The blue jacket

There’s a blue jacket hanging in our entryway closet. I’ve owned it for twenty-one years. I’ve worn it maybe twice. It’s neither attractive or ugly and it would fit me well enough. But I don’t wear it, and I’m not sure when (or if) I ever will again.

I’m not going to get rid of it. Not yet, anyway, even though it’s a source of emotional pain. If I spend more than a second thinking about that jacket I start to feel a pointed grief begin to collect right down in my actual guts, pressure rising, until I slam the lid shut. 

The summer before my father died he carefully folded and placed that jacket on my bed in my room, along with a water balloon launcher he’d crafted out of rubber surgical tubes and an old pair of Levi jeans, because it was time to pack for summer Scout camp. The coat was part of a uniform for older boys in Scout leadership positions. As for the launcher, it worked surprisingly well. He laid them out on my bed as if to say, “Here, son. I’ll help you get started.” Even though we’d already had an argument about how I didn’t want to go this year. I already had my Eagle. I’m not sure I want to do the Scouts thing anymore. I had other summer plans, dad, all kinds of plans, and I know you’re dying, dad, but come on, I haven’t been the most impressive kid in your eyes anyway, and we don’t always get along, and maybe we can just skip the whole thing.

Me, my dad, and the jacket all stayed home.

Twenty years ago today my dad died. January 5, 1998. It was a Monday. I remember sitting in the Northridge High School cafeteria. A close family friend approached. She was smiling and she was crying. She told me it was time to go home. The next day would have been the one-year anniversary of his official diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. They’d given him about six months and he’d almost doubled it. Typical for my dad, a chronic over-worker. Thinking about it now, I’m amazed at the bravery and poise that kind woman demonstrated when she was tasked with picking me up from school that day. She dropped me off at the elementary school right down the street from my house so I could gather up my younger brother and sister. I don’t remember if I smiled and cried.

At age fifteen I was too dumb to really understand what my 42-year-old father of five could have been going through. What kind of thoughts he wrestled with, leaving his family like that. What it was really like to stare death in the face. It all terrifies me now that I have two children of my own. I couldn’t leave them. Death is death, but it’s the missing out that’s the trouble.

I asked dad one night if he was afraid to die. We were sitting on bar stools in the Layton house kitchen. It was stripped down to the bone in the middle of a remodel job. He told me pointblank he wasn’t afraid. He firmly believed we would be together again, thanks to the gospel. But that didn’t seem to make him any less sad about it. Well-meaning people told me God must have needed him for something really important. I wanted to believe them. I couldn’t believe them. I don’t believe them. I knew his faults better than they did. What’s more, there was only one Darrell Hodges, and nobody needed him more than his family did.

To be honest, I believe I’ve spent more time since my dad died wondering how our relationship today would be than I do enjoying active memories from before he died. What he would think of me now, how would I relate to him? Would he be proud of me? Confused by me? Would he have advice for me all those times I needed it, and would I have taken it seriously? My spending time on questions like this more than enjoying memories of campouts and basketball games would probably make him sad. It makes me sad. My only defense, aside from openly recognizing my egocentrism, is to insist that today matters so very much.

Memories of my dad are all wrapped up and mixed together with memories of his other loved ones, most often tinged with the motivation to memorialize in the best ways. For several years I’ve thought about what I could say to honor his memory. Nothing feels adequate. Maybe someday I could try to write The Great Essay about it, working through my feelings and offering comfort to others who have or who will experience similar losses.

Today, though, I just want to tell dad that I’m sorry I couldn’t be more than what I was. I’m sorry for everything we’ve missed since then. I’m sorry about the jacket.

Comments

  1. Thanks, BHodges, for this heartfelt post.

  2. Aaron Brown says:

    Thanks, Blair.

  3. Coming up on the 18th anniversary of my mother’s death, I get this. I really do. Love you, Blair.

  4. Geez dude. Put a trigger warning or something on this—beware of dust particles. Great post.

  5. Buddy, my father died when he was 93, and I have more-or-less identical thoughts, questions and feelings. Communication was difficult under the best of circumstances. Upside: my so far successful resolution to keep channels with MY children wide open and positive. Bonus: this keeps the ghosts at bay. Suggestion: give the jacket to someone that needs it.

  6. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I second p’s suggestion. Turn that symbol of grief into a blessing in someone’s life.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m glad my dad died unexpectedly. Having to deal with it slowly over the course of a whole year would have been brutal. Thanks for sharing these intimate reflections.

