Legacy of Love

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.

We had a ridiculous amount of fun together. No one could make me laugh like him!

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.

It may seem odd that I love this photo of me crying with a disapproving woman in the background. However, I feel so grateful that someone took to snap a photo of my dad comforting me. It is my favorite shot of us.

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.

My birth!

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.

11 thoughts on “Legacy of Love

  1. Your sharing is lovely and so is your writing.i am so proud of your voice. The cheerleader you describe your papa as is so apparent in you and how you love people.

    • That is a really interesting insight, Syd, and such a compliment, so thanks! I suppose I do try to love others with the fierceness that my dad loved me. I’m glad it sometimes works!

  2. i am a friend of rosa lee hardin’s, saw this piece through her on FB and the tears came up. i wrote about my dad’s passing on june 3rd, and your writing struck deep. i was fortunate, i had my dad for the big moments, lost him when i was 53, and had lots of time to reconcile and share alot of love and forgiveness. thank you for sharing, and i am truly sorry for your loss. regards, saraday

    • Thanks for commenting, Saraday. I am sorry to hear about your recent loss of your dad, but glad to hear that my post could be a bit of a connection with another human over grief.

  3. Thanks for that post Rhea. Really related to “I want current pictures of him, in my digital camera, of he and his grandchildren.” (lost my dad fourteen years ago last month). Funny about Olive, too. Just the tips of Beni’s fingers – his nail shape – are exactly my father’s (and totally different from mine and Joli’s) It took me a couple months to realize that that’s why I found them so familiar and interesting to look at – and I would probably never have remembered my father’s finger-tip-shape again had they not been (re)presented to me in B.

    • Scott, how fun to see you on here! Thank you for telling me where you resonated with the piece. That is so fascinating that Beni has your dad’s fingertips! I love that you noticed that, and shared it with me.

  4. Stunning reflection. The kids remind me of our dad all the time, especially Liam with that crazy trickster grin. Rob spent time alone with Teagan yesterday and he came back with all these new insights into her, which reminded me of when dad would take you out for a drive or a movie and then talk about the “date” for days. The photos really made me laugh, and cry. By the way, I have an idea of who the “disapproving woman” is – ha! I hope you and Joel have a great night.

    • Mol, Thank you so much for adding your reflections here. Of course I’m thinking of you every second of today. I want to hear Rob’s new insights into my darling Tea! And it’s true, our dad was so good at focusing in on us when he took us out. He really wanted to know us, and I think that’s set the standard for me in relationships as an adult. I think I know who the “disapproving woman” is, too! I love family history, and I love the crap out of you. Call you later. Xoxo Rhebeedee

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this. I lost my father when I was a sophomore in college and it was good to be able to identify with some of the things you wrote. And thank you for sharing the pictures too 🙂

  6. Sweet Rhea,
    Thank you for sharing your grief, memories, thoughts and beautiful pictures with us. Your dad would be so proud of the amazing woman that you are now! In the picture where you are crying, I see so much of Olive in your face! I’m sending you my love!!

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