a yellowhammer bird sits in a green bush
Transatlantic Life

Remembering Dad: Things Left Unsaid Can Be Turned Into Song

My father passed away in November of 2012, and I vividly remember the moment he took his last breath. It was both shocking and comforting; then a wave of grief hit me making my skin flush warm as the panic of things left unsaid set in.

This post was updated on Father’s Day, June 19th 2022. Trigger Warning: Discusses death and grief.

In the immediate moments after my father had died, I noticed a small, sprightly yellow bird looking through the sliding glass doors from the garden outside his hospice room. I didn’t focus on it, nor identify what type of bird it was; however, I remember being aware of its sunshine presence and its beautifully soothing melodic song as it flew away.


My father was a deeply flawed individual who frequently fell prone to the complexities of depression; sometimes taken over by inaction, reverie and regret that partially contributed to our sometimes sporadic connection. Dad was also wickedly humorous, intelligent, accepting, forgiving, kind and caring; which extended to random animals he’d discover that needed a home (taking them in to feed and care for). He was a good man — far from perfect — but as I see it, perfect isn’t how any of us are meant to be.

After my parents had divorced, we didn’t nurture our relationship as carefully as we should have; we often went long periods of time without seeing or speaking to each other. This wasn’t borne out of anger or resentment but more from misunderstanding how we fit into each other’s lives; I didn’t want to disturb his pain, and maybe he didn’t want to disturb mine.

My personal photo; black and white from about 1946 of my grandfather holding my father as a baby.
My grandfather — seen here holding my dad as a baby — was a mysterious figure due to his early death (he passed away when my day was 3 years old). He wasn’t often discussed and photos of him didn’t seem to exist (growing up I only saw one picture of him). After my father passed away we found many photos; including this one.

The breakdown of my parents’ relationship was exceptionally challenging for them and for my sister and me. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I could ultimately understand they made the right decision. 

Despite all this initial turmoil, a bond was always there — albeit a quiet and sometimes distant one — that could be picked up from where we left off like no time had passed. I wish I had told him how I treasured this and knew that the drifting in and out of each other’s lives was not a lessening of that bond; just in case he ever worried it was.

When we did get to spend time together; I clearly recall how Dad would make a point of reassuring my sister and I that he was always interested in knowing what we were up to. He made a point of making us aware that we were welcome and he wanted us to be happy and well.

A photo of my dad smiling broadly as he sits on a boat in a Cornish harbour.
My dad having a great day out on a boat in a Cornish harbour.

As I look back on some of the things about Dad that really stand out, what comes to mind comprises an eclectic mix that included: raunchy jokes; dapper sweaters; the unnerving ability to consume the fieriest curries known to man (to a large extent because he had no taste buds after almost lifelong chain smoking); spectacular roast dinners and his uncanny ability to pack/fold things in the most precise, crisp way — I’m serious, he could wrap a sandwich in foil and it would have no wrinkles. Not to mention how he fixed/held everything together with implausibly neatly applied duct tape.

These represent fond memories that I now treasure, and as I get older, one extra gift I’m receiving with each passing year is understanding and accepting his flaws alongside my own. I know it’s easy to immortalize someone in a way that solely focuses on the positives (there is nothing wrong with that); but one of the things I have come to love and appreciate was his wholeness as a human being — his life taught me you can be fallible and imperfect and still hold value and purpose. I hope he knew I recognized this in him, but as I neglected to communicate this, he probably didn’t.

I recently saw a sprightly, little yellow bird singing loudly in a bush near my home; as I enjoyed watching it, all the memories and realizations I’ve shared here came flooding in before it sang one more verse and flew away. I hope some of what I thought about was turned into birdsong; maybe he’ll get to hear what I wish I had said to him after all.

Further Info:

Father’s Day Can Be Hard. Here’s How to Handle the Holiday – The New York Times

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