What I Want You to Know About a Life Unfinished

I used to get on the roof every now and then to blow leaves out of the gutter or trim back the overhanging branches from the neighbor’s tall tree. It felt a little, well, reckless. I’ve heard enough stories about dads and grandpas falling off houses to know I shouldn’t be up there alone, wearing tennis shoes and no safety gear, but I did it anyway. It just felt easier than hiring someone to do it. For every person who fell and was seriously hurt, just think of all the people over the years who have been fine, I thought to myself.

Since your mom died, however, I have been afraid to go back up there.

It’s not like the roof has gotten any more dangerous, and I am just as mortal now as I was back then. But the risk calculation is different now. Now I cannot ignore the question, “What would happen if I was seriously injured or died?” The question weighs on me and tethers me to ground level.

My own father, your Grandpa Webster, died before he ever got to know what it was like to be a grandparent. He was only 46 when he suffered a heart attack, with nothing save high blood pressure to suggest something like that could happen.

My own blood pressure has been fairly unalarming. There are other indicators, however, that his fate could become my own: high triglycerides, an unhealthy BMI, etc. He was my hero, and dying early is pretty much the only way that I do not want to model his life with my own. Over the years, I have tried and failed a million times to use his early death as motivation to get and stay in better shape. Now, at 39, I am drawing very close to the age he was when he died, as impossible as that is for me to accept. And still I struggle.

When your mom was in her last week and we had both come to accept that the tasks of raising you would fall on me alone, I told her that I would do my best to get in shape. Of course, your mom was evidence that healthy living does not guarantee a long life. But still. Why wouldn’t I try everything in my power to minimize the risk of leaving you completely parentless?

The reality is that it has been hard to get in shape since she died. For one thing, my grieving body sometimes barely has energy to get out of bed and do the bare minimum to make it through the day. Couple that with my tendency to eat my stress and, well, you get a bad combination. Another problem is time, namely, there not being enough of it. Now, mind you, I made this same excuse when your mom was still here, so I am aware it is just that: an excuse. That doesn’t mean it’s not also true. My free time is limited, so the thought of trying to add a few hours each week at the gym just seems destined to fail. Finally, as the sole parent of a young child, I can’t leave you home alone to go out for a run around the neighborhood. There are new logistics to working out that were not there when the responsibility of watching you was shared.

So, a couple weeks ago, with some encouragement from a friend, I bought an exercise bike. I’ve never really liked riding exercise bikes at gyms. I don’t own a real bike. I’m simply not a biker. Or, I wasn’t.

One night this past week, you were suddenly overcome by your grief. We were about to play a game on our devices for a few minutes before bedtime and you went to grab the iPad from my bedroom. A few minutes passed and you hadn’t come out. I heard you sniffling, so I went to see what was the matter. You told me through your tears that you were missing your mom. Despite my best efforts, you were inconsolable. After a while, you went to the kitchen and took down a picture of you and your mom coloring together. Coloring the picture together was one of the last things you did with her before she went to the hospital. You cried looking at it while sitting on the kitchen counter. You then went and found the page that you and your mom were coloring in the photograph. It’s a beautiful floral design, vibrant but unfinished.

Your sadness started to turn to anger and resentment as the night went on. You gave me the silent treatment. When finally you talked to me again, it was to tell me you didn’t want to play one of our favorite games together with me anymore. You furrowed your brow as you looked at me, giving me a look that seemed to say you believed everything you were feeling was my fault.

“Buddy, everything you are feeling right now, all the yucky feelings that you’ve been keeping bottled up inside, those are all fine things to feel.” I told you. “In fact, it’s good that you’re feeling them. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to be frustrated and scared. Just, please, buddy, don’t shut me out.”

You glared harder. You were fighting hard to hold on to the rage. I don’t know, maybe it felt safer than the sadness.

Eventually it got so late that you tired out. You laid down next to me, and started talking to me again. Eventually you worked up the courage to tell me, “I’m so scared of you dying!”

Which got me crying. “I’m so sorry,” I said through my own tears. “You shouldn’t have to worry about those things.” And then I told you that I was going to keep making healthy choices so I could live a long time and be around to take care of you. And the weight that keeps me from the roof threatened to pull me through the floor.

The next morning, I woke up earlier than I wanted to wake up. I was still a little exhausted from the emotions of the night before. I could have used a few more hours to sleep in and recover.

Instead, I put on my workout clothes and went downstairs. I strapped on the bike shoes and clipped in. I started to pedal. Slowly. One foot in front of the other.

I thought about my dad, and all the things he missed out on, like meeting you. I thought about your mom and reminded myself not to take a moment for granted. I thought about your fear of me dying. I thought about how much I want to watch you grow up.

Each of these thoughts combined to form a canvas in my mind, an image that will help me stay motivated. The picture is unfinished but, for now, it was enough. I got in a workout.

Afterwards, I came upstairs, sweaty and heavy of breath, to find you still asleep and untroubled. I realized something: Today, I am here and you are here. I reminded myself not to take either of these facts for granted, and to add this moment to the unfinished picture.

One Comment on “What I Want You to Know About a Life Unfinished

  1. I am proud of you for many things, including getting on that bike. But still…..please ask your doctor to order a CT scan of your heart to check for calcium. Then I will be even more proud of you.


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