Last words

sue wilcox and kids

Sue Wilcox credits her college degree and other life accomplishments to a conversation she had with her father as a teenager.


By Sue Wilcox

Trips to chemotherapy with Dad replaced hanging at the mall, the bitter smell of antiseptics replaced the sweet smell of perfumes.  Taking Mom to the other side of town to work and racing back to my first class of the day replaced primping.  No longer was my week filled with the normal activities of a 17-year-old high school junior.

My father had changed over the past year, first slowly, subtly, but recently the changes had become more dramatic.  I would come home from school to find my father lying on the worn, brown floral sofa of our small living room, while on the other side blared the angry voices of politicians attacking “his” president; Watergate was his focus in life these days. No longer did  the vegetables flourish in the garden. Our days of camping and fishing vanished.  His rugged tanned frame now frail, thin, and pale unable to support such physical activity.

I entered the house one day after school, a month or so before he died. He had pushed himself painfully against the back of the couch allowing a small space next to his reclining chest, made a silent gesture for me to join him for a little talk.  We knew but didn’t want to admit that time for talk was becoming short.  I sat silently next to him and waited.

“You need to save yourself for the right person, wait until you are married.  Always remember you’re a good person and deserve the best.”

“Of course,” I quietly replied.  “Of course I will, Dad.”

He carefully handed me a small silver locket.

“I found this in the rubble of a German farm house on patrol. I want you to keep it in memory of me.”  Gently, I opened the delicate gift. Warm salty tears streamed down both of our faces.  When completely open the peaceful semblance of the Virgin Mary and Jesus peered up at me.  I held it tightly, promising to keep it always.

We sat. Neither of us moved, the air was warm with unspoken emotion that seemed endless. Suddenly he jogged my attention towards the unfolding drama on the screen across the room.

“I wonder if they will find him guilty?” he asked me quietly.

Our goodbyes were said, there were no more discussions or tears between the two of us.

During that spring of 1974, I became a little stronger, a little angry at the unfairness of life and a little less innocent.  My father died not ever knowing that Nixon resigned, never seeing me or my brothers graduate from high school or go on to be successful adults.

***

locket

The silver locket: a long-ago gift from dad to daughter.

Presently I am three years older than my father was the day he died over 40 years ago. Since that day I have gone to college, married, raised 3 children and have a beautiful grandchild. Although we never know for sure what guides to us make our decisions in life, this exchange with my dying father has always been with me.

Because of this conversation I became highly motivated to take college prep classes and applied for college knowing that in order to better myself like my father wanted, I needed to move forward and work hard. I am the only one of five siblings to graduate from college. After graduation I chose to work, to be completely independent before getting into a long-term relationship.

Because of Dad’s young age when he died and the fact my youngest brother was only 10, it also pushed me to become a parent as soon as I was married.  I did not want to take a chance that I might not be there for the important events in my children’s lives. Watching my father die also made me very pragmatic regarding death — it happens.  We don’t know when, or how, but eventually it happens to us all and there isn’t a thing we can do to stop it.

For years I wore the locket around my neck until the unfortunate day that it went through the washing machine, damaging the beautiful colored illustrations inside.  It now sits in a small wooden box with hand-painted Forget-Me-Nots.  I don’t look at it very often any more, but when I do the image of that day comes vividly back to me.

***

Sue Wilcox is a native Oregonian. She has been happily married to Eric for 36 years and together they have three adult children who are all successfully finding their own way in life. Sue is a fifth grade teacher and can’t think of anything else in life she would rather be doing.

Editor’s note: I’ve been blessed to know Sue for nearly 30 years as a neighbor and friend. She and her husband Eric, a past VOA contributor, raised their children, as we did ours, in the Grant Park neighborhood of Northeast Portland.

Tomorrow: Aki Mori, American internment in the shadow of Yellowstone; Midori Mori, My visit to Heart Mountain

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10 thoughts on “Last words

  1. Sue – What a difficult way for your life to be framed at such a young age. I couldn’t imagine losing a parent so young. Based on your essay, it sounds like you used this experience to make good decisions, though. Thanks for sharing such a personal part of your being.

  2. I remember my last meaningful conversation with my own father, who died of cancer. He didn’t ask anything of me, but did ask me a lot of personal questions. I think about it now and then. I am 4 years younger than the age he died. Great piece of writing, and a lovely photo of your locket. What a great treasure.

  3. Sue: Your piece illuminates so much of who you are as a person and gives me even more reason to respect you and like you. As someone who also was first in the family to graduate from college, after my parents divorced when I was 15, I too internalized many of the same values that have shaped your life. I think parents give their children a gift when they lead by example in valuing education and striving to be reliable, responsible individuals.

    As an aside, it’s interesting to reflect on what I was doing in the spring of 1974 when you were having this conversation with your dad. Lori and I were college seniors, having met in the fall of 1973, and I would spend the summer of ’74 in the nation’s capital as a reporting intern at The Washington Post. On the night Nixon resigned, I was among the dozens of reporters who fanned out across the city to gather reaction to feed into stories that ran the following morning. Exciting times.

  4. Sue: Loss is hard at any age. What a loss. What an age. I’m sorry. And I’m thrilled you have a memory of a guiding moment from him. It gives me hope my young boys might hear me one in 10 times. Heck, that they are 9 & 11 and there are at least 10 times I’ve strived to give guiding moments likely means I talk too much!

  5. I am glad so many readers appreciate this moment in my life. It is amazing how one simple conversation can change the direction of your life.

  6. What a great piece Sue!!
    for those of us who have not yet lost a parent, it puts so much into perspective. It reminds me of the privilege bestowed upon me. It also makes me think about how healthy life decisions are important because of the impact my death would have on my young kids.
    Your piece reminds us about the reality of death. For some, itis a life defining moment that sends them into a downward spiral. For others, like yourself, It is an upward elevator that carries you forward into the realization of your potential.

  7. Such horrific loss at a tender age. Sue, my dear friend of 28 years, this is an experience that makes you so strong. I know now a piece of the puzzle that completes you, creates you and turns out a companion that I love and respect. Appreciate your friendship always. Very nice piece, Sue.

  8. “Presently I am three years older than my father was the day he died over 40 years ago.” The way you attach significance to your father’s age when he died remind me of how I did the same when my sister died at 13 months. As a parent I was freaking out as my first daughter turned that same age. I had a dreadful feeling that something was bound to go terribly wrong for her. Nothing did of course, and my daughter is now almost 13 years old. But the sense of foreboding was so real.

    • What you say is true, Aki. I was 13 when my oldest brother died at 20. I was sure I would never see 21. I was 43 when my next brother died at 47 and the same feelings came. I will be 61 next month. My dad just turned 90, and my mom died at 80. Those feelings of dread seem to be gone now, I suppose because of the realization about my own age now.

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