Tough goodbyes

I resigned from my employer exactly one week ago and because the event coincided with the holidays, the wind-down period is leaving ample time for self-reflection. We all leave people in life and sometimes we are left behind. For most people, as they age, it probably evens out. Leaving my friends and colleagues is difficult but I trust that we will stay in touch and occasionally get together for pizza and wine-by-the-ounce at Gusto. Luckily, saying goodbye to them is only a temporary sentiment. Harder are the goodbyes one has to say, or would like to say but can’t, to loved ones who are dying. The New York Times published an article today by Bruce Feiler called Exit Lines about the tricky challenge of when and how to say a permanent goodbye. Lots of things to consider in those situations and I’ll share with you a reluctant goodbye moment I had with someone who I thought at the time was teetering on the edge.

About seventeen or eighteen years ago, my father-in-law underwent quadruple bypass cardiac surgery to repair a lifetime of smoking, hard physical work, worry, and inattention to the fat in his diet. He and I had, to that point, a relationship I can best characterize as deepening respect and fondness. It wasn’t always so. It started badly, and only for superficial reasons, and it took many years before it warmed. At the time of his surgery, I had been married to his daughter for about twelve years and I would say that while the first four of those years were tense, the next eight saw gradual and steady improvement. His post-operative recovery did not go smoothly.  In fact, he had to be re-operated on twice to repair persistent leakage in his replaced arteries. And while things may have changed since then, a recovering bypass patient is not a pleasant sight to behold. Unconscious and inflated to Michelin man proportions, to maintain blood pressure, the person is a frightening spectacle. This post is not meant as a critique of the healthcare system. We had no complaints about the care he received and the surgery he’d had was considered, if not routine, commonplace. The complications he’d experienced though had turned the mood ominous.

The family attended to his bedside in the ICU in shifts all week and I took an afternoon off from work and visited him alone. He was unconscious still, three days since his third surgery, and looked very fragile and scared beneath the manufactured bloat of his body. At that moment I thought we were about to lose him so I spoke these words in his ear. “Don’t go yet. I’m not ready to say goodbye. Mamie loves you. I love you.”

I’m not making this up. I’d been holding his hand in mine and after I said what I said, he lightly squeezed mine and then held it ever more firmly. He didn’t die. It took awhile but he recovered and lived another twelve years before cancer took him away.

During that first year after the heart surgery, we talked with him about his awful week unconscious in ICU. He claimed he couldn’t recall a thing. I didn’t feel the need to ask if he knew I spoke with him that afternoon. It didn’t matter. I knew he heard me.