Today marks eight years since my dad died. He battled lung cancer for a little over four months, and in that time, I watched my big, strong, fearless dad slowly lose weight, strength, and independence. On his final morning, I awoke knowing something wasn’t right. He had a rough night the night before and I stayed right next to him through it. In the morning, he apologized to me for needing me. I put on a brave face, smiled, and told him I was happy to help in any way I could. I ran to my mom’s room and crawled into bed with her. She held me as I cried and we talked about how we would handle the day.
A few hours later, he spoke his final words. He was in and out of consciousness the remainder of the day. Hospice had left and it was my job to keep him comfortable. It was one of those out of body experiences. Fortunately, he lived long enough so that my sister could say her goodbyes to him and so that my brother could make it in time to be there with us. There were a few people there, but I mostly remember my brother and I on each side of him. My mom was sitting across the room. Looking back, she was incredibly strong for us. “I Can Only Imagine” was playing, on repeat, and she was rocking back and forth to the beat. I remember studying every facet of this man who had been my entire world so that I wouldn’t forget anything. After he took his final breath, we all sat there for a long time. I held his hand and laid my head on his chest until my brother told me it was time to let him go.
I loved both of my parents very much but I was a daddy’s girl, to the core. He was gone a lot for work when I was a little girl and I’d cry every time he had to leave again. My favorite childhood memories are all attached to him: Riding to the grocery store together in his old Chevy, singing and whistling to songs that he’d sing on a nearly constant basis; football games filled with lots of dancing, yelling at the screen, and pork rinds; and watching him dance in the kitchen as he’d cook his “famous” bean and cheese burritos which he called “white boys” or Texas Enchiladas, which were simply canned chili on top of Fritos. I looked up to him so very much. He was hard working, intelligent, witty, and completely supportive. He was also stubborn and impatient, two traits he definitely passed on to me.
When he died, my entire world stopped. I didn’t know how to live in a world without my daddy. I was married within a year and I spent our first year as a married couple in a fog. I was angry and depressed and I felt stuck. I decided to change things so I jumped into a ridiculous amount of school and worked lots of hours. The busier I was, the less I thought about him. The more tired I was when I went to bed, the less I’d stay away thinking about him. And so, I sort of tabled my grief. Then, about 18 months ago, my mom died and all of my walls came crumbling down. I didn’t have another parent to run to.
There is a lot to say about my mom and what her death did to me. But I think what really happened was that when she died, I had suddenly lost both parents. I tried to do the same thing I did when I worked through losing my dad: push my feelings aside. I did pretty well for about the first 7 months. I was completely crushed, but I was functioning. Then, on this day one year ago, I decided to go visit my dad’s grave. As I was driving to visit his burial site, I looked over at the Pacific Ocean. We spread my mom’s ashes under the Golden Gate Bridge and so the ocean served as her burial site. I realized that I was driving past my mom’s grave to visit my dad’s and something just clicked inside of me. For the next six months, I lived as a shell of a person. I was completely empty and my very life was a daily reminder of all that I’d lost. There was no way that I could physically and emotional survive this. You can read about how I worked through that here.
When I realized what today is, so many things came up. Losing my dad. Losing my mom. Losing myself. I remember in those first 7 months after my mom died, people would always tell me what a strong and brave person I was. I kindly thanked them, but inside, I didn’t understand. I was strong because I had to be. And then, I wasn’t. For a long time, I was nothing. I hate looking back on the time I wasted but sometimes I think it is a miracle that I survived.
I wouldn’t say that I’m back to my old self. In fact, that girl is long gone. I’ve become more introverted. Anxiety takes over on many occasions. I’m highly sensitive and irrational at times. My unwavering optimism has…wavered. And I’m pretty sure these changes are permanent. I’ve changed. And although time does ease the pain, there will forever be two holes in my heart that cannot be filled. I mean, a girl needs her parents. At least one. What I wouldn’t do for a hug from just one of them today.
The good news is that as time goes on, I start to get back the positive traits my parents GAVE me, that made me, me. Perseverance. Dedication. Love. Kindness. Strength. Self-confidence. I’m in grad school, something my dad would have been so proud of. I’m in a loving marriage, which is all my mom wanted for me. I seem to spend less time crying and aching and more time laughing and loving. I am less paralyzed with fear of losing another loved one and more excited about my future. For a long time, I felt like I was simply existing. I was ashamed at how much I had changed. But now I see that I am who I choose to be and I just take each day as a new day. I love harder. I live better.
And that’s what they would want.
It’s interesting to see what I’ve shared with you all on this day each year since I lost him. Grief isn’t linear and it is a strange thing to see how my feelings changed each year. And although I’m not proud of how I changed after this day last year, the words I wrote make me smile, just a bit.
Today, I went to see him. I haven’t been there since the burial. I figured this is the closest thing to a hug that I can get. I’ll take it. ?
Now I’m back on the road, listening to all of his favorites. I’m sure he’s somewhere up there, singing along with me. Maybe my mom is dancing.
Love me tender,
Love me sweet,
Never let me go.
You have made my life complete,
And I love you so.