Dear Clementine

Advice on how to communicate with a dying parent from our sage expert, Clementine.
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Advice on how to communicate with a dying parent from our sage expert, Clementine.

Dear Clementine

Dear Clementine,

My father is dying. We've always had a good relationship but rarely talk about things of any importance, and this feels like something we should be talking about. When I ask how I can support him, he tells me not to worry and that he'll be fine, even though we know his cancer is terminal and that's not really the case. So I sit with him and we watch the news in silence, commenting on weather and hospice meals and random sporting events.

I don't want to force a conversation that isn't there, but I don't want to regret not talking this through with him, if only for the sake of my own grief. Is that selfish, Clementine? Should I continue to watch the news on the TV by his bed, biting my tongue?

And if I do say something, what do I say? What does one say to their dying parent?

Love, Waiting in Silence

My dear, dear Waiting in Silence,

I don’t want you to say a word. I don’t want you to tell him anything. I want you to say all the words. I am begging you to tell him everything.

Like how you used to think he was a giant. A superhero in Ralph Lauren and scuffed work boots. The most perfect man who ever lived. But that was before you grew up and taller and realized the truth: he wasn’t that tall at all. Turns out the rest, though, was dead-on accurate.

Tell him you remember how the other kids stared at him in awe when he’d pick you up from school. Most dads looked befuddled in those mom situations around all those little kids, but not him. Never him. And even though you rolled your eyes and walked past his hug, pink-embarrassed by the extra attention, it made you feel like the coolest girl in the world to have him show up for you.

Tell him you’re sorry you didn’t hold his hand in front of your friends. You would now. You would really love to now. Tell him he’s forgiven for tricking you into trying that mouthful of wasabi, for convincing you the hotel pool was warm despite his December breath turning to frozen white clouds, and for persuading you that the roller coaster was called Tower of Terror for marketing purposes…because who in the world would want to ride a roller coaster called Baby Loops? Tell him he made you a daredevil at life.

Tell him the best lesson he ever taught you is to turn right when everyone else seems to be veering left. You are not a lemming. To hunt hard for goodness in every day, whether it comes as a strong morning espresso, meaningful work, a spot of kindness when you least expect it, a cold cider and a ham sandwich when you come home, or the gentle sigh of a sunset. He showed you that there are times to walk away from conflict, but there are also moments when only a fight will do. That there is no such thing as a stranger, unless it’s two in the morning and you’re in a dark alley. And how, in such an instance, things could shift quickly into one of those moments when only a fight will do, so be prepared. Just by watching him live…and now die…you saw that it’s important to be curious and not judgmental, live your life in cash so you don't have to pay anyone back for it, to take three deep breaths and a walk around the block before you throw words into your world that could change it, to try your best before you even think of quitting and if you can’t help someone, just try not to hurt them.

Thank him for all the times he made you breakfast for dinner, loosened lids, lifted you up to see, didn’t make you sit on creepy Santas, waited for you to come home no matter how late it got and subtly intimidated your boyfriends into treating you like a princess. Mention how you knew you were remarkable not by how you looked in a mirror or to some dumb sophomore in Spanish class, but by how loudly he cheered when you scored a goal in field hockey and how big he smiled when you earned an A or a B or even a C as long as it was hard-fought. He was your biggest fan, and you will miss having him in your cheering section.

Tell him your someday baby will somehow share his name, so that every time you call for her he’ll hear the echo in heaven.

Tell him you love him so much it hurts your heart. When you think of a day without him, it stops altogether. And when he leaves you, he’ll surely take a part of it along for the ride. A heart is easy to pocket after it’s shattered, you know.

Beg him not to leave. Tell him it’s okay for him to leave. Tell him he was your superhero and the most perfect man who ever lived. And even though he wasn’t very tall at all, he was a giant to you in every other way. Tell him goodbye. Tell him you’re going to miss the hell out of him.

I have to be honest with you, Waiting in Silence. I feel like a fraud pushing this advice on you. Because do you know what I said to my dad? Not one word. Not one. Not any of these beautiful truths, all written for him.

And I’m still picking pieces of my heart up off the floor, ten years on.

That's the only way I live my days...since I learned this lesson the devastating way.

You caught me on this one, Love.

xo-clementine