This column isn’t about politics, so if you’re looking for something about Donald Trump, you’ve just read his only mention. This column is about life and, more specifically, death. And even more specifically how we, as a species, wait too long to let people know how much they matter to us.
Eulogies are, almost without exception, touching and funny. They’re where those closest to someone we’ve just lost tells stories and expresses feelings more than likely ignored while the subject was alive. They’re great for the healing process, but they’re a day late and a dollar short when it comes to the person they’re about.
When David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Alan Rickman passed away without any public warning, we were all shocked. The tributes poured in about the impact they’d had on others in their chosen craft and laymen alike.
The stories flowed, riddled with laughter and great memories we, the readers, didn’t share in but felt a part of because they’d been part of our cultural consciousness for decades. And although mourning a public figure, particularly one whose music or movies were part of our formative years, is perfectly normal, what about the people we actually know?
I never met Bowie, Frey, Rickman or countless other celebrities who’ve passed, but they all mattered, to varying degrees, in my life. Their music spoke to me. Their lyrics meant something to me they didn’t to anyone else. Their movies, and the characters they played, helped make me who I am.
For those of us who didn’t know them, they were the window dressing to our lives. Yet we, with our friends and family, have probably talked about how their loss, and their lives, mattered to us. But how many times have you had a discussion with the people who actually matter most to us?
We seem to wait too long to express our feelings about those we love. Be it after death or, as is often the case, after a horrible diagnosis.
After my grandfather died, my family found a letter from him to everyone in the family containing all the things he couldn’t say while he was alive. It was a heart-wrenching letter of love wrapped in regret over not having expressed his love as much as he would’ve liked.
Never a wealthy man, or even a financially secure man, my grandpa worked at Detroit Diesel until he no longer could. My grandma, the love of his life, died of bone cancer years earlier. His letter apologized for things that haunted him, but they didn’t need to.
He regretted not doing more to provide more for his family, which was absurd. He fed, housed and raised five kids – none of whom are in prison and all of whom have families who love them. By any measure that is a success. He also lamented not simply saying “I love you” to everyone more often. He felt he’d held back too much, and it tore at him.
That he could put pen to paper and write that but not say it is a regret my whole family shares. Had he, had we, who knows? We certainly could’ve let him know the concern over money was no concern at all; that he was grown man who had children and grandchildren who loved him and that’s significantly better than anything else he could have offered.
Of course, the failure of communication was a two-way street. Aside from a passing, “Love you, grandpa,” on the way out the door, we grandchildren didn’t spend as much time with him as we could have.
I was in my 20s when he passed, yet I didn’t avail myself of his experience and stories as much as I should have. Partly because of the arrogance of youth, when death is reserved for movies and pets, “there is always tomorrow” is the modus operandi when you feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof. But we aren’t 10 feet tall, and no one is bulletproof.
My best friend lost his mother this week, I’m in Detroit right now for her funeral. She was a second mother to me – feeding me, letting me sleep over without asking, offering advice on issues you probably aren’t comfortable seeking from a relative when you’re young, and putting up with me when she had no real reason to.
I never told her what that meant to me because there was always tomorrow. I hadn’t heeded the advice of my grandfather, and now there is no tomorrow.
But there is today for me. And there is today for all of us. I’m not unique. If you’re honest with yourself, I suspect you have something and someone similar in your own lives.
We can’t change the opportunities we’ve missed in the past, but we now know, thanks to hindsight, what they look like in the present. How are you going to spend today? With your family, your friends, the people who matter to you?
I’m going to call my parents and tell them I love them, I’m going to ask them questions about their lives and our family, and I’m going to listen to the answers. And I’m going to do it today. What are you going to do?