As I wake up and rub my eyes, my thoughts begin to focus and a smile forms on my face. I just remembered what today is! I jump out of bed and run to the living room to see an endless sea of wrapping paper covering package after package. It’s Christmas morning 1989 and I am 11 years old. I see my parents with their coffee and wide grins. My father, though in a wheelchair, moves around quickly and with purpose. My brother, 12 years old, arrives with as much excitement as I have. My sister strolls out of her room, irritated to be bothered at such an early hour. Being 18, Christmas has lost its luster and she just wants her coffee and her space. We tear into our gifts, and one after another, we take turns opening. I get the baseball cards I wanted, as well as the mountain bike that signified that I was not a little kid anymore. My mother gets a surprise gift of a check from my father. Puzzled, she looked at him. “It’s the down payment for your car.” She paused for a moment and then burst into tears. She hadn’t had a car of her own in all the years of being together with my father. They shared one car until the car became a handicapped-equipped van. My father knew she needed to feel some sense of freedom and normalcy that was missing in her life of being both a mom and chauffeur. It was his way of saying, “I know this life’s been tough on you because of me.” There were so many nice gifts that year, but the big one was a joint gift for my brother and I. We opened it together after the 1-2-3 countdown from my mother. We jumped and screamed when the Nintendo box peeked from underneath all that wrapping paper. My grumpy sister even managed to be happy for a moment. “That’s the good one!” she said with a huge smile. “Why didn’t I get that?”
Fast forward 29 years. I am now forty years old. I have no father or mother. My father passed away in 1999 at the age of 56 and my mother in 2007 at 61. My brother and I stopped speaking probably 7 or 8 years ago and my sister and I stopped shortly after that. My brother and I had disagreements about religious matters. I was a devout Christian, preaching to him about his soul and telling him I would pray for him. He was an atheist and wanted nothing to do with religious talk. My sister never forgave me for the way I treated my mother before she died. My mother was talking about me and my wife behind our backs to relatives and we found out about it. She was dishonest and a huge attention-seeker so I stopped talking to her. I reconciled with her in on December 25th (Christmas day) in 2006 and she died on February 7, 2007, about a month and a half later. My family I had as a child is long gone, separated by death and friction. The image of that great Christmas day at the end of the 80’s is captured on a home video that I haven’t watched in years. It’s a hazy memory without watching the tape. I now am separated from that time by nearly 3 decades and also separated by the pain of my broken family.
I have my own wonderful family here at home. I have a loving wife with whom I have shared nearly 23 years. I have 4 great kids as well. My three boys and one little princess keep me busy from the moment my eyes open in the morning until they close at bedtime. I look back at my childhood and wonder where it went. How did so many years pass by so quickly? I was a child myself, just one blink of an eye earlier and here I am with kids of my own. I’m now the Dad and my kids look up to me. I have no one to turn to for advice. No one to ask for fatherly wisdom and my kids have no grandparents to hold them. It goes so fast and I feel like I’m missing it. I do my best as a parent but I wonder what my parents would say about my performance. Would they be proud, or say, “well I wouldn’t have done it that way.” I’ll never know.
Driving to work at 4 am on a cold day in December of last year, I had my last conversation with God. I used to start my morning commute with a prayer. I would give my thanks and my concerns to the Lord before I would turn on the radio. Some days I would pray for 20 or 30 minutes, pouring my heart out and sometimes arriving to work with bloodshot eyes from the tears. But this day, I was letting it all out. I was going to tell him exactly how I felt and I knew there was no turning back. “God, if you are real and you are listening to me, please give me guidance. Let me know you are listening because I have been hurting with all of your silence. I want to follow you so badly, but if you aren’t there then I have to walk away. Please, please answer me. I can’t spend another 40 years crying into the night, having my prayers bounce off of the sky. I need to know you are there because all of the good feelings I had believing in you and the feeling of your presence are long gone and have been for a long time.” God’s answer that day was predictable. It was the same as every other day. It was silence. There was no response. There was no sign that God wanted to keep this willing servant following him. That was the day I removed God from my life. That was a tough day. One of the toughest in my life.
