“There’s pain, and then there’s stepping on a Lego in the middle of the night,” my father often repeated with a laugh when his grandkids visited. They took over his living room, dining table, bedroom floors and bedside tables with messes of plastic blocks haphazardly assembled to resemble something magical and grand, excavated from the depths of their imaginations.
But in truth, as my father’s cancer slowly spread over the last two years, the treatments one by one quickly no longer working, he, and not the Legos, became a lesson to us all in pain, and how to live with it — both in the middle of the night and, increasingly, throughout each hour of each day.
What I learned from my father’s ultimate battle is this: Pain, both physical and emotional, is not something to be feared; it’s something to learn to manage, no matter your age, health or time left to live.
For my father, this meant ignoring it. It meant boarding an overnight flight to visit his grandchildren across the ocean, when he was barely able to move or swallow or stand. It meant buying a senior season ski pass from his deathbed, in hope that he might somehow manage to continue to live with the pain, even above and beyond it, and enjoy one more winter on his favorite slopes with his wife of 50 years. It meant that when his body was ravaged, he would not lie there with regret.
In dying, my father showed his family that come what may, nothing but his strength would define and consume the rest of his days, or his time with us.
My father loved reading about outer space, the universe and the planets beyond ours. “There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on Earth,” he often reminded us on family beach outings, quoting Carl Sagan. Now that my father’s no longer here to visit, or call, or build Legos with, the void of his absence feels immense; I see it best at night, above the Spanish hillsides, stretching across the universe, between those billions of glowing grains of suspended sand.
Until this January, when he was alive, I thought of my father in the way I thought of others around me — as a living, breathing, interactive part of my existence. Like a human, right here with me. Might he enjoy a new fishing rod for his birthday? What were his thoughts on the next election? When was his next doctor’s appointment? Had he seen my phone charger anywhere? Did he want to come to the playground? Now, although I can no longer ask him these questions — although many of the questions, like my father, have ceased to exist — they’re replaced with much larger, more existential ones I wish I had asked him instead.
In the couple of years since my father’s diagnosis, as the urgency to make the most of our time left together grew, I found myself frustrated at times by the sameness of our conversations, of his focus, and interests. How could he spend hours discussing what sort of used car my husband and I should consider buying when we moved with our two young children from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Valencia, Spain, to begin the next chapter in our lives? Why was he so insistent on reviewing again and again the same minute, insignificant details of our travel plans, our housing, our kids’ future schools?
What did any of this truly matter, I sometimes wanted to scream. He was dying. This was it. Surely, I thought, there were more pressing things we should be sharing. More vital, critical messages to impart, in case we never spoke again.
When we said goodbye, last New Year’s Eve, my father had already become hard of hearing. The end was very near. In our final video chat, I was able to show him how the rug from his childhood home, which we carried back across the Atlantic in an oversize suitcase on the plane, fit just perfectly in our new living room. My father marveled, through his small phone screen, at the size of our lush green garden, the towering, bending palms, the ancient olive tree. He delighted in hearing about our weekend walks down the windy Mediterranean seashore. From our terrace, I could use my phone to show it to him: a stretch of turquoise in the hazy distance. He admired the view from my new home office, virtually visited the kids’ messy bedrooms, and toured the kitchen, and the stone steps up from the road to the front door.
He called again the next day, but somehow, though my phone was increasingly glued to the palm of my hand, I didn’t hear the ring. I spoke to him one last time the following morning, between sobs, as my mom held the phone to his ear. He managed to blurt out my nickname, but nothing more, before fading away. For weeks I wondered what he had called to say, what I had missed that day before, when he was still able to utter words. What important message had he wanted to perhaps impart, before silence set in?
In the many sleepless nights since, I’ve reviewed our final conversations. In the darkest hours, I’ve revisited and revisited many of our last walks, our visits, those light-filled moments as a complete family, and finally, I’ve found comfort and solace in the pattern of our chats, in the single meaning behind each and every thought my father shared.
Like the darkness that holds together our universe, there’s a line in the sand connecting each grain of thought; he was, in fact, saying more than I’d understood, overwhelmed as I was by his dying, and by my grief. His questions and enthusiasm about our future were not just vessels for denial, or avoidance. They weren’t signs that he had nothing more pressing on his mind, nothing larger he wished to discuss.
This focus of his, in hindsight, reflected everything that mattered to him most, which was his family; it was us. Our happiness, our health, our comfort, our continuing existence in this world he was too soon departing. In the end, I realize what my father left me with were just the lessons I needed, to remain resilient through this move, his illness and death, and now also this pandemic.
My father was a fan of Winston Churchill, and as I carry my grief forward with me, along with these lessons from the man who brought me into this world, I’m reminded of a famous quote by this politician he admired: “This is not the end,” Churchill said. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Although I’m already decades into my life, like a new phase of the moon, the loss of my father also feels like a new beginning — one without a parent who’s been there every step of the way, so far.
Lorraine Allen is a writer based in Valencia, Spain.
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