A hundred small goodbyes

My Mum’s brother, my uncle, who we were all very close with and was like a father figure to the kids in our family died very suddenly almost 20 years ago now. I have been thinking a lot about the people I have loved in my life that have died since my father in law died, about my friends who have lost parents, about friends who have died, people I know and how they have dealt with this grief. Their awful grief and loss that they sat with.

I don’t know what is worse: the sudden, drop dead on the spot, knock you on your arse shock of a death like that, or the slow dance of goodbye that comes with cancer that we had with Alan.

Alan had been sick with cancer for a number of years. He had surgeries, we took trips overseas with him for his 70th birthday in Italy when he was better and then over the past few years watched him get sick, and then better over and over again. I never mentioned his sickness here before, it wasn’t my story to tell, but we spent almost every school holidays we could over the past 2 or so years in particular up at the farm, cherishing every moment we could with him. Every time we left I would find myself with tears streaming down as we drove away unsure if it was the last time we would see him for whatever reason: a hundred small goodbyes along the way that I suppose have to help in some way about saying farewell to someone you love forever.

We had lots of chances over the past year in particular to talk about him not being with us. I sat on the floor next to his chair crying asking him how we were going to do it, how much I would miss him, how grateful I was for everything he gave us as a family, as he gave me as his daughter in law. I unashamedly loved that man. He got me and understood me and loved me for all that I am. He knew how happy I made his son, he loved our girls and knew how close we were to his beloved wife. We had the absolute pleasure of being not just parents and children together but friends. A real and wonderful friendship that formed between the four of us over the many trips together at the farm and overseas. We travelled together before kids, after kids, some of the very best days of my entire life involved having Alan and Sue by my side: being in a castle in Ireland drinking beer in the pub, or sitting outside being eaten alive my midges (or are they smidges I can never remember?). Catching a helicopter to the most stunning and remote parts of New Zealand to trek and fish through. Gliding through water in the top end of Australia just the two of us, him praising me for my casting and being thrilled for me when I caught a fish. He always praised me. He laughed at my jokes. He asked me about my work, he supported me and encouraged me. He understood me and I adore/d him. Truly.

Yesterday I was thinking about Maggie starting school next week. A whole new type of grief throat starts up on me when I think about that. I was thinking how I would email him a photo and send him a note about how I always sent him a note about something big or small or funny or silly and how I loved seeing his email pop up in my inbox. I can’t believe there won’e be any of these notes again.

Another goodbye in this long road we have travelled. I suppose there are so many more ahead of us as we venture into our first year without him.

I’m reading a book at the moment (The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion) which is about grief and the author losing her husband very suddenly to a heart attack. She talks a lot about the sense of time before he died – being obsessed with time before he left them suddenly: realising conversations they had had, looking back it was a few days before he died. Did he know it was going to happen? I have been thinking about that a lot too. The sense of death that comes to someone when they are dying fast or slow, do they know? What does that feel like?

I sat in bed with Alan in late November one weekend when Rob and I went up to the farm without the kids. It was Saturday morning and he was reading and so I hopped next to him to have a chat about it all. I asked him how he was feeling: was he scared or angry, was it awful (of course Beth you idiot) we talked a little about his funeral about what he was worried about when he was gone. Bog stuff and little stuff. He was ok, well he had to be. He was at peace with it. He wasn’t scared. I sure was.

Another goodbye.

When we arrived at the farm after Christmas I knew that things were getting close but didn’t realise just how close until I saw him. I was scared about what was coming: knowing that the final goodbye was coming and we weren’t ready, how can we be ready? Knowing we have spent years trying to get ready, and still feeling panicked.

His final day was spent with Sue and Rob mostly, the girls and I stayed away mostly, they listened to his favourite albums and sat with him, all day. I hope he felt at peace and ok with it all. It was just us, no nurses, no hospitals, no machines. It was that same bed we always saw him in, that same bedroom, in his beloved home. It was a beautiful, hot December afternoon the kind we always loved, literally at that time of day where we would always come together the four of us, and the girls, under the wisteria to laugh and chat, listen to music, drink and ice cold glass of some delicious chardonnay. I came in a minute or so after it had happened and the three of us held onto him body knowing he was gone, so sad for ourselves that that goodbye was here at last and we had to let him go. So sad for all the future times we will have together knowing he won’t be there. Those jokes. That laughter, that love, kindness, support he gave us. Our deep deep loss. That we all have to live with now. I hope he was ok, I hope it was ok for him.

