My father-in-law, Bill, died in February. After several years of up-and-down health, his body finally gave out. He was 89. When it became clear that he was declining, we took our two teenage sons down to New York City to see their grandpa. Bill was hospitalized in the intensive care unit.
As we stood outside his room, hoping to go in, his nurse popped out and said, “Mr. Ruder wants to write down a message for you.” He’d had several bouts of pneumonia, was breathing with an oxygen mask, and was extremely frail — although his mind was still sharp. We didn’t know what to expect. After a few minutes, the nurse emerged with a piece of paper and held it up for us to read. On it was one simple hand-written word, “Goodbye.”
Although I’d been writing this blog for three years and have done tons of reading, thinking, and talking about goodbyes at the end of life, Bill’s note stunned me. It seemed so final and profound and perfect.
We went into his room, anyway, and were able to lean down and tell Bill how much he meant to us as a father, father-in-law, and grandfather. I’ll remember him as a delightful man who embraced life, art, nature, travel, and the people who filled his universe. I can still hear Bill exclaiming, “Oh, boy!” when someone or something caught his fancy. You couldn’t help but smile. Bill, a leader in the public relations world who once served in President Kennedy’s Administration, was generous with his wisdom, and I sought his career advice on several occasions over the 20 years I knew him. He relished his family and lovingly asked to see our sons’ school papers, then sent them notes reflecting on what he’d read.
We miss Bill terribly.
Right around the time of Bill’s memorial service in March, another important man in my life, my uncle Dave, died. He had recently celebrated his 90th birthday with a handful of friends, but his heart and health were deteriorating. Dave was an engineer in Kansas City, Missouri, but his real passions included sailing, jazz, spending time on the shores of Lake Michigan, and teaching kids to snow ski — which he did until he was 86. He and my aunt Barbara were married for 62 years!
An amateur drummer, Dave would hit the local jazz clubs and jam with whoever invited him to join. Last winter, when he was on hospice care, Dave kept rhythm at home by banging on a cookie tin. And he went out “clubbing” one last time with his grandson, Richard, and beamed as the young man strummed guitar with a local group. Watching Richard perform with skill and love at Dave’s memorial service in April was very moving.
When Dave and I talked for the last time by phone, I sensed that he was at peace. Bill also seemed at peace at the end of his life. I’m so glad I had a chance to say goodbye to both of them. But their deaths hit me hard emotionally, and I realized that I needed to take a break from my blog these past few months.
I’ll plan to keep posting the best goodbye stories I come across … They seem to be everywhere.