“Aren’t you relieved?”
The first time my dad said this to me, it was at the dining room table in my parent’s home more than 15 years ago.
My first husband and I had decided it was over, for good. There would be no children, there would be no reconciliation, there would be no more.
And my dad looked at me, leaned forward and said it.
“Aren’t you relieved?”
I hadn’t allowed myself to think of it that way. They were the words that told me it was okay. It was okay that the marriage didn’t work out. They were the words that told me my parents were on my side and they didn’t want me to keep struggling to work things out. They were the words that taught me to count my blessings and recognize that things could be worse.
It’s okay to be relieved.
This one question had such an impact on me, I had it engraved on a keychain and carried it with me for months. Anytime I doubted my decisions or felt bad about the divorce, all I had to do was remind myself of those three little words.
And I was relieved.
Advice from a man of few words
My dad was known for his direct advice, his ability to focus on the one thing that needed to change, or the one opportunity maybe I wasn’t seeing. He had a knack for words, and spent decades as an editor at the New York Times. He wasn’t afraid to call people out.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Not even close.”
“You’re not fooling anyone.”
“Cut it out.”
“Knock it off.”
“There is no rush.”
“Could you just.”
“Aren’t you relieved” fit right in. They force you to look on the bright side, see the good things about the situation and move forward. Leave all the doubts, failures and disappointments behind. Move on.
Living with fear
I spent most of my life being afraid my dad would die. I remember in the late 1970s, he worked the overnight shift at the Times and had to ride the subway from Times Square in the middle of the night. The city was so bad at that time that he would put on a bulletproof vest before he left the house, kissing my mom good night and waving to the seven kids.
Eventually I moved on from thinking he would be shot, to thinking he’d definitely die of a heart attack. He had a lot of stress. He drank at least 10 cups of coffee a day, loved the unhealthiest of foods, and had a brother who had died of a heart attack in his early 40s. So it was not inconceivable that he would have a heart attack at any point.
I spent a full 40 years worrying that my dad would have a heart attack.
He did eventually have a couple. His first was a heart attack in the late 90s, after biking the 5 Borough Bike Fest with my brother. He fell off his bike, got back up and walked to the subway to get to the Bronx, where my mom picked him up and took him to the hospital. Another happened after rowing in the Long Island Sound. He always recovered and maintained his “no problem” attitude.
Fast forward to 2020
My dad had been retired for many years but he remained a news junkie. He spent much of the past four years in a state of disbelief at what’s happened in this country, with the media and with this President. Everything that was good and right was riding on this election. Trump absolutely had to be defeated.
Since late last year, he’d been fighting interstitial lung disease, which was slowly robbing him of the ability to breathe on his own. My siblings and I watched as the current events, family dramas and the normal stresses of life were taking their toll on our dad.
In late September, he and I sat together on the backyard deck and talked about what he wanted for his funeral. I tried to nudge him to take advantage of the time he has left.
“Would you like to do more writing? Maybe write a children’s book?”
He recoiled at the suggestion.
“OH NEVER! Of all the things i would write that would be the very last thing. I have no empathy. I’m probably less empathetic than Donald Trump. People die and i’m like, ok, next. Why is that?”
He was admitted to the hospital two weeks before election day, and while he said he felt fine, he couldn’t get enough oxygen to his blood on his own.
Covid restrictions limited visitors to the hospital, but each of us got an afternoon to visit with him. Mine fell on Election Day. I sat with him while he played Scrabble with my brother, and I played with the Electoral College tally map on the Times’ website. My first two tries both gave the win to Trump, and I flashed back to the same feeling I had in 2016 when it was clear to me there was something very wrong.
“Trump could actually win this,” I said.
Probably not the best thing to say to my dad at that time. The man in the next bed overheard me and said from behind the curtain, “Dear God, I hope not. I may as well just give up right now.”
The next day, my dad was despondent. In-person vote returns showed enormous support for Trump and it was a bleak day for anyone hoping for a landslide Democratic victory. He wouldn’t eat and he told my mom he wanted to give up.
On Thursday, he was back to playing Scrabble, but he was still struggling to breathe and the doctors were urging him to be patient. My mom started looking into moving him to a more comfortable hospital, or possibly even back home. We had some hope that maybe he would get a little better, but it would take time and nobody really knew for sure. But I think Bob knew he was dying.
Saturday came the news. AP officially called the election for Joe Biden. I called him up on Facetime and got to see him smile.
“Aren’t you relieved?” I said.
He laughed. “So relieved.”
He watched Biden’s speech and went to sleep knowing that a good man was taking over and would make things right.
My dad died early the next morning.
When my mom called to tell me, I wasn’t surprised. I think I knew it was inevitable. But I was surprised that I felt so relieved.
My dad got to die knowing that Trump was out and a good man was coming in. My dad got to die without living several more months of struggling to breathe. My dad got to die without being put in a home where he would be locked away from visitors, an inevitable reality based on the rising surge of Covid cases.
So as I grieve for my Dad, I continue to remind myself of those three words.
Aren’t you relieved?
Yes, yes I am.