I was in my junior year of college when I became the dog-mom to my precious Yorkie, Benji. I remember when I brought Benji to show my parents, Dad seemed terribly disappointed. At the time, I was going through a slightly rebellious period where I thought nothing I could do would please my dad, who I so desperately wanted to please. I remember when he saw this puppy, he smiled at first, and then his smile disappeared. He told me that he hoped I wouldn’t get too attached. He said nothing else. It’s been nearly 20 years since that time, and I think I finally understand a little.
Indeed, I did get attached. I loved Benji dearly. When I lost him in a car accident in 2005, I cried over him as if a part of my own self had been lost. And the same happened when my other dog, Austin, succumbed to kidney failure in 2014. I cried more over these dogs than I did over the loss of both sets of my grandparents, more than I cried over the loss of my favorite uncle, my godmother, and more than I cried over the loss of some of my former students and friends who have been lost over the years. I even cried more over these dogs than I cried over the loss of two pregnancies. I mourn the loss, not of the dogs themselves, but the joy that they brought to my life, day in and day out, everyday of their short canine lives.
But Dad cried in a different way. His sadness was a different kind; it was the kind of sadness that comes from years of humble sorrow, regret, and repentance. In the last two years of Dad’s life, every time I saw him, he told me that he wished he had been a better father. Truth be told, I probably have had many days in my life that I wish he had been a better father also. But the greatest lessons Dad has ever taught me were a result of him NOT being a better dad. He taught me absolute forgiveness, that we are not defined by our past, and that even in our lowest moments, we are all connected by our common ability to love one another.
About a month before Dad passed away, he finally began “letting me in” to see some of what he feared and what he wanted to protect me from for as long as possible. He knew the overwhelming sadness I was going to feel over losing him. He knew the grief that was imminent for Mom, my brothers, his sisters, my cousins, his friends, and all he wanted to do was to protect any of us from feeling to enormity of the grief he knew all too well. He protected us as long as possible, and in the final days, it was me, Mom, and my brothers who were trying to protect him from the pain that we knew was coming. We did all we could to help him comfortably transition out of this world and into his eternal home. We laughed, we joked, we played word games (those were his favorite!), and we loved one another.
Dad spent the first half of his life self-medicating his pain away in an alcoholic haze. The unspeakable things that happened to him in his childhood were out of his control, and he never received the life-giving counseling that he needed that could have saved him from his escape to alcohol. But he spent the second half of his life in the sober realization that life hurts. In his own pain, and through his own recovery, he became the life-giving counselor to other people that he himself never had until irreparable damage had already been done to many people who knew him and had tried to love him in his younger years. He lost many people who were close to him, I think beginning with his brother, Bobby, at a very young age. As an adult, Dad witnessed the loss of both of his parents, his brothers Franny and Charlie, and his sisters Helen and Marlene. As each one passed, he wished he had been a better son, brother, friend— and he tried not to think too hard on all of the clients who he counseled into sobriety who he then witnessed decay into relapse. Instead, he focused on those of us who were here with him, living, breathing, loving, and praying. — And laughing, finding pure joy in each other’s company.
I understand now that the sadness is never going to go away. But my focus is on the wrong thing– I am not sad and crying because Dad is gone. Truly, I know I will see him again someday. I am crying over the loss of the joyous moments he brought to my life. He could make my children laugh like no one else we’ve ever known. He could make my sweet, petite, Italian mother turn into a fierce fortress instantly. He gave her strength that I don’t think she knew she had. He could make me think in ways that no one else ever did. And he made all of us wonder about things that no one else cared about… like, how many clouds are there in the sky today? — Will those birds get the nest built before the storm comes?
Dad could not protect us forever from the pain of loss, but he absolutely taught us the joy of love. ~ “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins”~1 Peter 4:8