The next day we had another goodbye, another in the hundreds we have had. His body stayed in the house for most of the next day which was so comforting, a chance for more goodbyes, he was still with us even though he wasn’t. An ancient ritual and part of grieving that I am certain humans have done for a long, long time. No walking out of a hospital room into the cold stark reality of an empty new life, like we had with my uncle. We had time, again, precious time. And I still wasn’t ready. When the funeral people were coming I got myself into a panic, sobbing into Rob’s arms that I hadn’t ever said all the things I wanted to say, despite having said them all so many times over the past year, of course I said them, and yet it would never be enough. He knew. He will always know as we carry on without him. My thank you will be echoed in my girls, in my love for Rob, our home and community, my work. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

For us, for our family at least, our goodbyes for someone we adored who had to travel this shit awful path of cancer was filled with time. Time together. As many moments as we could steal, we grabbed them. We told each other how important they were. We always talked about them, which is our now and how hard it would be, how we would miss him. Our goodbyes turned out to be some of the best memories we have together: it got Rob on a plane to France to surprise Alan one afternoon (probably around that same magical time of his death at 5.30pm when he was getting ready for a drink in the courtyard and he walked out and there was Rob! We got to steal moments around the fire at the farm talking, it got us time at the beach house together. It got us voice recordings as Rob sat and listened and recorded stories of his Dad. It got us tears at the end of the night after too much wine when things went from warm and happy to melancholy and you had to snuggle in a little closer to each other for warmth and comfort. Those goodbyes are some of the sweetest memories I have.

So what’s worse? That final quick goodbye? The hundred small, sad goodbyes of worry and fear that sit with you through cancer. I’m not sure. I do know that there’s a whole lot of stuff I never got to say to my uncle and I know that Alan knew exactly how I felt, because I told him, I wrote to him, I cried to him. He knew.

And now we head into more goodbyes. The little ones that catch you by surprise, the ones that will kick us in the guts unexpectedly. The calls we don’t get to have, those notes and funny messages we’ll never hear again. No matter the prep, how matter how many goodbyes you have or haven’t had, those are the ones that will get us all.

And you know the sun’s settin’ fast
And just like they say nothing good ever lasts
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye but hold on to your lover
‘Cause your heart’s bound to die
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town
Can’t you see the sun’s settin’ down on our town, on our town
Goodnight

These words are from this song, one of my favourites of all time:

Comments

  1. Not for the first time, your writing has made me cry. You capture emotion, the ups and downs of life, with sincerity and wonder, in words that ring true and which are moving. Grief is hard to live with and quick and long good byes can be equally hard. My Dad died 10 years ago after a long good bye. During his lifetime I would always call to let him know that I was going on holiday. For years after he died, every time I was leaving town, I’d think to myself I must call Dad to let him know I’ll be away for a while and then I’d remember he was dead and I’d relive his loss one more time. I don’t do this every time anymore but I still miss him very much.

  2. Oh Beth, how eloquently you write about this. I lost my dad to cancer in May last year and it’s still quite raw. It is the little things, like suddenly realising earlier in the week on my birthday that I wouldn’t hear his voice over the phone, wishing me well. Thank you for so honestly sharing your journey over the last few weeks. We all need to know we are not alone in this experience. Even though I don’t know you personally, I send you and your family love at this time xx

  3. Kirsty Daniel says

    OH my own father passed away just before your father in law passed and I have been watching your grief and it has made me feel ok with my own. I thought i knew grief… I didn’t.. i had no idea. Thank you for sharing. It has helped me no end… x

  4. I think the hardest is the goodbye you don’t get to have. No chance to say any of the things. You wrote beautifully here Beth, your love for Alan clearly evident. Grief is a difficult and complicated thing, take care xx