God is gone. No prayers. No hope of heaven. No threat of hell. No prophecies. No promises. It’s gone. All of it. I was raised in a Christian home and with my father being sick for as long as I knew him, talk of heaven was a regular part of life. “If something ever happens to Daddy, you’ll see him again. He will be free of pain and will be living with Jesus” my mother would say. I remember as early as the third grade being pulled from school to visit my Dad in the hospital and I would always wonder if this was it. Was this the day that Jesus takes him home? My father went into cardiac arrest while I was on vacation for my one year wedding Anniversary in 1999. I was in Virginia and he was here in New Hampshire. I sped home without sleep to see him in the hospital. He was on life support when I got there, but after some time waiting, his eyes were open and I went in to see him. Tears streaming down my face, terror in my heart, I spoke with him. “Hi Dad. Can you see me?” I asked as I held his hand. I felt his hand tighten around mine yet he remained silent, his eyes fixed on mine, trapped in a body that had failed him. “I love you Dad. I will be back later to see you.” I walked away to be with my family and we drove home. That night we got the call to go back to the hospital as he had taken a turn for the worse. When we got to the hospital, the chaplain was waiting for us. We knew it was bad. When we got up to his floor, the doctors were waiting for us. “I’m sorry”, one of them said. “We’ve lost him.” My mother cried out in despair. I collapsed. Life hasn’t been the same since.
When my mother died in 2007, she was alone. I was the one to find her in her home about 2 days after she had passed. She had no one there for her. My brother, sister and I had our own lives and she was a widow. It was sad, knowing she was alone for years and years after my father died and was alone when she died. My oldest son was about a year and half then so he has no memory of her. We only have a couple of photos to remember them together. I have many regrets about that situation. Should I have just let her treat me like garbage and say sorry earlier? We would have had at least a year more than we had, but I couldn’t do it. I was an adult and I had to stand up for myself. I waited for her to do the right thing. She never did. I caved just before she died, made amends, and spent a little time with her. I have always second-guessed my decisions I made back then.
Regret is magnified when your once-hopeful dreams of eternity are crushed and reality sets in. All signs point to this being the one and only life we get. One life. One chance to get it right. I think I would have made many different choices had I believed that from the beginning instead of false hope guiding my actions. I used to go to the cemetery to visit my mother, father and my best friend who are all buried next to each other in the military section in the center of all other graves. My father, an army veteran and my friend, a member of the Coast Guard who had died in a training exercise. I would talk to them, knowing they were not there, but maybe they were looking down on me and smiling, knowing I didn’t forget them. But they aren’t looking down on me. They aren’t listening. They are gone and their memories haunt me.
I need to take advantage of what time I have left here and the relative youth I still have. My kids should have happy memories of time spent with me. I have no excuses for not giving them that. I want to live a long and meaningful life and leave this world with no regrets. I have many right now but it’s never too late to make the future better than the past. Time waits for no one and no one is immune to death. Worrying about a past filled with fairy tales, unsubstantiated promises, lies and more because people thousands of years ago created religion, doesn’t do any good. I see the error of my ways and though I cannot erase the mistakes of my past, I can toss out the file and start fresh. Time is way too short to do otherwise.
I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I’m always coming up with new questions for this crazy life we live. All I do know is that we are promised one life. Just one. Any more than that would be a surprise to me when I die. So with this one life, make the most of it. Don’t wait to tell those you love that you love them. If you are estranged from your family, mend that relationship if you still love them. Waiting too long will end up breaking your heart and fill your head and heart with painful memories. A life of regret doesn’t need to be your life. The hourglass of this life is tipped and the sand is rushing fast. Make the changes you need to and fix what is broken before the sand runs out.