My dad and I did not get a lot of time to spend with each other as I was growing up. My parents were divorced, and there were decisions that my father had made which resulted in that lack of time. But an event in my early adulthood involving my dad, would teach me one of the most important lessons in my life.
Though the exact date slips my memory, it was around this time of year, that I received a horrific phone call from my sister-in-law. My stepmother had been hit by a car, while crossing the street. Details were few, other than where I had to go. Once at the hospital, I met my dad. I could see where I get the characteristic of “holding it together” in times of crisis comes from.
Initial conversation of course was steered toward the injuries, and they were severe. And it really was uncertain if she would survive. It was almost ten hours since the accident, and in the way early hours of the morning, the main doctor came out to talk to the family. The doctor explained everything from each injury, to the prognosis of recovery, if any, from each. The doctor also explained what would be done to make each recovery possible. But clearly, even the initial 48 hours were going to be critical.
It was around 2:30am, as we waited for the doctor to come back out with any further news, my dad asked me to come outside with him. He needed a cigarette.
Up until this crisis, my father and I barely talked. We were casual with each other as I harbored a lot of ill feelings as a result of my childhood, even into my early adulthood, which I blamed him for. He lit his cigarette, took a huge drag and exhaled, then began a conversation that I will never forget, and changed our relationship with each other for the rest of our lives.
My dad began to tell me what happened earlier that evening. I was kind of confused because I was more concerned about my stepmother, and thought my dad would be too. But he had something on his mind, and it was a distraction to him that he needed to deal with, so he could better direct his focus to his wife.
They had come home from work that evening and realized that they would need to do some last minute Christmas shopping. Of course, any shopping at this time of year is stressful enough. But there was another issue that they had to deal with, and it caused an argument between the two of them. It was a disagreement over their car insurance. Not wanting to waste time, and get the shopping done, the issue over the insurance was left unresolved and my father left the house and crossed the street to go warm up the car.
It was now dusk, necessary for cars to have headlights on, or at least should have. My stepmother left the house, locked the door, and made her way across the busy street. My father had just turned his head to see where she was, and had seen her make her way halfway into the street. My dad never saw the car coming from the direction behind him. And evidently, neither did my stepmother. And since the driver did not have his headlights on, in all likelihood, he never saw my stepmother. All my dad could do is watch in horror, the result of the impact (which I will spare the details).
My dad broke down into uncontrollable tears. I had never seen him this way.
“It was all my fault.”
Again, not knowing my father really well, I really did not know that he had any particular feelings, let alone, guilt. But here we were in the parking lot of the hospital, and I was actually hearing it from my father, pure guilt.
“Dad, no. It wasn’t your fault. How could you think that?”
His reasoning was simple. They almost always left the house at the same time. And this particular time, they did not. And it was because they were angry at each other. Things were said to each other. He was pissed off, and left the house without her, one of the few times, leaving him unable to prevent her from getting hit by the speeding car. Along with the tears, came a lot of anger at himself.
By the end of the cigarette, he had regained his composure. Strangely, he began a totally different conversation. It was directed at me.
“I wish things could have been different for us. I won’t explain myself, but I need you to know, if I could change what happened between us, I would do it in a heartbeat. I wish I would have been there for you as you were growing up.”
I was shocked, but figured he was actually in shock, that he would actually be worried about our past.
“Dad, don’t worry about it. Let’s get back upstairs. You are needed up there.”
He wanted to talk more first.
“I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when you were dealing with your cancer.”
Now I was really confused. Where was all this coming from?
“It’s just, my mom was put in the hospital. They told me it was for gall stones. She died. It was then that I found out that is cancer. But I can never forget how she looked and felt during that time, and I just could not bring myself to see my son that same way, and die.”
Okay. Definitely not the night to be having this discussion. And honestly at that point in my life, I was well beyond worrying about either time in my life anymore. My dad and I were on our way to mending our relationship and I had no interest in going backwards. But he insisted.
My dad was dealing with guilt, a large amount of it. In fact, it seemed everything that had happened in his life, that caused him guilt, in order for him to move on, he needed to release that guilt. He needed to be able to focus on his wife upstairs, still in surgery. While confusing for me, it did seem to give him some relief to have gotten some of these things off of his chest.
But clearly, it did not give him the relief he was actually looking for.
“I should have been with her.” I do not know if this was to mean he should have been hit also, or hit by the car instead, or prevented the whole accident.
“Dad, there is nothing that you could have done.” The guilt was overwhelming for him.
Days later, it would be discovered that my stepmother, along with her other injuries, would also be suffer brain damage from the accident, especially when it came to memories. And this is where the lesson came in that haunted my father to his dying day.
He would never get the chance to apologize for what was said that evening. My dad could tell her, but she had no recollection of what happened. My father was left alone as the only witness to what led up to that accident.
It was many months before she was released even into a rehabilitation center. But clearly, things could never return to what they once were. And my father would carry that guilt of that night forever.
My dad committed himself to caring for her, the rest of her life. It would have been easy just to leave her in a nursing home, to let others be responsible for her. And for the first time in my life, having only known my father as being someone irresponsible to family, very quickly my respect and admiration for my father grew.
My dad spent well over a decade caring for my stepmother, until he himself was faced with a serious issue, lung cancer. My dad and my stepmother were together over four decades before and after marriage. Together they got to enjoy being grandparents, many times over.
But my dad never lost the guilt over what happened that night. And that is the lesson I refer to in the title of this post. An argument that evening, ended in tragedy. Not because of the argument, but because there would never be any closure for my dad.
“Never go to bed angry” is a familiar expression.
My father died from his cancer, amazingly, my stepmother is still doing quite well today. It was arranged prior to his passing for them to be placed together in the same facility, to allow them to finish out his life, together as they had always been. My dad took great care of my stepmother. But there was one thing he could not do, ever, and that was to say “I’m sorry” to his wife. Because of the things that were said, and the accident that followed, he never got that chance.
Please do not go to bed angry.