  5. Grief is a journey , a journey that never really ends. We lost my FIL in May 2018 to MND a dreadful slow wasting away death and then my Mum in August – a quick literally drop dead death – so I really get the which is worse ? Luckily for me I was very very close to Mum so there wasn’t anything I hadn’t said etc but even now I catch myself thinking I’d run something past her only to stop myself . Grief is love with nowhere to go I think.
    Hugs

  6. Beth, you live and love so, so deeply. I have many things to learn from you. Alan was privileged to have you as a daughter in law and I can tell from your writing that he adored you

  7. Yvonne Cain says

    Beth, I have sat reading this with tears running down. I lost my gorgeous Dad 13 years ago to a brain tumor, he didnt know he was dying, and all the things I spoke to him about when we visited and over the phone everyday, not sure what he comprehended, but it made me feel better. i still think when I ring Mum that Dad will answer the phone or I will look out the drive and see the blue car pulling in and Mum and Dad getting out. We talk about Pa all the time and we keep him with us constantly. Alan was so lucky to have you and Rob and your girls and for you to talk to him and for him to know you all and to experience all the highs and lows with him. He will be looking down on you and will keep him in your heart. Love to you all. Yvonne

  8. My Goodness you can write Beth, it’s a gift. Thank you for putting into words, what a lot of us have felt but don’t know how to articulate. Please don’t stop, your words help many. Love to you and your family at this tough time. S xxx

  9. Beautiful words Beth. I don’t really have any experience with long goodbyes, but I’ve experienced the horrid sudden one. My mother died suddenly after falling backwards down a flight of stairs. She was in her sixties and in perfect health. I’m not sure which kind of goodbye is worst but I do wish we’d had just a teency bit of warning as of course we’d had no time to say all the important things, take videos of her etc. Blessings to you and your family during this stage of grief.

  10. thank you, you have no idea of the power of this post to me personally
    thank you

  11. Oh Beth this is truly heartbreaking but also so beautiful. So beautiful that you had that sort of relationship with your Father in Law. That’s so rare. And so precious that you were there around him as he left this world. If you could choreograph a death I can’t imagine a better one. To be there. My biggest fear in life is that it will happen to my parents when I’m not there. Especially now I live 2000km from them. Sending you so much love lady.

  12. Karen Forster says

    Thank you so much for this post Beth. Today is the 13th anniversary of my husbands death at 52 from the big C – an insidious disease. Unlike Alan, he didnt want to talk about “life” and what lay ahead or in the past 39 years of marriage. He had been brought up in a family who did not discuss ANYTHING. I and our 3 children, live with so many regrets about what potentially could have been over the 20 months we knew time with him was limited. It does get better, you wont stop thinking about Alan – and that is a good thing, a way to honour his memory, especially for dear little Maggie who may not remember him so well. None of my 7 grandchildren ever knew their Grandad Danny so we try to talk about him a lot. I have been thinking of you. Much love xxx

  13. Keep writing Beth, you do it so well and for those that have lost love ones, it could help them heal as well. You are amazing, your whole family is and I know your father in law loved you.What a wonderful relationship you had with him not everyone has that with their in laws or even in their own family.Much love.x

  14. Beth your reflections are so perfectly written. All of those beautiful memories to treasure. My first husband was killed in a car accident when our children were 9 & 10 and my mum died suddenly of a stroke a few years ago so I’ve not had time for any goodbyes to the 2 closest people in my life (other than my children). At times I am terrified of losing those I love in the blink of an eye but I have a stern talking to myself to enjoy every day and always tell those I love how much I love them.

  15. Oh Beth, the tears are streaming here. January is hard for this sentimental girl. I count off the years since – 11 since Al did his dash for a fortnight with his Mum as she was hospitalised, and I was 6 weeks off giving birth to Toby, 6 since he dashed to be with his sister as she died, and now it’s nearly a year since my father-in-law died the most tormenting death, where Alzheimer’s and dementia took several years to take him in increments, he went into care 11 years ago, just after my mother-in-law died. I look at my lad and how much his life serves as a marker for such big grief milestones. He brings such joy to us, as does his big sister.

