It was a race against time. A cruel and unforgiving countdown. He was going to die any minute, and I had to get there in time to say goodbye, to say “I love you” one last time.
Every second that I waited, I was losing my chance. I woke up my roommate, Jody, at 2 a.m., in tears. I asked her to drive me into the city. We had just graduated from college and were spending that summer in our college town before our friends all parted ways for jobs and graduate school. My dad was just 40 minutes away in New York City, yet he seemed so far out of my reach.
My father had been battling cancer for several years.
He had bravely endured this vicious disease with a monumental will to fight, but something had fundamentally changed in the last week. He had suddenly gone from fighting cancer to dying from it. His doctors suggested that he may only have a few more weeks. I had spent that day with him and planned to return the next morning, but in the middle of the night, I got my stepmother’s frantic call.
Her voice kept cracking; she was barely audible as she told me that things had started declining rapidly, and his home care nurse didn’t think he would make it through the night; he could pass away at any moment.
The realization that my father was about to take his last breath felt like a ton of bricks crashing down on my chest. I gasped for air and paced frantically in my living room. “Tell dad” I urged her, “tell him I am on my way to the city right now.” I ran upstairs to get Jody.
Jody knew what I was saying with my frantic tone — this is happening. She jumped up and threw on jeans; we rushed outside to the car and began speeding towards the Lincoln Tunnel. I was acutely aware of each passing minute on the clock, and knew I was losing my opportunity to say goodbye.
We hurried through the Lincoln Tunnel, a drive I had done a thousand times. The commute was usually filled with excited chatter and anticipation to get to my family’s apartment or start a night out with friends. On this night, we sat in silence, feeling the weight of what could happen.
Jody stared straight ahead, undeterred, navigating every turn, car, and traffic light, trying to shave minutes off of the drive.
Throughout the anxiety-filled ride, I thought about what I was going to say to my father.
How do you say goodbye forever?
How do I ensure that my words convey what I need to tell him in such a dire moment? How do you sum up a lifetime in a few minutes?
As we exited the tunnel, I saw the city skyline, usually such a beautiful site. Normally welcoming me back with gorgeous lights and tall buildings, it now taunted me. Everything seemed so vast and spread out, making me feel further away from the one place I needed to be: the building on East 77th St.
There was little traffic, and we made our way across the city in the dead of the night. We finally reached my father’s building. and as Jody pulled up. I bolted from the car and ran inside.
The first things I saw were bright white shoes; the home care nurse was waiting for me in the lobby. She let me in with a worried expression on her face and gently said, “He may have already passed.”
I couldn’t speak. I ran straight to the elevator and we both got on. The short ride felt like eternity. The elevator stopped and I bolted through the doors and ran down the hallway. I reached our corner apartment and pounded on the door. I heard my stepmother’s footsteps rushing to open it and I darted to the bedroom.
He was still alive, but just barely.
Taking his hand, I leaned in close and whispered “I am here, Dad. We are all here with you. I love you. I love you so much. I love you, I love you.”
My uncle, brother, and stepmother came to his bedside. As we all stood next to him, it happened. My father suddenly sat up in bed, as if a bolt of electricity had just shot through him, and he looked each one of us in the eye before laying back down.
A moment later he passed away.
I felt shock and disbelief. He was gone. No matter how much you may expect this moment, when it actually happens, it is unreal.
That fateful night, that frantic drive, my last words to my father — they all still remain vivid in my mind. The pain of his loss cut so deep. I searched for some form of comfort, some way to process the finality of never seeing him again.
I had lost loved ones before. I had lost people I cared about deeply. But the agony following my father’s death was like nothing else I had ever experienced. I had feared this moment since his diagnosis, and now I was debilitated by the magnitude of this heartache. I often wondered whether anything would ever alleviate the pain of his absence.
Losing a parent when you are young is an isolating experience.
Picking out the casket, planning the funeral, and writing a eulogy at 22 years old felt surreal. As I thought about my dad, about death and the after-life, and about how I’d ever move forward, I felt totally disconnected from my peers. I wasn’t a young child, yet I didn’t feel like an adult, either. I was without my parent, trying to make sense of how my life would go on without one of its main characters.
Losing a parent at a young age has a unique set of challenges. Knowing that they will not be there for so many milestones is crushing. I constantly thought of the things I would never get to say to my father and that we would never get to do together. I thought of the moments he wouldn’t be here for. He was only 56. I thought we would have so many more years together.
When you are 22, most people don’t expect you to be grief stricken from a parent’s death. I distinctly remember when a friend gave me a gift certificate for a massage a few months after my dad died. When I arrived, the woman at the counter asked my age and if I had any injuries. I told her I had recently been through a lot of stress. She cut me off mid-sentence and said loudly, for the whole office to hear, “You’re only 22. What could you possibly be so stressed about?”
As if age was somehow a security blanket against trauma.
I miss my dad in an indescribable, still very raw kind of way. There are no more magical adventures to take together, no more baseball games and art shows to attend. He was not there to walk me down the aisle or to hold his newborn grandchild. But now I know, after taking a long time to go through this intense journey, that he is not completely gone. My father has shaped so much of who I am today. He is still part of all that I continue to do.
He may not be here, but he is still in everything.
Knowing that, I finally found some peace with all of the things left unsaid.
When I’m faced with moments in which his death still feels unbearable, I am comforted when I remember that he left this world after seeing all of us by his side. He felt how loved he was, and “I love you” were the last words he ever heard.