I just finished watching a TED talk about something called the “365 Day Project,” where you wake up everyday and say a meaningful “thank you” to someone in your life. It was a wonderfully inspiring talk, with one part in particular that stood out for me. The speaker was telling the story of how hard it was to say thank you to his own father. I instantly found myself thinking of my own dad.
May father died on Memorial Day last year (2017). I had his ashes buried at Quantico National Cemetery here in Virginia, close to me. I sadly never took the time to say thank you to my father when he was alive – like the speaker of the TED talk did. And, in the last couple of years, of the few times I had a chance to visit with him in Texas, we did most of our talking with our eyes, as the Alzheimers and Dementia took most of my dad’s ability to speak and convey thoughts.
I remember the day he asked me to pull a photo album from his nursing room drawer. We looked at pictures, and he would point and smile at the faces of the people that defined his life. But, it wasn’t until after the third or fourth picture that I realized what he was conveying was that he wanted to know who they were. It broke my heart into a million pieces. The only two pictures he recognized were photos of his parents, my mother, and me as a child. When he saw the picture of me, at age 2 or 3, he looked at me with tears in his eyes, and reached out for my hand. I remember how soft his hand felt in mine, and I was shattered to know my daddy had come to this state of mind, this state of being.
I never thanked him for all the things he taught me. I spent most of my life fixated on the things he had done wrong, and hardly ever let myself remember that he was a good dad. But now that I don’t have him, the memories are coming back.
I never thanked him for teaching me that shirt pocket protectors filled with pens and rulers were cool. I never thanked him for insisting on checking my math homework on his clipboard every single night, even though he had a long day at work. I never thanked him for planting the seeds of female independence by showing me that I had to learn to push the lawnmower and shovel snow, just like my brother. He would tell me that school was the only option, and to never settle for just passing grades, but “aim for that ‘A’, because you’re not going to get it for free.”
I remember how he played a role in inspiring me to public service, by introducing me to political debates as a child, and explaining why things were good or bad, in his opinion anyway. I remember him coming home with Ronald Reagan posters, and the excitement he felt when his daughter was excited to be a young Republican stumping for Reagan’s election. He taught me that you can’t sit and wait for national change, you have to be a part of the system to make sure your ideas are heard.
I remember when I joined the Army, that he was proud of me (even though I wasn’t going to be a US Marine.) He was the one who wrote me the most during the war. I felt like Hawkeye from MASH, with all the letters from dad. There were so many, that I confess I still have some unopened ones. But, I kept them all. Today, the letters are in a box under my bed. I put them there when he passed away, to keep him close to me. I have been afraid to open them… until I saw this project online.
While I can’t say “thank you” to him in person, I realize that I can send that energy out to him in the universe, where I know his spirit is thriving again. I have decided to open a letter each day, and revisit the words my father gave me, as he intended. It will be my way of reconnecting with the man I remember and not the frail patient he had become. When I am done reading every single letter, I will make a special trip to his gravesite, and I will thank him for the man he was, and I will acknowledge that I am who I am today, because of his positive attributes, and his faults. I hope to feel his strength around me, the way I did when he would carry me as a little girl, when he would hug me and call me “princess.”