  8. Thank you, Blair. Maybe that was The Great Essay. Many decades later and after a different kind of loss I still cannot begin to write mine, but I very much appreciate yours.

  9. Love you, Blair. Thank you.

  10. This essay is excellent, Blair. I remember your dad’s funeral. It is one of the only things I can remember with any kind of clarity from that particular year. Thanks for sharing this, especially since it’s hard and brave to broadcast this kind of vulnerability. I never met your dad, but I know you, and I can’t imagine him being anything other than proud of you and inspired by your thoughtfulness.

  11. Crying. Thank you.

  12. This might not be the Great Essay, but it’s a great essay. Love you.

  13. Oh, Blair. Such pain. How does it stay fresh all these years later? I too lost my dad to cancer when I was 15 and have aches for things both said and unsaid. I have had to work to find grace for that 15 year old child unequipped to stare down impending loss.

    Your thoughts are so tender and I feel them deep in my heart. I ache with you, my friend. Thank you for sharing this piece of yourself with us.

  14. Blair wrote: “For several years I’ve thought about what I could say to honor his memory. Nothing feels adequate.”

    My experience, for what it’s worth, is that nothing ever feels adequate. Maybe that’s because we’re not only trying to honor their memory, we’re also trying to fill a hole in our souls that can’t be filled. But when we say something genuine about them—something that comes from the deep places—it’s much better than remaining silent, even though it doesn’t fully heal us. I think a father would be proud of a son who could write this tender essay.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Next month it will be 58 years since my dad died. I was two weeks from my 12th birthday. Losing a parent when you are a child leaves a hole that can never be filled. The what ifs, what might have beens, so many things to wonder about. Watching my daughter at 16 literally skip through the mall with her dad thrilled me because their joy in each other and left me feeling devastated and envious because I never had the chance to do things like that with my dad, Maybe he wouldn’t have been that kind of dad, but I don’t know. It is the not knowing that hurts.
    Your essay is beautiful and I’m sure your dad did not wish you to be more than you were. He just grieved knowing he would not be there to see you become the man you are.

  16. I’m happy to know you, Blair. You’re a good one.

  17. This was beautiful Blair in so many ways. Thanks for telling this story about you and your father. I can’t imagine he would not be proud of the person you are.

  18. Blair,
    This is brave to write, and to have grappled with for so many years. How could he be anything but incredibly proud of you?

  19. Thank you, Blair.

  20. Thank you for your kind comments. Too worked up to respond individually just now. But thank you.

  21. My dad died suddenly over 30 years ago. My children never knew him, and I’ve never quite been able to convey to them the grace we had in our lives because of him. Even though at the time all but one of my siblings were young adults, all of us were traumatized by his loss. I wish I could write half so eloquently about him as you have in this essay. I’ve been to the well of sorrow you draw from here, and I can’t explain why I find comfort in this.

    I say keep the jacket hanging in the closet as long as you want.

  22. Mark Brown says:

    My own parents both passed during this same week, 25 and 27 years ago. I am experiencing so many of these same complicated feelings and emotions. Thank you, Blair.

  23. Beautifully written.

  24. Tough read Blair but well said.

  25. Thank you for sharing this commemoration, Blair.

  26. Thanks for sharing your vulnerable feelings about the death and life of a parent. I haven’t experienced it yet, but I think about it, both in losing my own parents and whenever my kids might lose me. Your words are something I will keep.

  27. Blair, my heart. My eyes are stinging and my throat is thick. My oldest son was 13, a month shy of his 14th birthday, when his father died. His siblings were 11 and 9. I ache for the sorrows that cannot be lifted, for the *missing* pieces that cannot be recovered. It really is the missing out that never goes away. We’re two and a half years out now, but I cannot see the missing out ever going away. No one needed him more.

  28. Blair, thank you for this beautiful heartfelt piece. I know your dad is very proud of your accomplishments and who you have become. You are so much like him… Love you. Aunt Marilyn

  29. Beautiful essay, Blair. And yes. He would be proud of you.

  30. This guts me, Blair. Thanks for writing it.

  31. This was very moving. And a wonderful confirmation that it is okay for hard things to be complex. Thank you.

  32. This is beautiful, Blair. Thanks for sharing it.

  33. John Hatch says:

    Thanks, Blair. This is absolutely marvelous and lovely. My mom died sixteen months ago. She was twenty years older than your dad and still altogether too young. Like you, nearly all of my time thinking about her is spent wondering how things would be today, not ruminations on memories.

  34. Thanks for the comments, friends.