by Joanie Butman
September is a season of goodbyes. As summer slowly fades into fall, I bid farewell to lazy days, lobster dinners, the ocean, my daughter as she returns to school, a slew of relatives, and our summer neighbors: my in-laws. Because of their advanced age, every goodbye nowadays is said without knowing whether this will be the last. A couple of years ago, my father-in-law decided he didn’t like the idea of saying goodbye so he refuses to use the term. He changed it to “see you later” or “see you in a few months” – always something open ended. When I asked the reason for his sudden aversion to saying goodbye, he explained that the term sounded too final. His ultimate departure must be growing heavy on his heart as he marches towards 96. The fact that there are now always tears in his eyes as he sends us off leads me to believe he must be thinking the same thing, “Will I see them again?”
In order to appreciate the following story, you have to understand the amiable push/pull relationship I have with The Colonel (my father-in-law). Just this weekend his nephew informed me that the reason Paul keeps his coveted Makita drill (which I’ve asked him to bequeath to me) in the dining room is so I can’t find it! I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was, mainly because I’ve been borrowing it from his hiding spot for years. When I told him his secret was out, he didn't even try to deny it. Instead he said “half the time I don’t know whether to be irritated because it isn’t there when I need it, or impressed that a woman knows how to use it.” Then he accused me of stealing his hammers. My first reaction was deny, deny, deny. However, when I went home I found one of his hammers with his telltale identification mark on the handle. I thought about slipping it back into place without saying anything, but it would be cruel to deny him the pleasure of being right. I brought it back much humbled and begged for forgiveness, which he graciously offered. Then he asked what other tools of his did I have in my shed. He describes me as 'unusual' because I use tools and speak my mind – traits he doesn’t necessarily value in a woman.
He did something last Mother’s Day that convinced me that he must realize when you get to your mid-90’s, the length of your future is even more uncertain than most. He called me and gave me a long preamble about how he was about to do something that he’s never done, something he’s not comfortable with, something that goes against all his military training, and many other caveats. Intrigued, I had no idea what to expect because you just never know what will come out of his mouth. If he had to prepare me for it, this was going to be a doozy! I prodded him, “What are you trying to tell me? Is Elinor (his wife) pregnant?” Not to be deterred, he responded brusquely, “I love you,” and promptly disconnected. Stunned, I turned to my husband and said, “I think your dad just hung up on me.” I immediately called him back, but he let it ring quite a few times before answering even though I know the phone was still in his hand.
“Did you just hang up on me?” I inquired.
“I didn’t want to deal with the awkward silence at the other end of the line.”
I just had to laugh. I thanked him, responded in kind and said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” The reason I relay the story is twofold:
- Since I’ve shared many stories of his comical and chauvinistic antics, I thought it only fair to give his loving moments equal billing.
- More importantly, because of all the heartfelt declarations of love I’ve received in my life, this one may be the most valuable simply because of how difficult it was for him to offer it.
I don’t know what prompted him to choose that particular day, but it was the best Mother’s Day gift I’ve ever received. After giving it much thought, I have to assume it was something he wanted to express while he still had the chance. I am honored and grateful because I never would have known otherwise — when it comes to love, we speak a different language.
My conversation with him reminded me of something I wrote years ago about the power of words. Aside from the obvious damage that hurtful words cause, I discussed the pain of words left unsaid.Though there are countless stupid comments and angry words I regret saying in my life, it is the ones left unsaid that sometimes can be the most damaging and the ones I regret the most. Maybe the person I wanted to say them to isn’t even in my life anymore so those sentiments are lost forever – a lost opportunity to possibly encourage, affirm, apologize, forgive, or express love. I’ve never known anyone who regretted offering a kind word, an apology, forgiveness or love. Even when it costs you dearly, choosing to offer affirmation is a gift that will last long after you’re gone.
As we reach the end of the summer and another goodbye hangs over us like a storm cloud, I knew I had to tell him how much I cherished his desire to express his love despite his discomfort. It was the best way I could say goodbye without actually using those words because he won’t let me.
I walked up for a visit during his daily noontime beer on the front porch. While we sat there enjoying the view and the warmth of the sun, I asked him if he remembered his Mother’s Day call. He laughed and admitted he couldn’t remember what happened yesterday never mind four months ago. I recapped our brief conversation and though he claimed he couldn’t recall, I could tell by his sudden awkwardness that he knew exactly what I was talking about.
His response to my question about what prompted his uncharacteristic display of affection was reminiscent of a mischievous little boy caught in a lie. He couldn’t explain other than to say it must have been a letter or something I did. It doesn’t matter. The reason was unimportant. The fact that he understood my need to hear those words gave me a brief glimpse into his normally well-hidden sensitivity.
When I described how much it meant to me, he blushed. “Well, I guess I scored!” It went downhill from there into more familiar territory with him pontificating about how men overuse the term “I love you” and throw it around carelessly as a “route to get into women’s pants.” He followed up with “I’m beyond that capability now so no one can misconstrue my motives.” Here was the Paul I knew and loved. I quickly redirected the conversation to safer subjects like the lunch menu – food being the only neutral topic with him.
Having vastly different beliefs in many areas, he and I have engaged in many interesting conversations. The longest one has to be our ongoing discussion about the existence of God. I’ve never had any desire to convert him. Quite the opposite, he seems to have a vested interest in converting me to atheism. Maybe if I point out that there aren’t any goodbyes from my perspective, he may reconsider. As a Christian, our farewells are always open ended because we know death is not the end but just the beginning. It’s not goodbye, it’s until we meet again.
Matthew West wrote this for his grandmother’s funeral. It is a beautiful example of a Christian’s approach to death.