A letter I wrote to my father in June 2007, as he was dying of cancer. He died about three weeks after I sent this letter to him, and it might have been my last communication to him, I can’t quite recall. Three weeks later I was flying across the country to see him, but when my plane landed I was informed he had died while I was in the air.
It’s another stunningly beautiful day here in Los Angeles… seasonably warm but dry air, bright sunshine, a slight cooling breeze. I’m sorry you haven’t gotten to see this place that I now live. I’ve been thinking about some things I wanted you to know, and I thought I’d set them down on paper for you in a letter. I’m sending this today by email but will also be sending a hard copy by U.S. Post to your Jefferson Heights address.
First, about your upcoming decisions about your future care: I just want you to know that I will support you absolutely and totally in whatever you decide is best for you. You should think only of what you want, for your own reasons (which you don’t even need to explain to us, unless you want to), and not about what we might want or need. Because what we want and need is for you to do what you think best for you. That is what will make me and Chris happiest. Or maybe I should speak for myself here, though I’m sure Chris feels the same way and has communicated something similar to you himself.
What I hope for you is that, in these upcoming times, you will experience freedom from physical pain and discomfort as much as possible, freedom from unpleasant distractions and difficulties, enjoyment and pleasure (both in the company of others and alone), good rest, uncluttered contemplation and memory of the life you’ve had, and peace of mind, free of fear. If I were deciding on care options for myself, I would be deciding on what I thought would best allow me to have those things. But again, of course, the decisions are all yours to make. I’d be happy to discuss any of them with you whenever you want. I know you’ll make the decisions you feel are best for you, and, again, I will support you in those, whatever they are.
Second, I want you to know how very deeply I have admired, and continue every day to admire, your approach to your illness. I’m so glad you have your faith to sustain you through this. Your attitude of calm acceptance, of confidence in your care providers, of compassion for others in worse shape than you’re in—all of these have been wonderful to see, and have set an excellent example for me as I contemplate my own future last days, whenever they may come. The inner strength and grace you have shown have been very inspiring and comforting to me; knowing that you are facing things in the calm way you are has been a source of great comfort to me. Thank you. – On the other hand, if you need to have moments of fear, doubt, sorrow, regret, uncertainty, pain, etc., please by all means have them. At this point you owe nothing to anyone but yourself, and I simply want you to do what you need to do, and be whatever and however you need and want to be, for your own reasons. You’ve spent almost your entire lifetime, even many of what should have been your boyhood years, looking after others and being responsible. You’ve fulfilled those duties to the fullest, and now you can quite appropriately rest and do what you want to do for yourself without a thought to anyone else. Now, for once, it’s just about you.
Last but not least, I wanted to thank you again for being my father. I know that any parent, biological or “step,” has many choices to make, and that the most basic one is whether to be (or to remain) parent to a child. I myself have faced such choices, and have probably not always made the best choices when I had them. So at my own advanced age I have at least some understanding of the commitment involved in choosing to be a parent—and especially the parent of a child who is not your own offspring. The depth of that commitment is unfathomable. So, I recognize that you did an extraordinary thing when you took on the countless obligations that came with being my father, and I will always be grateful to you for that. And then there’s all that you taught me as you played that role in my life… more than I can possibly list or summarize here. But some of the many lessons you taught me had to do with a sense of personal responsibility for my actions; self-confidence in my ability to achieve just about anything I put my mind to; the importance of challenging myself to reach higher goals, and the wonderful satisfaction that came with having achieved them, and the sense of reward that comes with hard work; the value and satisfaction of work itself; pride in family, in one’s home, in one’s personal appearance and in the way one carries oneself (you taught me to keep my shoulders back, to look people in the eye when shaking hands, to be respectful of elders and courteous to women); living a well-rounded, balanced life; the confidence that comes from knowing how to maintain one’s home and automobile; financial sense, and appreciation of a dollar earned; a sense of masculine personal style. You bought me my first suit. You encouraged me (without forcing me) to stay in Scouting at times when I was tempted to quit, and those decisions really paid off for me in (once again) a sense of achievement and self-confidence as I cleared hurdle after difficult hurdle in the Scouting program, with your support. You took me to all sorts of sports and cultural events in which you probably had little interest of your own—you took me because you thought I should be exposed to those things (I especially remember several outings in New York, going to hear Nixon in the parking lot of Bambergers in the cold rain, the infamous trip to the race track at Bristol). You emphasized the value of education—not least in footing a lot of the considerable bill for my college tuition, allowing me to earn an education that has stood me in very good stead ever since. You had a wonderful manner of challenging me to challenge myself, in a way that was gentle yet firm (for example, I remember a certain phone call I made to you from Europe one summer during college, when I was experiencing culture shock and wanted to come home… and I remember all the times you patiently explained that a job worth doing was worth doing right, and you not only explained that but also demonstrated it every day in how you did things yourself). You kept your promise the night I was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout, even though I had forgotten that promise. You played chess with me during those long car trips, sometimes even continuing the game over dinner in a Howard Johnson’s. You didn’t disown me when I damaged your prized ’64 Chevy Impala. You pulled my loose teeth and insisted I learn to swim because it was what I needed, even though I screamed bloody murder. You supported me in my decision to major in Philosophy in college, and to study Chinese religions in grad school, even though you probably had little understanding of the value of these topics yourself. In so many ways, you made it “not about you,” which I suppose is at the core of what parenting is. I saw your gentle side when I was a child and was sick or in pain; you would sit on the edge of the bed and touch me and speak to me very tenderly. You tried repeatedly to teach me that “patience is a virtue”—I’m not sure I ever learned that lesson properly, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on your part! Thanks for not punishing me any more than I’d already punished myself the time I returned home from the ice cream truck in Mobile with a frozen popsicle stuck firmly to my tongue. (I was sure my tongue would have to be surgically removed because of my disobeying your command not to eat any of it before dinnertime! You gently removed it and said nothing further, and so my terror was dissipated.) At times when I was being closed-minded on certain topics, you helped me keep my mind open. You were not the perfect father, of course (who is?), and I wasn’t the perfect son, and we had our problems and differences, and I wish we’d played more together (both when I was young and later), but I suppose we really did extremely well, all things considered. We are two very different people who found ourselves together and we made the best of the situation and had some very good times together, and I, for one, wouldn’t trade it. I hope at this point you can look back and agree that you feel the same way. We probably don’t completely understand each other and never will, but we love each other despite our differences, and that is enough, and is much more than many people can say about their family relationships.
I don’t want you to go, and of course I’m not ready for you to go and won’t be, and it will be hard. That’s how life is, and you’ve taught me that too: life is hard, and we just have to face up to it and do our best. I’m glad I haven’t gone first, just because I wouldn’t have wanted you to have to live through the pain of that in your life. You will always be a part of me and you will live in my memory as long as I live. Please know that you will always have my gratitude. And also know that you now have my full support. If there is ever anything at all that I can do for you, or if you just want to talk, please get in touch immediately. You are always on my mind and heart.
I’m glad I have your last name as my last name.
Thank you Dad. Thank you for everything.
I love you