Writing Last Lines That Count

On the last morning I saw my beloved dad, he greeted me with a hearty “You look great.

His untimely death a short time later has permanently etched all the details of that breakfast into my treasure box of memories: the yellow walls of the Varsity Restaurant on NE 65th street, the booth in the open section, the jeans and sweater I was wearing, the cupcakes I gave my parents for their upcoming drive to Arizona, the eggs and waffles, but it is those words that are most precious.

Because both my dad and I both knew that he wasn’t talking about anything to do with my hair, make-up or clothes – he was talking about the light in my eyes. How did I know that it wasn’t just my dad being his effusive self? Let me explain.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about last lines. As much as we’d like to prepare for them, many (most?) don’t happen how and when we think. Take my dad’s line – neither of us knew that in 6 days time, after arriving and unpacking for a winter in Tucson, that he’d get on a bike, hit a car, and die almost instantly.

That might be an extreme example, but even for the end of a friendship or relationship, the speeches we plan are not what end up expressed. Life, interplay, and random things happen to make things unexpected. So we have to instead do the work to speak honestly and communicate authentically whenever we can.

For me, that work began when three years before my dad’s death when I went on a whim to a meditation class. After 90 minutes of seemingly innocuous visualization and breathing exercises, I spent the rest of the day weeping. It turned out to be just what I needed to start opening all the compartmentalized boxes within and let life flow again. The grief, and shame that came from my recent divorce and that I wasn’t as successful at everything I believed I was supposed to be, came pouring out and I was given openness in return.

So that in the two years before my dad died I was able to choose to broach the subject of spiritual beliefs with him. To talk about what mattered the most to him as a Presbyterian pastor of 40 years. It was a risk because we didn’t talk about religion in my family once all of us kids were grown. Out of respect for keeping things amiable, we’d just stopped talking about our differences.

When we braved the waters of deep beliefs and possible differences to engage in conversation about why he believed what he did and vice versa with me, that meaningful dialogue changed the perception of difference between us and removed the barrier of what we thought were off-limits zones.

Peeling back that veneer of friendly and loving banter in which my dad and I always talked, to delve into deeper issues created a closeness that was precious. My dad knew I was interested in him, I’d spent hours recording our conversations, and I gained relief from my fear that I was doing life “wrong” in his eyes by focusing on meditation instead of theology.

And that is how I knew that my dad’s last line to me was not about the surface details of appearance but instead about a light that had dulled in the last years of my troubled marriage and then divorce. And then through meditation, openness, and vulnerability, that light had been stoked back to its full glow. Sharing that journey with my dad made it possible for him to comment on it.

His death affixed all the details of that breakfast in my mind. But my heart will always remember, “You look good.” It was a gift that started with changing our patterns long before the last line. It’s so hard to talk with our loved ones about the topics that seem most fraught. But in the grief of losing someone, knowing that kinship was there helps.

If we want to have great last lines, we have to risk the vulnerability to be seen.

You look good.” Which as last lines go, was pretty damn amazing.

For more on my delightful dad and what he told me about how he maintained that glint in his eye for a lifetime, I’ve written a book, Finding My Father’s Faith

Please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com and I also post on Mondays at the Heart of the Matter blog. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo is my dad and me, 1971)

44 thoughts on “Writing Last Lines That Count

  1. “You look good” as a last line—yes, pretty fabulous! Thank you for sharing your beautiful memories of your relationship with your dad, and the coming to terms with the differences in your inner support systems. It can be tedious (and a little terrifying) to tread that somewhat tenuous territory with loved ones and friends, but as you discovered, the reward is tremendous. Embracing our differences with respect and love—that too is pretty fabulous!

    1. Embracing our differences with respect and love — so well said. Thank you for adding that wisdom to this because you are so right, without that, it’s hard to imagine coming together! Thank you, dear Julia!

  2. Wow, this is so powerful, Wynne. I’m so happy that you were able to connect so closely and on such a deep level with your father. I try to end every interaction with loved ones with “I love you” because it’s true, but also *just in case* they are my last words. This is lovely reminder to be as intentional as possible with our words and apply “never go to bed angry” to all relationships. 🥰

    1. Thank you, Erin! You are so right about “never go to be angry” applying to all relationships – what a wonderful way to put it. Thank you, my friend!

  3. …”risk the vulnerability to be seen”. Ah…yes. And your entire book is so resplendent with examples of how you took that risk, over and over again, and how your wonderful, loving father embraced you – every step of the way. 💗💗💗

    1. Thank you, dear Vicki! You are so right that it was my dad’s willingness to embrace me in return that made all the difference!! Love you, my friend!

