We all hope to lead long, full lives that end quietly, surrounded by our loved ones. That wish permeates throughout our culture, manifesting in everything from marriage vows to “god bless you” after a sneeze — from meaningful gestures to meaningless courtesies. Different words, different blessings, the same longing: just a little bit longer on this world.
We cling to life because we love what we know within it and because we fear what lies beyond. Like all good things, we want more of it and then more … until the day comes when we realize that the good in life may have long past and now, all we’re clinging to are the memories of a time when the “God bless you’s” rang true in our hearts.
A warrior seeks a challenge, but as your life progresses and your ability to meet them begins to wane, we tell the stories of past challenges met, past battles won, past mountains conquered. We savor the memories, the stories of our triumphs by sharing them — passing on the best bits of ourselves to those who would do us the favor of listening, or reading.
But what happens when we can’t tell those stories anymore? We worry about a day when our bodies will betray us and we pass on to whatever comes next before we’re ready. I’m not worried about that — in fact, I pray for it.
My father was a warrior. A Vietnam veteran, a soldier, a business owner and a father. He told stories that felt like cinematic epics, taking you with him through memories of triumphs and challenges in far off places on far off dates. My dad lived a life worth talking about — but now he can’t.
His body clings to life, as his mind struggles to comprehend the confusing world he finds himself in; unsure about the faces he sees each day, even his own. Sometimes, when he was stronger, he would mistake me for my brother. Today, I just hoped to see a glimmer of recognition cross his face as I held my daughter over his bed and told him that she has his eyes. I told him I knew he could hear me, but deep inside, the little boy he raised — the last baby to carry both his name and his eyes — couldn’t help but fear he couldn’t.
My wife and I drove all day and all night when we heard news that his condition had worsened. Whether he makes it days or months, he needed to meet his granddaughter — the second in a family that would never have existed had it not been for him. Without Earle Hollings, there would be no Hollings brothers, scattered across the country chasing dreams of racing cars like my big brother, playing video games like my little one or telling stories like me.
My dad was always the story teller and despite having so many more to tell … they’re lost now. Not just to us, but to him. Now I’m all that’s left. A secondhand version of the Hollings man that could win a room with a joke or make you fall in love with a memory. I can’t tell a story like he could — maybe I’ll be able to one day.
We wish each other well with our pleasantries, but we don’t really mean it as a blessing. We want our loved ones to stay with us forever so we don’t have to bear their loss. I don’t want my dad to die.
But I’m pretty sure he wants to.
As I left his hospital room with my daughter in my arms, I tried to keep my little girl that sees me as a symbol of strength and stability from seeing the crying child I really am. I told my dad I’d see him again soon and I hope that I do.
But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.
My dad is a warrior. He’s survived a dozen things the doctors said would kill him. In a way, his body did betray him like we all fear will happen but it didn’t rob him of his life, it trapped him in it. Restrained in a bed by the injury that robbed his mind of its lucidity; the parts of my dad that are still in there ache for a new mountain to climb, a new battle to win.
One of these days, he’ll get it. He’ll be free from the cage that he once thought of as himself and he’ll be making new stories to share with the ages. I’ll miss him then like I miss him now. I realize that I’ll never be ready to let him go. I’ll never be done wanting my dad back. I wanted to wish him well and pray for a speedy recovery like one does when a loved one is hurting. I want him to heal up and get as well as he can.
But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.
So, I didn’t wish for any of those things. I just kissed him on the forehead and promised I’d try my best.
And I will.