Seven years ago, in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 15th, 2012- my father, Michael- died abruptly and unexpectedly.
My dad, who was also one of my best friends- was one of the funniest people you could ever hope to meet and also one of the most generous- with his time, his energy, or money if he had it on him. He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it and make you laugh while he handed it over. He had a wild, rebellious streak- and he could tell the most fascinating stories about his upbringing, his travels and the people he’d met for hours without repeating any of them. He lived a life and a half in such a short span of time.
My dad was also one of the hardest working people around- up at the crack of dawn to go to work every day and make money to pay for dance lessons, school functions, family vacations/trips, nice clothes and good food. Despite long hours- he never missed a recital, a practice, science fair or picking any one of his kids up from school or a function.
As my brothers and I got older, and started getting into the typical teenage/early twenties trouble- my dad was the voice of reason and understanding because he’d been there and had made those mistakes long before us. “If you’ve been drinking and you need a ride- you call me. Anytime of the day or night. I will come and get you.” And he did with me. More than once. And not once did he ever lecture me or yell at me for it because I had done the responsible thing. Instead, he’d stop to get me something to eat so I wouldn’t feel sick. That was the type of father he was.
When I tell people I was there when he died, their initial reaction is one of sympathy but also relief. The assumption is always the same. People knew my father had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. They knew he had undergone a serious, intricate but successful surgery to remove the cancer- and they knew he was going through chemotherapy and radiation treatments post-op as a precaution. The assumption is always that he died peacefully- surrounded by loved ones in a warm and semi-comfortable hospital bed. Maybe with a sweeping score playing as we all said our tearful goodbyes.
The assumption used to make me angry. “How DARE they,” I would think to myself. “They have no idea!” But with time and age comes wisdom and perspective- and I don’t get angry anymore because I know it’s what they *wanted* for him. They *wanted* it to be peaceful and painless and for my family to have some semblance of closure.
The reality of the situation was much more grim.
My father died from complications from chemotherapy and radiation- which had weakened his body to the point where his heart gave out. When I say I was there, what I mean is that he died on my bedroom floor after collapsing. Moments before, we’d had a brief but wit-filled exchange (as we always did) after I’d come home obscenely late from a night out with friends.
After his diagnosis- I’d opted to both come back to my family’s home and stay there to help take care of him and my mom- running errands, taking him to/from Doctor’s appointments, sitting up and watching late night TV and movies with the two of them on the couch. Quality bonding despite the fact that one of us was very, very ill.
That night- he’d been awake, alert, and wanted to know everything and how everyone was doing. He was excited that I had been out with my friends for the first time in a long time. It was the most energetic I’d seen him in days.
And then, in an instant- he was gone.
The strange thing about trauma is that we never get over it- but we find ways to process it and live with it in a way where we can function like a semi-normal version of ourselves before whatever happened to us, well- happened. The human mind, spirit and body has such a fascinating way to self-preserve itself for survival.
There are some parts to the night I cannot remember and honestly- I probably don’t want to- while other parts are as clear to me now as they were that night. My mother screaming and crying on the phone with paramedics after I’d told her to talk to them in order to keep her out of the room. My dog cowering in the corner because of the commotion. For some reason I remember how awful the bedroom lighting was. It made everything look yellow and antiquated.
I performed CPR on my dad since he wasn’t breathing and I couldn’t feel a pulse- the way I’d learned years and years earlier during a babysitting course where they had taught us as a bunch of young teenagers how to stop a kid from choking, or what to do if they have a seizure, etc. etc. I’d only used what I was taught once before when a toddler I was responsible for tried to swallow a Lego block.
She was fine, by the way.
There was a moment where my dad, having been unresponsive to my attempts, suddenly coughed up a weird black-colored fluid and I thought for a second that I’d been successful in my efforts. It was not the case. That was, from my understanding- when he actually died. The guilt and the image haunted me for years.
I didn’t realize the fluid was all over my clothes until later on at the hospital when a nurse- coming out to sit beside me in the waiting room- quietly offered me some scrubs to put on while I stared at an unfortunate-looking painting on the wall. I don’t remember if I ever answered her.
I burned the still-stained clothes weeks later.
Those memories are vivid- but I do not remember the drive to the hospital. I don’t remember calling my best friend to tell him what had happened (he does, of course.) and I don’t remember calling my boss to tell him I wouldn’t be at work the next day- although apparently it was something I did in my foggy state of mind.
I write all this not to illicit sympathy or make anyone feel uncomfortable- but to talk about how seven years has past and I am, in many ways- still traumatized. Although I no longer have daily panic attacks, dizzy spells, uncontrollable sobbing fits or punch-the-wall-bouts of rage- there are still some things that trigger a good cry out of me: A song. A movie on TV. Finding old cards or letters. Writing this- which I’ve had to stop doing more than once to shed some tears and wipe my nose.
The last thing my father got to see me accomplish before he became too ill to really go out and about was my graduating college- the first of his children to do so. He beamed with pride and had me take no less than 300 photos holding my degree alongside him.
But, seven years later- and he’s missed so much change and growth in our family. I wonder what he’d think of my new apartment, of my new neighborhood- of the friends I’m making and the work I’m doing. I wonder what he’d think of my brothers and I and the way we sit around the dinner table with my mom and how we all have such different personality traits but some that are clearly and most certainly inherited from him. I wonder what he’d think of my niece- his granddaughter- and how she acts exactly. like. my. brother did when he was that age.
And I wonder if he’d want my mom to carry on his dream of moving somewhere in the Carolinas and never having to shovel snow ever again. I’d like to think he would.
Some days I feel cheated- deprived of all the things a daughter should have with her father. He’ll never walk me down the aisle or dance with me at my wedding (if I ever take that plunge.) He’ll never come along on spontaneous road trips or try hole-in-the-wall restaurants with me anymore. He missed my turning thirty and he won’t be there to rag on me for turning forty, either.
My father will never get to see me become the woman I was meant to become- and that is the most heartbreaking realization of all.
But, as life goes on- as I move forward with the help of therapy and good friends and my tight-knit family- and time begins to heal some of those wounds- I know that the only thing I can do is live the life he wanted me to have and make it as adventurous, fun, successful and filled with as much love as he envisioned. I cannot dwell on the past- on my sadness or my anger or the “what ifs” and “what could have beens.” That is time wasted and all I have is right now, these moments- and the moments that follow.
Additionally, it’s worth repeating a lesson most of us know but sometimes need reminding of: be good to the people in your life that you love and care about. Cherish your time with them. Love them openly and unapologetically and make sure they know it and feel that love every day. We never know how much time we or the people in our lives have left here- and losing each other is inevitable. Make the most of the time you have with one another while you can.
It has been seven years and I miss my dad every single day. I would give anything to have him here- but I’ve made great strides in my recovery and in my personal/professional life- and for that I think he’d be proud. Maybe even more proud than he was when I graduated college. Prouder than 300 photos could convey.
This past Monday was rough- but it also marks seven years since I’ve moved forward from a life-shattering trauma- and I’m still here. So that’s saying something.
Love you, dad.
– Pumpkin Pie –