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‘I never had the chance to say goodbye’

The hardest part about losing a family member suddenly is regretting all the things you never said.

%22Happy+Birthday%22+to+me+and+%22Happy+Birthday%22+to+you
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‘I never had the chance to say goodbye’

"Happy Birthday" to me and "Happy Birthday" to you

Iris Owens

"Happy Birthday" to me and "Happy Birthday" to you

Iris Owens

Iris Owens

"Happy Birthday" to me and "Happy Birthday" to you


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Classic Roast coffee brewed quietly before the sun rose as it did every morning. There was no need for a 5 a.m. alarm as the idea of an egg frying, the sizzling of hot sausage, and cheesy grits served as enough motivation to get out of bed. The plaid shirt, blue jeans, boots and a baseball cap were signs enough he was going fishing today: Oct. 20, 2016.

Just another Thursday. He read the newspaper and ate breakfast until waking his wife and placing a gentle kiss on her forehead as he did every morning. A friend, Patrick Riley, had promised him a fishing trip as soon as his boat was out of the shop. Pat knew how much he loved fishing.

His soul absorbed rhythms and beats of old-timey blues. He cheered loudly for the New Orleans Saints with a sweaty can of Bud Light in his hand. The flick of his lighter slowly burned cigarette ends anytime he was outside. But, nothing topped his favorite hobby: fishing. His last moments were spent doing exactly that; that something he loved.  

Iris Owens, his wife, went off to St. Leo’s Catholic School with her husband’s kiss on her forehead. He heard her voice wishing him a fun-filled fishing trip with Pat. And Ernest Owens, or Pawpaw as I called him, did just that. A successful day of fishing. A successful day of teaching. The day started out like any other but did not end according to routine.

Around 3:30 p.m., Iris was home. Ernest wasn’t. She called. No answer. She saw the clock turn 4 and headed off to the store to buy groceries. She returned. No truck. She called. No answer. She waddled to the front door, weighed down by the bags piercing her hands.

She caught a glimpse of a business card peeking out the side of the door, from the coroner’s office when you squinted just right. She let go of the now meaningless bags and ran inside for the phone, tripping over the heap of plastic bags and foodstuffs. Her tremulous fingers clicked the buttons to make the call. The call that changed her life.

“‘This is Mrs. Owens. I found this card in my door. I hope you’re not gonna tell me what I think you’re gonna tell me.’”

The coroner began apologizing profusely, but there was nothing he could do and nothing he could say to remedy her pain. “‘I am so, so sorry,’” he said. “‘There was an accident.’”

I found out Pawpaw drowned when I came home from my Fall Orchestra Concert. My family always showed up to support me, but as I walked out at the end of the concert, only my grandma and younger brother were there to greet me with forced smiles and congratulatory silence.

The car ride home was like one with strangers filled with tense silence and awkward conversation. My mother, Rochelle, was in her room sobbing in my father’s arms when I finally got some answers.

When tying up the boat to the dock, Pawpaw fell into the water. He knew how to swim, but all those years of smoking – whether habit or addiction – left him with COPD and an inhaler in his shirt pocket at all times. He simply could not hold his breath long enough.

“He did not have enough fight in him,” Iris said. “He did not have a life jacket on. That might have saved him.”

It was almost an hour before the ambulance came. In that time, Pat held Pawpaw’s lifeless body over the side of the boat, in hopes that he might catch his breath. But he was already gone. To me, the hardest part: it was so abrupt, so unexpected; so his family hurt that much more.

“‘The problem I have with this is I never had the chance to say goodbye,’” Iris said. “‘I never had closure.’”

The last conversation he and his wife had was the morning he left and never came back. The last conversation my mom had was a phone call to wish him a “Happy Birthday,” on September 4, about a month before.

“‘I regret not being more active in calling him when he was alive; he really just never was a phone person,” his daughter Rochelle said. “And not saying ‘goodbye’ is another thing in itself.”

And as for me. Pawpaw and I share a birthday. He was always proud to announce that he and his oldest grandchild shared a special day. He was the only person I would say “Happy Birthday” to and receive a “Happy Birthday” in return.

A yearly reminder that I am growing older and he isn’t. A day of mixed emotions, gratefulness for another year and longing for another phone call.

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‘I never had the chance to say goodbye’