by Kyle Barnhart

6 February 2022

My dad died on February 13, 2002. It’s been about twenty years since that day. I wrote this reflection for a lot of reasons: To recognize the anniversary, to work through my feelings, and to share a bit of our story with you.

Pictured above: Learning to grow peppers.


I remember the last quiet moment we shared together. It must have been in January 2002, sometime after Christmas but before you finally went to the hospital. Quiet moments had become so, so rare by that point. Your declining health was punctuated by all of these terrible noises: Whirring medical equipment and coughing and the near-constant ringing of the landline, just to name a few.

Nothing made sense anymore, and it was all very loud.

Then, one morning, the whole house was quiet. Where was mom? Where was my brother? No one was talking about treatments or next steps or insurance or appointments. Nothing was buzzing or whirring or pssssting.

The whole house was quiet, like it had been many months ago.

That was the morning you called me over to your big, maroon La-Z-Boy in the corner of the living room, and you tried to teach me everything I would ever need to know. You tried to teach me everything you wouldn’t be there to teach me. We sat together in silence for a little while, and then we talked.

That morning, between coughing fits and through a raspy, strained voice, you talked to me. You talked to me about worrying. You talked to me about finding a purpose in life. You talked to me about trusting people, and loving people, and holding on to people. You talked to me about temptation and gratification. You talked to me about peace and spirituality and higher powers.

The one thing you didn’t talk about— that we didn’t talk about together— was how soon I would have to start facing these challenges without you. But I understood. The optimism that guided our family through those eighteen terrible months left some hard truths unsaid, but understood.

Dad, I am sorry. I’m sorry that I couldn’t hold onto everything you were struggling to teach me that day. You know me. I had to learn everything on my own, because I’m curious and I’m stubborn and because I grew up to be just like you.

Unfortunately, quiet moments are finite, as is our capacity to experience them, and you could only share so much in the time we had together. I was left with a half-drawn map missing the context and the stories that would make your life a guide for me to follow. That’s okay. It’s still been very helpful.

I’m glad you tried to tell me your cautionary tales, even if I was destined to make a lot of those same mistakes, too. Everything you told me and everything you taught me turned out to be more important and relevant and prescient than fourteen-year-old me could begin to understand.

I’ve accrued so many questions over twenty years. There are so many things I would have asked you on that quiet morning, if only I’d known to ask.

How did you finally find the courage to be yourself? What changed, when you decided to become a father? If you could live anywhere— if you could make anywhere your home— where would you live? How did you begin to believe in something bigger than yourself? How do you endure rejection and failure and keep on going?

Am I okay?

Are you still proud of me?

I think you would be proud of me. Even now and despite all the ways your absence put a weird backspin on the trajectory of my life, I think you would be proud of me. Even when I can’t be proud of myself and even when I feel like I’m not living up to the Mythical Dad in my head, I still think you would be proud of me.

I moved around the country and I’ve called a lot of different places home. I went to college and got a degree and held down jobs doing things I enjoy. I’ve been in love and I’ve broken some hearts and I’ve had my heart broken in kind, more than a few times now. I’ve had so many friends and been through so much with them. I’ve pursued so many hobbies and learned so many skills and created so many things. I’ve been myself in so many different ways. And I’ve been running.

I’ve done all of that in twenty years. I’m proud, and so I believe you would be, too.

Oh, the things you would be.

You would be taken by the marvels of the modern world. You would be on a smartphone. You would be on social media, sharpening your wit and instigating an argument or two, just like you would with your letters to the local paper. You would be streaming music and making playlists to share, just the way you used to cut mixtapes and burn CDs for friends and family. You would be wiring up home automation to your hi-fi system and home theater and you would be asking when I’m coming to visit, just so you could show it off.

You would be the same as you always were. You would be volunteering and talking to neighbors and standing up for what you believed in. You would be pushing the whole family to be better, to learn things, to love each other, and to live our lives to the fullest. You would not be broken by how cold and indifferent the world can be, and instead you would be making it warmer and more compassionate.

And you would have quiet moments, just like you used to.

It is so easy to imagine you here, Dad, twenty years later. You were and you are such an unforgettable person. You made yourself known to everyone you met, and you did it in such an unassuming way. You weren’t boisterous or loud or forceful. You were genuine and kind and curious and humble. You were yourself.

And that’s what I want, Dad. More than any one thing you achieved or built or created, the one thing I hope to emulate in my own life is your ability to leave a deep, lasting impression on people just by being yourself. You had a goodness about you that awakened goodness in others. To this day, your example— the life you lead— is the most potent antidote to cynicism and nihilism that I have ever known.

What I remember about that morning in January, more than anything else, was the quiet moment that we shared together. It was a lesson in stoic acceptance and love and the power of the unspoken, unsaid things. I’ve spent twenty years trying to find that silence again, if even for a fleeting moment. Ours is the silence I miss the most.

Your son,