Oliver: When despair finally clears, happy memories prevail

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Sunday will mark a milestone I can scarcely believe has arrived: My father will have been dead for 30 years.

I was 19 at the time, and was set to begin my sophomore year at Northwestern University. Dad had been complaining of back pain all that summer, so bad that he was taking his naps in bed rather than in his usual spot on the living-room recliner. We knew something was up. We just didn’t know what.

When he started to look jaundiced, he finally agreed to see his doctor. Not long after that, he was in the hospital because his liver wasn’t working. Worse yet, he had cancer so advanced that he was given only a few weeks to live. Instead, he died nine days later.

This was a lot for a young person to handle, and I did the best I could. I knew I had to go back to school; my father would have insisted on it. Well, I think he would have, because I never did get a chance to say goodbye. 

We never discussed that he was dying. My mother told me that he didn’t want me to know and we were not to talk about it. Then again, he went into a drug-induced coma not long after he entered the hospital, so it wasn’t as if there were a lot of opportunities anyway.

Dad was the stoic type, so no doubt he wouldn’t really have wanted a mushy goodbye scene. I get that. However, I’m left to hope that he knew how much I adored and admired him.

Thirty years later, it’s the happy memories I’ve learned to savor. They are a long time in coming.

It took me years to let out the depths of my despair at losing my first “hero.” I was always afraid that if I allowed myself to grieve, I wouldn’t stop crying, that somehow I would fall into some bottomless chasm of loss.

When those tears finally came, they were violent, wracking sobs. But I survived them. Instead of losing him by letting go of all that pain, I actually opened the way to experience all the good memories of Dad. And they are many.

Now I can relish those afternoons when we would sit side by side with the garage door open and watch the rain fall and talk about nothing in particular.

I can smile at the memory of following him around and trying to be his “helper.” Often that meant running into the house on a hot day to get him some liquid refreshment. (Wink, wink.)

Or I can laugh at all the times he would tease me until I felt the need to “slug” him on the fleshy part of his arm, unwittingly admitting defeat each and every time. How he did like to tease me!

I do wish I had been a little savvier and written down all the stories he would tell of his childhood in Chicago and when he served in the military during World War II. Sadly, though, I was young and naïve and thought I’d have him around forever.

I’m still a little sad that he didn’t get to see me graduate from college. He didn’t get to walk me down the aisle. He didn’t get to befriend my beloved husband. (Although, come to think of it, they probably just would have ganged up on me.)

Then again, he didn’t have to see Mom’s decline. Or see any of the challenges our family now is facing. Yet, he didn’t leave me in the lurch even in this.

I know that my tendency to face troubles head-on and stoically are lessons I learned from him. So despite his absence, he’s here with me, each and every day.

Thanks, Daddy. I miss you.

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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