Last week, as my family thumbed through our wedding album on the eve of our 17th anniversary, my teenage son took inventory of how much everyone has changed. “Time passes; life goes on,” my husband remarked, staring at a photo of us as bride and groom, his mom on one side, his stepmom on the other.
Of all the smiling faces and joy captured on film that day, the only one missing was his father.
We’d hoped he’d be at our wedding. Living an entire ocean away, we knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we saved him a special place at the reception anyway. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the wedding,” my new father-in-law later remarked on the phone, “But I’ll be there in December,” he cheered with a smile in his voice. In anticipation of his arrival, we stocked his favorite foods and eagerly awaited the final details of his itinerary.
That December 4th, my husband had a particularly awful day at work. Arriving home frustrated and edgy, I busied myself preparing dinner. The phone rang. My husband kicked off his boots and answered. What began as a frantic exchange ended only with a whisper.
“My dad’s dead. Someone killed him.”
With so many questions and so few details, time stood still amid blank stares in near silence. Over and over again, I replayed the last time I saw the man who’d only been my father-in-law three short weeks.
We’d driven him to the airport. We walked him to his gate. He asked if I was hungry. He hugged me for the first and last time. As he walked away, he stopped and turned back around. “Be good to each other,” he said. We nodded. I started to cry — and not the soft weep of a “see you later” cry, but the deepest kind of soul sobbing that attracts the attention of travelers and airport security.
“It’s OK,” my then-fiancé said, “We’ll see him at the wedding.” I bawled the entire way home.
Ever since that fateful goodbye, I’d wondered what all that was about. Could it have been that I somehow sensed we’d never see him again? That his death would be sudden and tragic? That his passing would have a profound and everlasting effect on our family?
A black-and-white photograph of my father-in-law sits framed in a bookcase in our family room. Dressed in a crisp, plaid shirt and mischievous smile, he looks to be in his early 20s — the age of my husband when he lost him. Throughout the years, our kids have gazed upon his picture and wondered, What was his nickname, again? What did he do? What kinds of cars did he have? Did he ever win any trophies?
His life wasn’t a secret — my husband wouldn’t let it be. Leaving a remarkable legacy for someone in his early middle ages, our kids know all about the man he was, the things he did, his talents, and sometimes complex nature.
What they don’t know is the tragic story behind his passing.
“He was sick,” my husband would mention whenever the kids asked. For some reason, they never pressed further.
We’ve talked about it for years, my husband and I, about when and what to tell our kids. Some think age-appropriate honesty is the answer. It’s not that we necessarily disagree, but how “age-appropriate” can something like this ever really be? And what about the inevitable questions that make sharing that much harder?
Right or wrong, holding back the truth all this time has been convenient, for lack of a better word. When our children were young, the decision to shield them from tragedy made sense in the name of innocence. But children grow up, and before long, elements of good and bad and senseless and real begin to sink in.
We see it happening with our teenage son and wonder, is now the right time? As my son’s perspective of the world becomes broader and he begins to understand that very bad things can, and sometimes do, happen to very good people, sharing the final chapter of the man in the framed photo feels more important than ever.
My husband wasn’t wrong when he said time passes and life goes on, but maybe the truth can shine a little more light on all of us.More On