashes blowing away with the wind. You can spend your entire days on Earth cursing the people who have wronged you, but nothing good has ever come from it. Resentment carries the weight of a boulder. Cast it off your back.
Use your past as a tool to shape your future. I have a son now, and I make it a priority to let him know every day that I love him and would do anything for him, even on the days when he frustrates me. I want him to live a life full of experiences, and I want to be there as he experiences them. I look forward to teaching him to ride a bicycle and having discussions about current events. I want to be a cornerstone in his foundation. I will be around for him, unless the life be taken from my body.
My mother arranged for my father to spend his final days with her in their home in Cincinnati. I am eternally grateful to her for that, and to my stepfather, who allowed it when he did not have to. Those final three weeks spent with dad were filled with laughter mixed with tears. There were visits from relatives I had not seen in a long time and stories I had never heard. There were the bad days too, when the cancer reared its ugly head and screamed for attention, forcing you to stare it in the eye. In a way I suppose I’m thankful for those days as well.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is this: Life is a cruel author; it does not allow us to choose the genre into which we are written. Yet there is always hope. Your first chapter may have been written without your consent but it is up to you how the story ends. May your pages be filled with adventure, laughter and love.
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