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Hometown stories: Heidi McElfish

A lesson from Dad on what could have been

July 28, 2010 - My Dad was dying. He had cancer. We found out just a short time ago and very suddenly. Did I care? He was never a father that I could feel close to. In fact we were always glad when he was not home. He made life difficult for my Mom and my brothers and sisters. He was very mean and gruff, never saying a kind word. He usually was gone all weekend, drinking at the Club. When he was gone, we were happy.

But now… we had to come to his aid. We had to take care of him and give Him comfort. It was sad seeing him like that. He was such dynamic person. He always wanted to look good and the way others perceived him was so important to him. Now – he was lying in his bed all crumpled up and bald from the Chemo. We had to spend some precious time with him. Spend time… so that we could finally get to know him – the real Dad, in the last few months of his life.

The Dad we knew had changed. He had turned into something that we would have wanted back then, someone caring, kind, considerate and helpful. He encouraged us with positive words. The words we needed back then, when we were young, the words and advice to tell us how to handle life, and how to love. He didn't show us those things. Was now the time?

We sat in the hospital and it was just my brother and I. He asked us to take care of my mother. He knew he would be gone soon. He talked about some of the things that he liked about us.

He talked about our lives, when we were kids. Then he talked about his life and his family back in Poland. He talked about how his mother always blamed him for his brother drowning when they were kids. He talked about how his father left him and his mother and went off to marry another. He talked about the "new family" that his father had and that he would never do that to us.

While he talked, I did start to feel close to him, but …I was waiting.

I was waiting, just waiting all the while for him to say those three little words, those three words that he had never said before to me. Would he say them now, while he lay dying in his hospital bed? I talked and spent many hours and many days visiting him.

Then one day, just a few hours before he died he said those words – I Love You… What a shame he waited so long. What a shame. Tears filled my eyes as I wondered, what if… what if he could have been this kind of a Dad all those years ago.

Would I be a different person? Would it have made me a better person able to cope with life, knowing that my Dad would be there for me and love me, no matter what? We all cried at the funeral. I asked my Mom why she was crying and she said she was crying for all the things that could have been.

At least I know now, the reason he was the way he was. He was not shown love to, nor was he loved. But I have no regrets. He taught me how I did not want to treat my own children. He taught me how it felt to wonder if I would be loved.

I knew that I would always show and tell my children that I loved them. I treated him with the dignity and respect that he needed all the way to the end. And in the end, I know, I did the right thing.

HeidI McElfish, raised by Polish parents in metro Detroit, always put on plays and invented "fun houses" in her backyard to entertain neighborhood kids. Now living in Clarkston, she spends her days snuggling with her high school sweetheart and husband of 29 years. As her three spunky kids grew up, they could always expect an original story at bedtime. She loves to entertain, has a passion for antiques and loves to make people happy by baking her famous polish cookies.

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