“You’re a liar,” my mother said.
But it wasn’t a lie. Her father, my grandfather, had collapsed that morning from a massive heart attack. No final hugs. No goodbye. Just a phone call. And he was gone.
Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more day to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? I wrote that sentence as part of a new novel. Only after I finished did I realize that, my whole life, I had wondered this question of my mother.
So, finally, I asked her.
“One more day with my father?” she said. Her voice seemed to tumble back into some strange, misty place. It had been six decades since their last day together. Murray had wanted his little girl, Rhoda, to be a doctor. He had wanted her to stay single and go to medical school. But after his death, my mother had to survive. She had to look after a younger brother and a depressed mother. She finished high school and married the first boy she ever dated. She never finished college.
“I guess, if I saw my father again, I would first apologize for not becoming a doctor,” she answered. “But I would say that I became a different kind of doctor, someone who helped the family whenever they had problems.
“My father was my pal, and I would tell him I missed having a pal around the house after he was gone. I would tell him that my mother lived a long life and was comfortable at the end. And I would show him my family—his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren—of which I am the proudest. I hope he’d be proud of me too.”
My mother admitted that she cried when she first saw the movie Ghost, where Patrick Swayze “comes back to life” for a few minutes to be with his girlfriend. She couldn’t help but wish for time like that with her father. I began to pose this scenario to other people—friends, colleagues, readers. How would they spend a day with a departed loved one? Their responses said a lot about what we long for.
Almost everyone wanted to once again “tell them how much I loved them”—even though these were people they had loved their whole lives on Earth.
Others wanted to relive little things. Michael Carroll, from San Antonio, Tex., wrote that he and his departed father “would head for the racetrack, then off to Dad’s favorite hamburger place to eat and chat about old times.”
Cathy Koncurat of Bel Air, Md., imagined a reunion with her best friend, who died after mysteriously falling into an icy river. People had always wondered what happened. “But if I had one more day with her, those questions wouldn’t be important. Instead, I’d like to spend it the way we did when we were girls—shopping, seeing a movie, getting our hair done.”
Some might say, “That’s such an ordinary day.”
Maybe that’s the point.
Rabbi Gerald Wolpe has spent nearly 50 years on the pulpit and is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics. Yet, at some moment every day, he is an 11-year-old boy who lost his dad to a sudden heart attack in 1938.
“My father is a prisoner of my memory,” he said. “Would he even recognize me today?” Rabbi Wolpe can still picture the man, a former vaudevillian, taking him to Boston Braves baseball games or singing him a bedtime prayer:
Help me always do the right
Bless me every day and night.
If granted one more day, Rabbi Wolpe said, he “would share the good and the bad. My father needed to know things. For example, as a boy, he threw a snowball at his brother and hit him between the eyes. His brother went blind. My father went to his death feeling guilty for that.
“But we now know his brother suffered an illness that made him susceptible to losing his vision. I would want to say, ‘Dad, look. It wasn’t your fault.’’’
At funerals, Rabbi Wolpe often hears mourners lament missed moments: “I never apologized. My last words were in anger. If only I could have one more chance.”
Maury De Young, a pastor in Kentwood, Mich., hears similar things in his church. But De Young can sadly relate. His own son, Derrick, was killed in a car accident a few years ago, at age 16, the night before his big football game. There was no advance notice. No chance for goodbye.
“If I had one more day with him?” De Young said, wistfully. “I’d start it off with a long, long hug. Then we’d go for a walk, maybe to our cottage in the woods.”
De Young had gone to those woods after Derrick’s death. He’d sat under a tree and wept. His faith had carried him through. And it eases his pain now, he said, “because I know Derrick is in heaven.
Still, there are questions. Derrick’s football number was 42. The day after his accident, his team, with heavy hearts, won a playoff game by scoring 42 points. And the next week, the team won the state title by scoring—yes—42 points.
“I’d like to ask my son,” De Young whispered, “if he had something to do with that.”
We often fantasize about a perfect day—something exotic and far away. But when it comes to those we miss, we desperately want one more familiar meal, even one more argument. What does this teach us? That the ordinary is precious. That the normal day is a treasure.
Think about it. When you haven’t seen a loved one in a long time, the first few hours of catching up feel like a giddy gift, don’t they? That’s the gift we wish for when we can’t catch up anymore. That feeling of connection. It could be a bedside chat, a walk in the woods, even a few words from the dictionary.
I asked my mother if she still recalled those two words her father had assigned her on the last night of his life.
“Oh, yes,” she said quickly. “They were ‘detrimental’ and ‘inculcate.’ I’ll never forget them.’’
Then she sighed, yearning for a day she didn’t have and words she never used. And it made me want to savor every day with her even more.