There’s nothing like the 10 year anniversary of your father’s death to get you dropping everything, forgetting everything, and sort of hating everything. It did not sneak up on me. I’ve seen this coming for a very long time. Whenever anyone says, “Wow, that time really flew!”, I think, “No it didn’t. I felt every goddamned minute of it.”
When my father died, I was 21 years old, and, at the time, it just felt like any age is a shitty time to lose your dad, so I didn’t think too much of how relatively young that is to lose a parent. After all, I was a “mature woman”, about to start my senior year in college, newly engaged, with my wild rebellious years far behind me. I didn’t understand that I was losing him way too young until the years went by, and most of my friends had both their parents at all their monumental events: graduations, weddings, baby showers, children’s birthday parties… my sister, my mom, and I found ourselves guessing what Dad would have said in such situations, but it felt false — my dad could have said or done anything at these events, such was the mercurially charming personality he had.
In any event, I now see that I lost him really young, and I’m still a bit pissed about that. I put off scanning in old pictures of him for the longest time, because I was angry that the best photos I have of my dad are from the previous century. I want current pictures of him, in my digital camera, of he and his grandchildren. But, yesterday, with the support of my good friend Ciara, I walked to the Walgreens in the Castro and scanned in some of my favorite shots, to show you all a bit of the tenor of our relationship.
My father was not a perfect man, and for much of our time together, I focused on the things about him that caused me pain or made me angry. It wasn’t until he was gone that I understood the role he played in supporting me emotionally. Ever my champion, I can recall many instances of my dad holding me while I cried my little eyes out over some new injustice. I also have strong memories of him sticking up for me, even when I was in the wrong, because I needed protection or support.
No one ever believed in me like my father did. He gave me all the confidence I needed to face the challenges in my life. This is why when people say not to tell your kids they are great very often, I think, “The world will give them plenty of messages that they are not good enough. Let them hear at home that they can do anything, that they are wonderful — that foundation will get them through the vitriol the world throws at them.” When my dad left my life after a quick, totally devastating 6 month illness, I had to find those qualities within myself — learn how to be my own cheerleading squad, my own protection, and my own comforter. However, although I thought of myself as a full-fledged grown-up, I wasn’t that woman yet. But he had planted the seeds that would help me become her.
When my father first died, all I felt was his absence. I felt like all the air had gone out of the world, and found myself taking shallow sips of breath, unsure of why I was still breathing anyway. If you have not lost a parent, it is hard to comprehend how world-shattering it feels to lose someone who had a piece in creating you. It feels like the axis has slipped off the earth, and there is nothing pinning you down in space anymore. They have been alive your entire life, and they are the reason you are here. Once they are gone, you are unable to share your joys, fears, and triumphs in the same way. I can’t tell you how many times I picked up the phone and then put it down in frustration, because the only person I really wanted to call was my father. Even if you don’t have a good relationship with your parent, while they are alive, there is the hope that you can still turn it around. When your parent dies, that is it — no more chances to get it right. I was filled with regret for all the times I had pushed him away, or misunderstood his efforts at love.
However, as time wore on, instead of feeling his absence so keenly it felt like all my edges were sharp and lonesome, I began to feel his presence all around me. I am unsure of what happens in the afterlife, so I’m not claiming being haunted by my dad, or having him “look down from the sky” on my life. What I mean by this is I realized that I had internalized my father’s love, to the point where I found it within me, a deep well of support and strength in the moments I needed it most. At times it took me off my feet, the immense groundswell of the knowledge of his pride in me as I took my wedding vows, and the determination to keep going in the midst of a long natural childbirth, that it felt otherworldly.
So, tomorrow is a decade since his death. I basically miss him all the time, every day, I just don’t talk about it that often because so few of the people I interact with on a daily basis ever knew him. So, I am taking this anniversary as an opportunity to grieve in a more public, communal way, since I’m doing it by myself all the time. I asked friends who wanted to support me to go to a body of water and put in a rock or flower and say a little prayer for us. I have already heard of at least one person who has done it, and I feel more connected to my community. Because, this death is not just about me. Everyone will experience death in their lives, and while it is truly awful, holding others up in the midst of their grief has led me to some of the most meaningful experiences of my life. You don’t grieve in order to forget. You grieve in order to remember, and that’s actually why it hurts so much. The pain in my chest that arises when I really let myself miss him is because I love him, not because I haven’t moved on.
I feel really blessed to have had the father I had, and I’m grateful for the 21 years I did get with him. Sometimes my daughter does something that is so like him that I am taken aback by the power of ancestry. I hope she can grow up knowing that she had a badass grandpa that gave me enough love for both of us, the kind of love that goes down through generations.