Tim Willis making people laugh, as he often did. Photos provided
How do you guide somebody to the end of their life? How do you effectively support and stand beside a loved one whose next step must be taken without you? How will you feel when they’re gone?
When my father, Tim Willis ’84, entered hospice last May, I had to deal with these questions personally. Like all of life’s most difficult quandaries, the seemingly correct answer is deeply unsatisfying: “It depends.” Since I’m a Jersey guy, it partly depended on Bruce Springsteen’s music.
My father died at 1:30 a.m. May 24, 2022, in the living room of my childhood home in Rutherford, New Jersey, a home whose walls were filled to bursting with cherished memories.
Even in real time, the juxtaposition was somewhat jarring to me. And yet, that was truly the best outcome for us; we were so lucky to have Dad at home instead of a hospital. We fought tooth and nail in his final weeks to avoid any trips to the ER. We feared that if he was admitted, then we’d never be able to get him back.
The home hospice setup allowed my mom, brother, sister-in-law and me to be at his side when he passed away. We mostly did things I’d consider to be “standard” to guide my father through his final moments. We gathered around him, held his hands, let him know how much we loved him, and told him it was OK to let go. But there is only so much to say in those moments. So, we also decided to fill the silence with the soundtrack to our family’s life: Bruce Springsteen.
In hindsight, it seems a little odd that I briefly turned away from my dying father to queue up a few Bruce songs on my phone, but that is exactly what I did.
No matter how close you get to death, there’s no timer above your head that says precisely when you’ll go. But, by some strange intervention of the universe, the 15 minutes of music I lined up concluded just moments after my father’s last breath.
I don’t remember all the songs I chose. I have found that I remember much less about those times than I’d expect. I do, however, remember the last two. Which, again, at the time I had no idea would really be the last two.
“Land of Hope and Dreams” was the penultimate track. It’s a beautiful song about passing over into the next place. The refrain includes the lines, “Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams. Meet me in a land of hope and dreams.” It had been a very comforting song for our family as my father battled cancer and long before he died. If there was a Willis theme song to the toughest parts of the journey, it would have been that one. To this day, my mom, Sue Willis ’86, still wears a hat with the song title on it. It was the right song to be playing in that moment.
But, because of those same interventions of the universe I mentioned earlier, another song started playing: “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” My favorite song. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is not poetic about life and death and crossing over. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is simple — critics bemoan its simplicity and Springsteen himself has called it the type of song he tends to “want to throw out” until his producer talks him out of it.
It’s a pop song and it’s not that deep, but this almost-throwaway song is the most important song in my world and the very last thing my father ever heard.
Not surprisingly, the song is about waiting for a sunny day during hard times. In the months since my father passed, there have been tough times, but I can honestly say I’ve been doing well — for the most part.
Still, I’ve been taken aback by how abruptly and unexpectedly emotions can come roaring out of me. I cried the first time I got dinner with a friend after Dad died. I guess I realized how isolated I had been the previous few weeks.
I’ve found myself feeling sad at weddings when I remember my dad won’t be at mine. I’ve pulled out my phone instinctively to text him after a Notre Dame win only to be met with a pit in my stomach. There are day-derailing moments that come out of nowhere, often right after feelings of happiness that I so wish were still shared. One day in particular stands out: A few months after he died, I had a nightmare so intense that I spent the better part of 24 hours crying in my room, completely unable to articulate why.
I wasn’t kind to myself in the moment either. All I could tell myself is how embarrassing it was that I had been rendered useless by a dream. A dream. It’s hard not to feel vulnerable or weak knowing that’s a possibility.
At that time, I was in the middle of interviewing for a job that my good friend had set me up with and I had to pull out of the process entirely. I was too ashamed to text him why at the time, even though I should have known he’d understand. I never even told my family. I didn’t want them to worry. I had the wrong mindset. It was unhealthy and unhelpful. Luckily, I had an exceedingly patient girlfriend at the time to work me through it and get me back on my feet.
All of that is to say that the cloudy days remain even if the vast majority are good. Be kind to yourself, I’ve learned. Lean on people when you need to. Know that it’s OK to have those kinds of days and that you aren’t alone. Get up off the canvas when you get knocked down, but take your 10 seconds to breathe and collect yourself. Time passes. Life goes on. It gets better.
Before the events with my father, I used to hear “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” and think about places. In my mind, a sunny day was literally a day at the Jersey Shore. I thought that was the antithesis of stress at work and school (I guess I still do).
Recently though, the song has evoked a new emotion in me. I have found myself thinking about the people in my life who “chase the clouds away.” I have this huge, loving family who have stepped up to the plate over and over again these last few years and friends who have allowed me to lean on them without hesitation.
It’s those people who are my “sunny days”: my mom who has seemingly never faltered through all this; my brother and sister-in-law who always say the right things; my 1-year-old nephew who has my dad’s eyes; and my friends — the friends who call just because, the friends who listen when I tell too-long stories and the friends who make me laugh when I’m down.
They’ve shown me that if whatever you’re putting your time into doesn’t involve friends and family, then it isn’t all that important anyway.
Brian Willis is an MBA candidate at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.