Lessons for the living

If we would just live each day as though it were the last one we had to spend with each other, regrets would never be necessary.”

On Jan. 14, 1997, 20 years ago today, our youngest son, Shannon, died without warning, devastating my family. Seven months later, after reading a news article about a former Kauai resident who also lost his daughter unexpectedly, I wrote this column for our family and theirs.

It was the hardest thing I have ever written. It is still the one that means the most to me.

By Rita De Silva, August, 1997

The sad comments of former Kauaian and grieving father Myles Shirai (whose oldest daughter, Tanya, died Aug. 29, 1997, in a tragic auto accident on Oahu) hit painfully close to home.

“I wished I had hugged her and told her I love her before she left,” he told a reporter. ” I can’t recall when the last time I did that was.”

I know exactly what he meant. I have felt much the same way every single day since we found our youngest son dead in his room seven months ago.

If I had known when I wished him good night on Jan. 13 it was the last time I’d see him alive, I would have done things so differently.

I wouldn’t have grumbled about the pile of spaghetti on his plate or reminded him to clean up after himself when he was done.

I wouldn’t have gone to bed and left him sitting alone at the counter. I would have stayed and talked about everything … anything. I would have held him close and told him how much I loved him. I would have somehow stopped him from walking down the hallway and closing his bedroom door behind him that last time.

But I didn’t. And now I never can.

When you lose someone you love unexpectedly to illness or tragedy, the things left unsaid sometimes loom as large as the void that’s left behind. Like a movie gone haywire, you roll those final scenes over and over again in your mind, wishing you could take them back and make them perfect.

They become obstacles you trip over as you try to move on with your life. They provoke tears when you least expect them and clutch at your throat at the most inconvenient times.

There were no headlines or front page photos about our son’s death. He died quietly at home in his own bed after a seizure. We had no shame or anger to contend with; no accusations to counter; no blame to place. While totally unexpected, it was, apparently, his time.

Although he always knew we loved him, it took his absence to make us fully appreciate his presence. It was only when he was no longer there to make them that we realized the value of his contributions to our daily lives.

It is probably this, more than anything else, that has made the healing so hard. We all wish we could set the clock back and do things right this time. But, of course, there are no second chances.

Some people ease their grief by sifting through the painful memories and sharing the ones they feel could help others. They write books; they give lectures. Carving inspiration out of sorrow, they diminish their suffering by doing something for others.

Myles Shirai is obviously one such person. Just days after his daughter was killed on her way to a concert at the Waikiki Shell, he found the strength to encourage other parents to hug their children and tell them they love them so that “you’ll always have a good memory.”

His advice should be embraced by the rest of us who live such ordinary lives there seems to be no inspiring message to share.

As I look back on my time with my son, I am glad that he knew he could always come to me, no matter what. I may have been disappointed by some of his choices in life, but I knew there was goodness inside and eventually he’d become the person he was meant to be.

By the time he died, he was just about there. Except for our final moments together, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about him.

Because it is impossible to foresee what the future holds, it makes such sense to follow Myles Shirai’s advice. If we would just live each day as though it were the last one we have to spend with each other, regrets would never be necessary.

Losing someone we love makes those left behind more precious. Families cling together in sorrow, drawing strength from each other and letting down the guard that usually keeps emotions in check. Realizing how quickly one can be lost is a shattering lesson to learn.

It’s unfortunate that as we heal, people often slip back into old habits. Because it isn’t easy to maintain such intense emotion, we gradually adjust our increased awareness of each other to a more comfortable level.

Myles Shirai has brought it all back for me. I hope I never again make the mistake of letting angry words grow into walls that can’t be scaled or leave an apology unspoken. I hope my family will always nurture the essence of togetherness that has comforted us so often.

My heart goes out to Mr. Shirai and his family. Like ours and countless others, they have learned the hard way that tomorrows are never guaranteed. You never know when you will open a door or pick up a phone and your life will change forever.

Shannon Jordan De Silva

March 1, 1972 – Jan. 14, 1997

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Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident.

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