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Coming To Terms With Death

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For months, my father battled cancer, a disease that left him dying in pieces. I made at least half a dozen trips to Colorado in as many months. With each visit, I found a little bit less of him.

On St. Patrick’s Day I found myself on another plane, but this time this plane was headed in the opposite direction, nose pointed to New York City. I was with nine of my newspaper students traveling to a journalism convention and awards ceremony where we collected our first ever national award – a Silver Crown.

My father would have wanted it that way.

Life, my parents always told me, is for the living. Do not let death drive your decisions. Now, traveling back to Texas, the phone call came.

Dad was gone.

And so, after 52 years, I found myself orphaned. My age, however, in no way mitigates my sadness or heaviness of heart as I search for the words to describe the loss. It’s the loss of the future, of sharing life’s moments with my Dad. It’s the phone call not made. The card not mailed. The email not sent.

I know millions have gone before me, trekking through life in various stages of aloneness. Still, that does little to mitigate my sadness.

I lost my mother a little over two years ago. She, too, died in pieces as we witnessed her losing battle with lung cancer. Both of my parents would have preferred to die like the two characters in the movie Secondhand Lions – “with their boots on.”

At that time, I did what any self-respecting Italian would do. I cooked and tried to make sense of this mess we call life.

To me, it came down to a bowl of chili for my mom, and now two years later, a bowl of chicken soup for my dad to save me from my failure – my failure of trying to say goodbye. Even though both of my parents were close to 80-years-old when they died, the knock of death just never seems to be an easy door to answer.

I guess it’s just that I don’t know how you really say goodbye.

Yes, I told my father how much I appreciated all the wonderful memories he gave me, and the lessons he taught me. All that chatter was done on a cold March day over several cups of my homemade soup. We reminisced about going to the opera (because everyone should go at least once) and President Kennedy’s funeral (because everyone should witness history).

Then there were the little things, like Dad showing my sisters and I how to cook baked potatoes in a campfire, and how to catch blue-shelled crabs with just a string and piece of raw chicken. But of all the lessons he taught, the best was that it was okay just to be yourself.

On this airplane with 150 or so souls aboard, I wonder if all of that was enough, or if perhaps there were some other words I should have said, something else I should have done.

All I have left now are prayers and memories to fill the empty spaces in my heart. I look at my two daughters sitting beside me and wonder what memories they’ll cling to when I die.

I guess my father left me one final lesson after all: Even though we may die in pieces, our memories make us whole.

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About Carol Richtsmeier

  • Dr. Juliann Mitchell, PhD


    Thank you for a beautiful tribute to you and your father’s relationship. He would have enjoyed your work. Please know, death ends a life but not a relationship.

    Be good to you as grieving takes so much work– some days it’s like having another full time job.

    Best wishes,

  • Thank you Juliann, for taking the time to write such a kind note. Each day gets a little better.

  • Dear Carol,

    Many of us are not lucky enough to have a parent for five sevenths of our (expected) life span. Your father saw you grow to womanhood, and saw grandchildren, and saw a mature woman coping with the world. He was gifted indeed to see so much.

    Cancer hurts in the way it diminishes a man from a strapping human being to a yellowed bag of bones. My Aunt Pearl, z”l, sat weeping daily as she saw her husband slowly waste away in the hospital. My Uncle Abe, z”l, suffering in terrible and unfathomable pain, begged my father, z”l, to take a hammer and kill him. The next day, my father fell in the snow, and did not want to get up. My Uncle Abe was my father’s closest companion, and when he finally died 41 years ago, my own father aged a decade.

    That is how cancer kills. So, consider that by living a good distance from your father, you were spared some of this. You were lucky.

    Let you family gather round you where you live. Let them tell stories of the grand-father, the father-in-law, they lost, and you too, tell stories. Take a year to compose yourself – to build up your strength. It does take that long. For some it takes far longer.

    You have the advantage of age and incipient wisdom to guide you. Your beautiful tribute shows some of that wisdom coming to the surface. With time, more will appear. But unfortunately, it is not something so relatively painless as a wisdom tooth that heralds the coming of Wisdom. The cost is usually higher.

    May you hear no more bad news.

    Blessings from Samaria,