You’ve heard the saying, “you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” To me it was just a saying, that is, until my dad died.
My dad moved his family to Minnesota for a better job before I was born. And although my parents never liked the winters, they somehow made it work. Fast forward 40 years. With Dad retired and the kids moved out, one day they decide they’re moving to Arizona.
I hated their decision. I have my own kids now, a job, a mortgage, I can’t afford to haul my family across the country to visit. At most I’ll see my parents only once a year before I get that phone call every child dreads.
But then I saw how excited Dad was to embark on this new adventure. Besides, they were in their seventies now and it was harder to manage the cold. And with my dad’s bypass surgery and breathing problems, we knew he didn’t have long. So I bit my lip and said nothing.
I wasn’t angry with them anyway, I was angry with myself. I could have stopped by whenever I wanted, but did I? Nope. Sure, we’d visit on holidays and birthdays but that was it. I should have spent more time with them, especially with my dad. He was always there to watch my soccer games or band concerts and he always came over when I needed help with something, but I was so focused on my own life I never thought about his. I guess I only saw him as my dad and nothing more.
The movers came and loaded everything. For the stuff they couldn’t take – plants, pictures, fragile items, computers and important documents – Dad’s plan was to pack the van with everything and drive down to Arizona himself. Mom would stay behind and fly down later with the pets. Dad hated driving alone, so he asked if I’d come with. How could I say no? It seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally connect for what might be the last time.
But the thought of three days alone in a car with my dad was frightening. As the youngest of four boys, I never spent much time with him. It’s not that we didn’t get along; he just had more in common with my brothers than me. I was more of a momma’s boy.
So the trip felt like one of those father-and-son journeys you see in the movies. After years of living as strangers, fate brings us together for one last road trip to open our hearts, air our differences and finally come to understand each other.
The problem is my dad and I are not talkers. Oh sure, we can chat about politics or how to rewire an outlet, but never about truly personal stuff. It’s not that we don’t care, we just don’t talk about it.
Like love. Dad never said “I love you.” He wasn’t like that. Instead he’d show it in little ways. Like when we went out to eat, Dad would buy. Always. That was his thing. Even as adults, it was just understood he would buy. That was his way of saying I love you.
In many ways my dad and I are alike. I’m not a talker either. Instead I write. That’s my thing. I write my thoughts, struggles, dreams, life, everything. Writing helps me figure things out. And since I’m a lot like my dad, I bet he’s a writer too. He probably has stacks of journals or documents on his computer detailing all of his deep thoughts. And someday after he dies, I’ll inherit it all and finally learn who he really is.
So if that’s true, I thought, do I really need to have some gut-wrenching talk on this trip? I mean, if I really want to know him, all I need to do is read his journals. No need to force anything now, right?
So that’s what I did. We drove for three days and actually got along really well considering we talked about nothing the whole time. We arrived in Arizona. I helped him unload the van and get settled while he waited for the moving truck to arrive. Then he drove me to the airport and I left.
Eventually I did get his computer, but there was nothing on it except business documents and games. There were no monologues or tomes detailing his inner thoughts. The closest thing was notes from the AA talks he gave. Nothing else. There were no journals or diaries either. Apparently he never wrote anything down. He never detailed who he was and what he thought about his life.
I felt betrayed. But not by him, by me. I look back at those three days now and I realize what a gift it was. I had unfettered time to talk about anything and I squandered it. I should have said something when I had the chance… anything.
The moral of this story is you never know when the end is coming so take advantage of those moments when you can. But wait. Reading back through this, I’ve decided that’s not the moral. It’s crazy to think one car ride can fix a lifetime of missed chances. I guess what really mattered was the time. Maybe just being together for those three days was all we needed. And for that I’ll always be grateful.
Besides, I already know everything I need to know about my dad. He always did what he had to for his family, always came to our events, always helped out when needed and, of course, bought lots and lots of dinners.
Every day he told us he much he loved us even if he never said the words.
And that’s enough for me.
Russell Heidorn lives in suburban Minneapolis and scatters his time between working and family while pursuing his dream of writing music and fiction. He has received enough success to think he might have some untapped talent deep inside, but also enough rejection to realize his hasn’t found it yet.