  4. You were both lucky and brave, Wynne. You had enough time with your father — he was still present when you took the risk and he took your hand, metaphorically at least, embracing your agenda. Many lose their parents before they reach the point of attempting such an engagement — swept away and shocking in expected/unexpected ways. Others don’t have the courage or an interlocutor who is willing.

    Those recordings, too, are a gift to the curious in future generations, a door to discover where they came from and “meet” you and your dad in the most personal of impersonal terms. I imagine you cherish them.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Stein. You’re right – I was both lucky and brave.

      I love your description of the recordings as a “door” for future generations. Yes! I imagine it’s the same with the recording of your dad.

  5. Beautiful Wynne. I’m so glad you had the opportunity to really get to know your dad as a person, and he you. As was said above, not everyone gets that opportunity

  6. I love this! As a dad, I take great delight in my daughter, and I can often literally hear and know how she’s doing in the opening line of a phone call. You reinforced to me just how much words matter, and even simple words can be rich with deep meaning. Thank you!

    I’m also reminded of Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”.

  7. I love this! You and your dad worked to create a wonderful rapport between the 2 of you. I don’t believe that just goes away!

    With my daughter and I, she knows I’ll hear it in her voice, when I speak with her, and she’s not good at hiding her emotions from me, so when I hear certain tones, I dig deeper, because I know she’s sometimes so focused on finding the strength to just get through. We’ve reached a point where I can be totally honest with her when I see something, and she knows I’m not saying something to be mean or make her feel badly, so she listens.

    It takes work to create this kind of relationship, and it is something that feeds our soul!

    1. I love your relationship with your daughter — and how much work you’ve done on it. That is so beautiful. The level of openness and honesty you speak of – what a wonderful bond. What a gift!

      1. I didn’t have that with my mother, so I set out to change things, and I’m very happy that she wants to reciprocate with me. I find this bond to be very emotionally nourishing for me, and I don’t think it’s in an unhealthy way, for I make sure to respect her boundaries and her adulthood. This transition from treating our children as kids to developing a strong adult relationship is a difficult one to do, for it requires letting go of our expectations of them to do as we want them to, and to accept their choices.

  8. From your words I can feel how much you and your father love each other. I use the present tense because I believe that love goes beyond space and time.

  9. A very meaningful and poignant post Wynne which resonated with me for many reasons. Close friends have died in the last few years and my father too died suddenly aged 54. Hearing that traumatic news is life changing isn’t it and life is never the same again. Last visits, last discussions, last messages become so important. For me it was a lot to do with trust…. trust in my thoughts and beliefs and trusting someone else with them. Not always easy depending on the circumstances but well worth taking the risk, as you did. Your relationship with your father shines a light.

    1. Oh, I’m so sorry for your losses. You hit it home with me in several ways – life is never the same again. Yes! And then all those lasts become so important. Right! And again when you said it isn’t easy – that is so true but well worth the risk. Thank you for this lovely comment, Margaret!

  10. Do the work. Risk being seen. Wow. I get this image of you approaching your dad two years early to have your spiritual discussion. That had to take a lot of courage. Yes, you probably heard your father from the pulpit thousands of times, but to stand in front of him, as an adult, and say, “I believe in this, what you do really believe and why?” It had to be vulnerable for both of you. Such a neat story. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh, I love the full circle way you have brought this back to me, Brian. Yes, vulnerable – and worth it. Thanks for the great comment, my friend!

  11. This is why, no matter how hard it may be, I believe it is so important to talk openly with my kids, to let them see and hear me in every moment, as well as to be fully open to hear them. Whenever you write so openly about your dad I have (and how beautiful those words always are) that tug of longing wash over me, wishing I too had been given more time with mine.

    1. Oh, I wish you’d had more time with your dad as well, Deb. I love how actively and proactively you talk with your kids, creating that link to the family as well as openness to all your curiosity and thinking. Inspiring!

  12. Your story meant a great deal to me, Wynne. I wish it had turned out that way with my father and me. It was not bad, just not great. I think he was always disappointed that I didn’t share his beliefs.

    Religion was a divisive topic between my mother and me, even though we had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company. In her last few years, instead of the “I want to see you in Heaven” variety of comments that had come between us in earlier years, she stopped trying to convert me. One day shortly before she died, she said to me very simply. “You have been a good daughter to me.” I will always cherish that comment.

    1. Oh wow, Cheryl. What a meaningful comment. And by that, I mean both you sharing this story with me and also the comment your mom made. You point out something that is so true and important to the story which is that my dad was willing to reach back which isn’t always true. In the end, he said he was a “big tent” guy meaning he didn’t care what door people came in.

      Your mother’s relaxing into the beautiful relationship you shared is so beautiful! How wonderful to have that gift!

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