We buried my dad last weekend, after a brutal 16-month battle with a rare lung disease. The grinding pace of the fight was excruciating and filled with ups and downs. With each new treatment option, we held our breath and hoped for the best. He even went as far as to pursue a lung transplant.
In the end, my dad was lying there, hooked to a breathing tube and pumped full of morphine, surrounded by the immediate family. He died of suffocation—as his knotted lungs were unable to push enough oxygen into his system to keep him alive.
From the outside looking in, our family’s relationships looked good as we were growing up—even above normal. We spent time together, he provided every basic need, he loved my mom, and we took long family trips over summers. But over the years, I felt a distance growing between us. Although he listened to me, he seemed to be unable to hear me when I tried to share my heart with him.
He never really had a dad in his life; his natural father was an alcoholic and died when my dad was only 8. When his mom remarried several years later, the relationship with his stepdad was cordial, but not warm or fatherly.
By the time I turned 14 years old, the tension in our home was palpable. As I was maturing into my independence, my body was experiencing more aggressive impulses in response to an underlying, unspoken distancing between us. And that’s when I left home.
First, I spent time on my uncle’s dairy farm. The next stop was a missions project in Europe. I even tried boarding school for a semester. I had “layovers” at home periodically—sometimes for months at a time. However, staying with my dad, I always felt like I was just passing through. At best, I was living as a stranger with a distant relative. This went on for more than 30 years.
Then, in December of last year, I sat with him as the doctor gave him the news: you have 6 to 12 months to live. And that’s when everything changed. If we were going to figure out how to really talk on a heart-to-heart basis; if we were going to get this right, it had to be now. Grow up, or go home.
I wish I could tell you that everything came together, and we magically saw eye to eye. That we instantly came to terms with the distance between us and years of regrets, for both of us, just melted away. We had no such luck.
Instead, I chose to give him a little grace. DON’T MISS THIS. I didn’t decide to act like the last 30 years were perfect. I didn’t wish away my disappointments. And I didn’t even discuss this with him; we still never really had that kind of relationship.
But what I did ACKNOWLEDGE in my own heart was that he was human, susceptible to mistakes—just like me. I did let him off the hook for the things he missed that I wanted and even needed. In short, I did recognize that he gave me his best.
My dad continued to deteriorate. We learned that what he was experiencing was a mounting sensation of suffocation as his body gave the signals that he was not getting enough oxygen. And simple things became harder for him like driving, walking and even using the bathroom by himself.
In the end, recognizing that he only had a short time left to live turned out to be a gift for me. Although there was no way to go back and rewrite every wrong, I learned to treat my dad for who he was—a generous, creative, and flawed human being.
Towards the end, when it was hard for him to talk, we did a lot of communicating by text. He was struggling with his keyboard skills, as well as everything else by that point.
After he had passed, I went back and took screenshots of some of the more meaningful messages. Here’s a rough translation of one I had received about four weeks before he was gone.
There’s a need to see our Dads through the eyes of mercy, remembering that they are in totally new territory and are scrambling with some major On the Job Training (OTJ) issues. Love Dad.
Tim Truesdale is a son, brother, and father of 4 who is still figuring it out. Want to join him on the journey? Check out his blog entries or subscribe for periodic content like this here. Check out the Honor Your Father campaign for more inspirational stories and ideas on how to honor your dad at honoryourfathertoday.com.