  16. I’m in tears right now – gosh you have such a knack for conveying all that emotion and love into words.
    Thinking of you all in this terribly sad time xo

  17. I’m reading this as I sit by my Mothers beside waiting for her to take her last breath and I’ve been brave until this point, until.i read your post. Too many small goodbyes. Too many moments without my Mum that will hit me so unexpectedly in a hundred ways. All my love to you and your family xx

  18. My heart is with you all. What a special, special man x

  19. What a wonderful piece of writing, you have a true gift, nailed all the emotions associated with grief. My thoughts are with you and your family at this terribly sad time. xxx

  20. Marian Wiltshire says

    Oh Beth- The long goodbye is so hard- my nephew who is only 4 was diagnosed with a fatal condition at 18 months (up until the. He was a normal healthy little boy). Because it is so rare we have no idea how long we have. It is heart-breaking because it has meant he can no longer move or talk. He lies on a bed, with his amazing parents (my sister and brother-in-law) caring for him 24/7, whilst they care for their two elder daughters (8 and 6). He could go any time.
    So every time is goodbye. And it is so heartbreaking as a parent to see a life so cruelly cut shorty in this way. Recently my sister and I shared a room while we attended our grandmother’s funeral and we discussed her son’s funeral. How shit is that?
    I have no answers, and I am not sure we ever will. I guess they make the most of every moment they have with their son. X
    I hope you, Rob and the girls continue to look after each other- because I think that is the only way to get through.

  21. Pauline Walden says

    A wonderful tribute to your father in law and your family. Your words as always are perfect.

  22. Beth this was so beautiful and touching. I’ve only had experience with unexpected goodbyes, my Dad suddenly dying when I was 16 while I was overseas and my son Harry being stillborn last year, a whole different type of grief where you never even got to know that little person, still just as painful. Grief is such a strange journey but it’s so lovely and comforting to read your eloquent words on the subject. Thinking of you during this time xx

  23. I sure hope I grow up to have a daughter in law like you one day. Such a beautiful account of how real life and love is, and how it concludes x

  24. Belinda Catt says

    Beth, I’d firstly like to send you all a huge hug that holds on. My Dad died a year ago this January and it was completely unexpected and truly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to live with, and that’s saying something. Sooooooo many unanswered questions, so many what ifs, sooooomany tears. I didn’t realise I could cry as much as I have done. Oh how I miss everything about him. He was my first love. Just writing this has me in tears. The quote that grief is the price we pay for love is so very true. I loved him so much and I will miss him forever. I wish I had an antidote for you but all I have is cry, rest, eat, love, cry, remember, talk, cook, cry, read, listen, cry. B. xo

  25. Such a great and lovely goodbye to a well loved man.

    I think that modern medicine and hospitals have distanced us from this type of death, that was normal for so many years, quiet at home and surrounded by those that love us. Because we don’t talk about it – it becomes something traumatic and stressful, rather than being a family experience like a birth. The only deaths that we get to see are from tv shows and movies, and we expect that Hollywood moment which I think seldom happens.

    I got to be with my mum who died 14 years ago, and with my dad who died 4 years ago and I often think that they got to be with me as I entered the world, and I felt blessed to be with them as they left theirs. No death is easy to deal with, but there is some comfort in being able to kiss them goodbye.

    Julie

    Now may not be the right time – but there is an excellent podcast called ‘Griefcast’.

  26. Sandra Dennis says

    Grief is grief…
    I had five months of saying goodbye to my Mum from the time she was diagnosed with cancer until she lost that final battle. She lived with us and we honestly had the best time together, just the five of us, Mum and my little family…
    A few months later I said “see you later” to my daughter’s boyfriend as he walked up our driveway on a perfect April afternoon…the next day he went fishing at Wentworth Falls Lake and drowned in a freak accident…

    So, death is death, and it tears us apart from those we love, changes our lives forever, makes us grateful for ever second afterwards because the one lesson that it teaches is that life is short, unpredictable and every day is precious.

    So very sorry for your loss, my thoughts are with you and yours Beth <3

  27. Beth, you have an amazing way with words. Your article sums up all my fears and worries and emotions about the death of a loved one in one bloody eloquent post. I don’t know what’s easier or better, the slow goodbye or sudden, but I sure do know you had a very special relationship with your father in law, and I hope i can foster that kind of relationship with my sons partners when the day comes. you’re a gorgeous human, thank you for sharing your story.

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