Eighteen of them now since July 1, 2005, the day my dad died of a massive heart attack at my parents’ home in Mogadore.
He was 63 years old. I was 37 then. I’m 55 now, a mere eight years younger than Dad was the day he woke up with severe back pain, soaking T-shirt after T-shirt with sweat, and vomiting. The day ended with Dad slightly slumped over on the love seat in the living room.
He was gone.
Eighteen years ago, I wondered how I would feel about the loss of my first parent 10, 20 years down the road. Would it be different? Would time heal the wounds? Would I get closure of some sort?
On July 1, 2023, I had my definitive answer: No. It’s not different. The wounds are still there. There is no closure.
He’s still gone. I still didn’t get to say goodbye. Nothing’s changed.
And nothing will. Regardless of how much time separates me from July 1, 2005, it will always be the same. Distance in time is irrelevant. The death of a loved one is outside of time. It’s not that time stands still from that point, it’s that it becomes omnipresent: That day, and that loss, is always there. It becomes a permanent part of you.
You learn to manage it, compartmentalizing that deep sense of loss so that it doesn’t adversely affect your day-to-day life, particularly relationships with other people. The profound sadness is still there, you just learn to shift its emotional weight so that it doesn’t burden other areas of your psyche.
I vividly remember sitting behind Dad at the funeral of his own father in late October 1977. I was 9 years old; Dad was 36. Coincidentally — or not so coincidentally — my grandfather Hardesty also died at age 63 of a heart attack. It was my first experience with the death of a close loved one, and I remember thinking how unbearably painful it must be for Dad to sit in that little metal folding chair staring at his own dad’s lifeless body in the casket. And it hit me then, even at age 9, that someday Dad and I would move up a spot: me into that chair near the casket, and Dad…
I wondered how I was going to handle that awful day when it arrived. Could I be as stoic and composed as Dad was sitting in his chair listening to the minister talk about walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil? Could I navigate life without having my dad in it, as he was about to do? Could I carry on at all when that day came and it was my turn to sit in that chair?
That day seemed like a long way off back then. And it was, a full 28 years into the future. Now, somehow, it’s already 18 years in the rear-view mirror. And suddenly, I’ve crept to within eight years of the age Dad was — and his dad was — when he died.
My grandfather’s death in 1977 made me aware of mortality. Dad’s death in 2005 made me aware of my mortality. Rapidly closing in on the age they both were when they died makes me aware of how precious and short our time on Earth really is, because these last 18 years have been a blur.
One day, I’m sitting in that chair in front of my dad’s casket. Today, I’m sitting in a different chair writing about it. And I feel no different about it now than I did then.
It’s still there. And it still hurts.
I don’t make a production out of it whenever July 1 rolls around. I don’t head to the cemetery with a bouquet of flowers, I don’t dig out the photo albums, I don’t draw the curtains and sit in a darkened house.
I don’t do much of anything out of the ordinary, really. I just try to live life as best I can that day, tell him that I love him and miss him, apologize for all the times I was a pain and, most of all, I tell him how sorry I am that I didn’t get to say goodbye.
Which is because I didn’t know he was leaving. I spoke to him on the phone two days before he died, and there wasn’t the slightest hint that anything was wrong. His voice sounded strong, he seemed genuinely happy, he was optimistic about the future. We had a nice, long conversation, just filling each other in on things that were happening in our lives.
As we neared the end of our talk, Dad said that there was something else he wanted to tell me, but he couldn’t remember right then. Try as he might to rack his brain and dredge this piece of information from his memory banks, he just couldn’t remember.
“Oh well,” Dad said, “I’ll just tell you the next time we talk.”
We never talked again. Two days later, he was gone.
It’s heartening that our final conversation was a pleasant one, but disheartening that I didn’t know that “goodbye” that day was forever and not just a customary telephone sign-off.
Dad died in the early evening of July 1, 2005, sometime around 7 p.m. My wife and I immediately hurried to Mogadore after Mom phoned us with the news, and we decided to spend the night there. We didn’t want her to be alone that night, and it seemed there was strength in numbers for all of us.
Only I didn’t sleep. Our makeshift bed was just a few feet from where Dad had died only hours before, and the chiming of the grandfather clock in the room every 15 minutes pierced my soul, reminding me that time was moving on without him. Sleep was impossible; I was too empty to sleep.
It’s been almost two decades, and the grandfather clock is still chiming. It’s in our living room now, standing like a sentinel over another Hardesty household. The chimes don’t sound as ominous as they did the night I lay listening to them after my dad died, but they do reflect my feelings on his death all these years later:
Time may have moved on without Dad, but I haven’t. I still carry him in my heart, where every day is July 1, 2005.