This article appeared in the June 11, 2018 edition of the Register-Guard.
It was, truly, a race against time.
Months earlier, on the heels of his diagnosis, I received a clear, persistent and urgent message: “You won’t get it back,” they cautioned. “Take the time — tell him what he means to you, share your fondest memories, do it now.” I nodded. I agreed. But I couldn’t do it.
We made the trek up I-5 many times — and called often. With the kind of meticulous attention given to something prized and experienced for the first time, on each visit I studied my father’s weight, his appetite, his breathing, and his spirits. Every nuance.
With each visit, and even as his health faltered, I reasoned that the timing wasn’t quite right. Next time, definitely, I’d heed their advice. Next time, for sure, I’d break the chains of my nearly never spoken love and appreciation for for my father. I was ready; I knew what I’d say.
This time, it was frantic, unplanned and urgent. As we barreled toward Bellingham, my sister’s words haunted me: “He’s taken a dramatic turn. Leave Eugene now. He has very little time.” I was stunned, though I shouldn’t have been. I envisioned, at least, a bedside farewell — one last opportunity. Then, just north of Marysville, another call came: “I’m sorry, Jeff, he’s gone.”
Last May, dad died, beautifully, at Hospice House — just steps away from Joe’s Garden in Southside Bellingham, where for 35 cents an hour, and at the age of 7, he first cultivated his skill and love for gardening. I sat with him there, flooded with gratitude for who he was and his incalculable influence on my life, and with a piercing regret that I’d squandered the opportunity to thank him directly and in the detail it deserved.
As I reflect on the contours of his life and their imprint on my own, I am reminded that the small things, often in the simple encounters of daily life, mattered most. I’ve been hearing him a lot lately. His expressions, the tone of his voice — cherishing those sounds, clinging to their memory. As a child, he’d gently shake me awake, saying: “Rise and shine.” His greetings were warm and enthusiastic. Every time, in the same way; clear, daily messages that I was loved and valued.
He lived quite simply. No frills, with gratitude. He appreciated, like no one I’ve known, what he had. Gifts, by his insistence, were always the same: potting soil, 5-10-1 fertilizer, socks. He’d unwrap a block of organic mulch with child-like zeal. He never said it, he lived it: “Appreciate, Jeff, what you have.”
After retiring from Nooksack High School where he taught for 28 years, he took a security guard position at the gate to Bellingham Cold Storage. The “Shack,” he called it. A busy place; semis, employees, vendors and business leaders coming and going — many hundreds of daily check-ins and check-outs with the guy at the Shack. He had a reputation. People would say, “Who is that guy? Is he for real?” They were taken aback by the way he greeted them. Genuine, warm and enthusiastic. He, literally, applauded visitors as they approached. Every time, in the same way.
He did that job deep into his retirement years. I asked him once, “Dad, why do you do that job, and what inspires you to greet people in that way?” He did not hesitate: “Oh, I love it. It’s important that people feel welcomed. Everyone, Jeff, should feel welcomed.”
I am so grateful for these gifts: the importance of appreciating the people and small things in my life, the power of kind and warm encounters, and a value for inclusion. I didn’t tell him this. I wish I had.
Now, in the aftermath of the loss of my dad and as a father myself, I have a new clarity. Take the time. There is opportunity in each day.
Jeff Todahl, Ph.D., is the co-director, Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect, UO, and co-founder, 90by30 Initiative.