To Touch My Dad’s Cheek 6 Years After He Died

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The anniversary of my dad’s passing arrived this week and it was on my mind. Last week, during a mindfulness exercise with members of my church, we were asked to imagine someone who is suffering or has suffered, and he came to mind.

At one point, Rev. Ken asked us to imagine the person in front of us. I did. And there was my dad, seated in front of me, looking much as he did in the days before he died.

It‘s not the end of my dad’s life, but it is not very far from it. In the hospital. I see the fear on his face, and the softness. We’re past anger now. There’s this: he will die soon.

Then something shifts. I see my dad with a cigarette in his right hand, held in the air. His brow low, his head tilted. This is not the sad guy; this is the frustrated one, the aggrieved one. The one it is harder to love.

And I reach out and put my left hand on his cheek. It’s very strange to extend this hand and touch him a week short of 6 years after he died.

He doesn’t jump, or pull away, and I don’t either. I feel his stubbly cheek on the palm of my hand. It is this incredibly tender moment. It lingers in the quiet. I feel an urge to cry.

My dad doesn’t offer any wisdom beyond his presence. And as I sit there, I become aware of my frustrations and anger with him, mostly about why he hasn’t tried harder to live in a healthier way, why he hasn’t stepped away from the Scotch and the cigarettes.

And then I become aware that in the past year I’ve had two angioplasty surgeries. My dad had his first surgery—a crack-his-chest-wide-open bypass—at 44. I’m 50. At 50, he was still one and done. So despite my intent to eat right and exercise, despite my general desire not to follow in his steps, well, here I am—with a cardiologist and sketchy plumbing and one more hospital stay than him at 50.

And I think about my boys and what happens when I’m not here, and let’s imagine the time comes sooner than any of us would want, how are they going to feel?

And then I am aware of my dad’s cheek in my palm. And this realization: that life is life and loss is loss and all this counting and blaming and judging doesn’t get beyond that.

That I can imagine my dad’s cheek in my palm and realize that, even 6 years later, our lives and legacies intermingle, and that is never going to be untrue. And my intentions matter, but there are truths in this world that run deeper than intention, and that judging or ignoring or writing about it doesn’t change this simple fact.

The only thing that changes all that is living. Every moment. Breathe in. Share a meal. Ride bikes. Watch ballgames. Wake up to birdsong. Breathe out.

Six years after my dad died, I felt his cheek in my palm, and I felt my throat tighten and an urge to cry, and that was what mattered. That’s what will always matter. Until the summoning and the suffering and the loving and the reaching and the intending and the imagining and the softening — until it all ends, it’s all here.

And what a blessing that is.

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