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.
(featured photo is my dad and me, 1971)