The month of March meanders through difficult terrain. A few mornings ago, another reminder of what was missing arrived in an unexpected form. In a dream, I relived my father’s funeral. This experience disturbed me for obvious reasons and because I rarely dream, it pushed me to contemplate the noise and stillness in my life.

As I approach the 4 year anniversary of the passing of my father, his loss still lurks in the shadow. I fought it for a long time, pushing the darkness to the bottom of the bowl, only to realize it floats to the surface. The passage of time places a different expectation on how to sink into the grief.

Loss offered me the permission to evolve. Witnessing my father wither, during hospice, still lingers inside of me. I remember he constantly gasped for breath, unable to sit up, stand, walk, and talk. After witnessing such raw pain, you are unable to go back.

But I know this: I am a better person because I lost my father.

There are lessons, even when the pain brings you to your knees, and you physically cry out, “No more. I cannot handle this. Please, make it stop.” This moment happened in one very, significant sliver of time, when I cared for my father in hospice. As I adjusted the pillows on my father’s bed, he complained about how he could not breathe. My eyes glanced to the oxygen tank. I realized it was on the highest level and he could not take a deep breath. Part of me screamed inside as my stomach went into complete free-fall,  “Oh, shit, he cannot breathe. He is literally suffocating to the death.”

That is what ultimately took him. He drowned in his desert.

What has this one moment taught me?

1) Be thankful for your ability to breathe. However you choose to use your breath, embrace it. When you are yelling at your kids, exercising, eating, ambling to the bathroom in the middle of the night, complaining how one person did this and you expected that, laughing, crying, and everything in-between. Take a deep breath. Right now. And say Thank You.

2) What you believe to be true about someone else, maybe a complete lie. For 4 1/2 years, we kept my father’s cancer diagnosis a secret. No one knew. Over that period of time, we attended picnics, weddings, dinners, with our new family member, cancer. In the last 3 weeks before my father’s passing, he finally decided to reveal his reality. People never suspected our battle. I learned to never make assumptions. There is an enormous gulf between your perception of reality and what actually is the truth. Everyone struggles. Don’t believe the Macy’s picture frame version of the perfect family. It does not exist.

3) Expect that sometimes life is not joyful, but entrenched in deep pain. This is where real life resides. Experiencing the pendulum between sorrow and happiness, you learn that no state is ever permanent. We are all swinging back and forth in various times of our life.

4)  Say I love you. Although people might interpret this advice as a cliché, that is not true. There is nothing cliché about saying I love you to those that matter the most to you. Say it all the time. It matters. In our last conversation, my father uttered those three words. I was unable to make it in time to say goodbye.

In skating the thin ice of March,  I hold on to those words, “I love you.”