He missed my oldest son’s first day of kindergarten and his high school graduation.
He never saw my second son kick a game-winning point after touchdown.
Never heard my third-born play “Ring of Fire” on the guitar.
Never even met my fourth son.
He never read my column in The Spokesman-Review.
Never saw my short stories printed in myriad anthologies.
When my dad died in 1995 at age 68, all I could think was – it’s just too soon.
Thomas Raymon Burnett was larger than life, and a world without him – unimaginable. He’d undergone three heart bypass surgeries – the first when I was just 16, but I still wasn’t ready to lose him.
On March 25, I cooked him a birthday dinner. That night, he and my husband, Derek, looked out at the stars through the night-vision goggles Derek used as a helicopter pilot.
A few hours later Dad called and said he needed to get to the hospital. While Derek drove him to the emergency room, I bargained with God. “Please, not yet,” I prayed. “Just give him two more years.”
Four days later he was gone.
March 29, the 17th anniversary of his death hit me harder than I expected. I pored over photos and remembered kissing him goodbye at the hospital during our last afternoon together. My second son, Alex, then 3, wasn’t satisfied with kissing his hand. Undeterred by nasal tubes and IVs, he climbed up on Papa’s bed and kissed him on the lips.
A few hours later, I kissed his cold cheeks, while hot tears rained across his face as I begged him to come back.
When Derek arrived at the hospital, he sobbed at the foot of his bed. “No. It’s too soon. I’m not ready.”
But death comes whether we are ready or not.
That point was hammered home to me this month as I wrote about the untimely death of Sacajawea Middle School teacher Pat Fiorillo. He succumbed to cancer at 48, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. He was my husband’s age. And I’m sure his friends and family would say, it was much too soon.
I have written about Susie Stephens, who died 10 years ago at age 36. She was just two months younger than me.
Her mom started planting trees in Susie’s memory, and The Susie Forest was born. One of the trees in The Susie Forest was planted in honor of my friend Sarah’s stillborn daughter, Grace.
We are never ready to lose those we love. Whether they lived a few minutes or several decades, saying goodbye hurts.
But living without those we love hurts even more – and we are forever changed by loss.
Those who’ve been touched by death tend to say “I love you” more often, and with greater ease. We relish laughter. We don’t take hellos or goodbyes for granted. Everything is tinged with impermanence.
The lessons of loss mark us. We revel in the change of each season, but when the anniversary of a death approaches, we quiet – we withdraw. We mark the time in our own ways. We visit graves. We plant trees. We write. We release balloons. We pray. We hug tighter. We have trouble letting go.
I used to count those who’ve never lost someone close to them as fortunate. Not anymore. Instead, I feel sorry for those who’ve yet to experience the pain of an unwanted goodbye.
Because if we are open to the lessons of death and dying, we learn to value the living. We appreciate each breath we take in a world filled with those we love because we know tomorrow they may be gone.
Death always comes too soon, whether at 100 days or 100 years. But it’s never too soon to embrace life – to love without restraint.
That’s what Tom Burnett, Pat Fiorillo, Susie Stephens and Grace Bain would want you to know.
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