This week I was given an assignment in my English class in which I was to write a narrative essay about an important event from my childhood that I did not understand at the time, but that I have come to understand as I have grown. Though I have written about it numerous times, I chose to write about my father’s death. However, I also wrote about my father-in-law’s death, how both of them were connected for me, and how each event changed me. As far as I can remember, this is the most detailed and emotional account I have written of each of their deaths and by far the hardest to not only write, but to continuously re-read, revise, and re-write. I wanted to share because so many people have experienced parental bereavement and so rarely allow themselves to go back and think about it, feel it and learn from it. I have finally found a place of acceptance and allowed myself to learn what I subsequently became because of each of these awful experiences.
I don’t have to turn this in until tomorrow, so I am hoping for some constructive criticism from those who were not there for a personal account, who can feel it as I felt it just by reading the story. Regardless of criticism, I hope that for these few moments, you can see the world accurately through my eyes as my world crumbled twice over.
The Silver Lining of Loss
I woke unexpectedly early. I smiled sleepily at the familiar touch that was the culprit of my waking until I heard a pained sigh and a hitched sob. Startled, I opened my eyes to the silhouette of someone I knew heart and soul but, even in shadow, I no longer recognized. Her shoulders were hunched, her face drawn and haggard, as though she had braved the fieriest depths of Hell to get to this seemingly quaint moment of stroking the bridge of my nose so early in the morning. I struggled to focus as my mind registered and matched this utterly broken stranger in front of me to the person I had known and loved for my entire life. Before I could say a word and without any prelude, my mother choked out the words that would forever change everything about who I was and who I would ultimately become, even though I did not truly know it at the time: “Honey, daddy died last night.”
When I was nine years old, summertime was glorious. For me, it meant endless days of being in the water as much as I could stand; every day I would gleefully hop onto my bicycle and ride to the community pool, where I would spend no less than eight hours swimming myself into exhaustion. My mother would shake her head and smile when I would come home, brushing my tangled green-tinged hair out of my eyes while pressing her cool hands to my cheeks, my forehead, and behind my ears in search of any signs of a fever. One such evening upon arriving home from the pool for the umpteenth time that summer, my mother told me we were going to my grandmother’s. I was torn between elation and disappointment; I loved going to visit my grandma, but there was no pool near her house. She and I took to the car the next day alone while my dad begrudgingly stayed behind for work. Bound for the hot, flat expanse of the Sacramento valley, she chattered along the way and rubbed her finger over the bridge of my nose whenever I would doze off. I would smile and open my eyes to her warm grin and playful scolding of preferring to have a conscious daughter to discuss “Big Ten-Oh” birthday plans with.
A few days later while sitting in my grandma’s living room watching a movie and humming along, the phone rang shrilly, bringing with it a curious sense of unease. I glanced at my grandma who was at the counter forming cookie dough into balls, so I got up from the couch and ran to the phone to answer it. I lifted the old ivory handset off of the wall, politely asked, “Hello?” and in return heard my dad’s voice for what turned out to be the very last time.
“Hey Sweet Bug, I need to talk to your momma. Can you get her for me?”
“Hi dad! How are you? When are you coming to Grandma’s?”
“Baby, I really need to talk to your mom. Get her for me now, please.”
I hesitated. My dad had never been short with me on the phone, especially when we had been apart for a few days. But I did as I was told.
“’Kay daddy, just a ‘sec.”
I covered the mouthpiece with my palm and called for my mom, who had been napping in her old bedroom. She emerged sleepy-eyed and groggy; I handed her the phone and she smiled, kissed me on the head and playfully poked my nose. I tried to return her smile, but the strange unease in the pit of my stomach had increased tenfold upon hearing his voice. He sounded awful; exhausted, hoarse, and not himself. I slowly backed away until I bumped into the kitchen counter, and watched my mother’s face as it progressively fell from sleepy contentment to confusion, to alarmed concern, and finally plummeted into flat-out panic before she glanced at me. Upon seeing the worried questioning in my eyes, she pulled herself together, quickly mumbled something to my dad and hung up the phone. At this point my grandma had also turned to face my mom, her expression a mask of concern and curiosity that mirrored my own. My mother took a deep breath and quickly blurted out, “Daddy is really sick. I’m going to go home for a few days to take care of him, but I’ll be back soon.” Anxiety colored her tone as she held my grandmother’s gaze, her eyes much like my own as each daughter looked desperately to her mother for reassurance. Only moments later, she pulled me into a frighteningly intense hug, then ran out the door and drove away. I stood in the doorway, staring after the car that had already disappeared from my sight with confusion and fear gnawing at my insides. My grandma came up behind me, wrapped her arms around my shoulders, and led me into the living room to talk. That night I slept restlessly, dreaming of dark things; images I couldn’t define but which nonetheless haunted me and kept me in quiet, thoughtful concern for the remainder of the week until the very moment five days later that I awoke to the shattered stranger that was my mother.
Eleven years down the road I found myself with my knees buckling, collapsing to the floor as agony tore through my entire being. Not two minutes prior, I received the phone call that had violently ripped me back into the memory of that morning with my mother so many years ago, turning the fragile world I had built upside down and shaking me to my core. My father-in-law had died. My husband was already at the scene; he knew. My brother-in-law was the one to break the news to me, calling us with condolences, unaware that I did not yet know. As the words reached me and my world stopped spinning, I could do nothing but clutch my chest as if desperately trying to keep myself from imploding. I knew I should have called my husband first, but I couldn’t. I fumbled over the buttons to dial my mother, trying desperately to see the blurry numbers through the torrent of tears. I screamed to her, panic and heartbreak ringing clearly in my cries. She was quiet for a moment, then told me to do what I thought –what I then knew– I could not: to take a moment and allow myself fall apart, but to then pull myself together and go to my husband.
She was asking me to do the unbearable: permit my heart to shatter, and only moments later piece all of the shards together again and draw on the strength of my re-forged heart to pass that strength to my husband. Impossible, I thought. But I could not shake an image out of my mind, one that simultaneously petrified me and strengthened my resolve: the memory of the way my mother looked the morning she told me of my father’s death, only with my husband in her place. In that instant I knew I had to go, knew I had to get to my husband as quickly as possible to try to catch as many pieces of him as I could before they all disappeared in the raging black hole left behind by the implosion and destruction of his brightest star. I found him at his father’s house on the porch, a perfect replica of the image I had feared. I ran to him and pulled him into my arms, trying desperately to hold the man I loved together as he crumbled. We cried; a muted stream of constant tears from me, an endless chain of hitched and broken sobs from him. I held him for what felt like hours, trying to wrap my mind around how this could happen to both of us and how we would ever survive life without him. It was as if my father had died all over again, but this time I was fully grown up and knew how to truly feel every searing, agonizing facet of the pain.
I was very young when my own father died. I never cried until weeks afterward, and even then it felt as if I cried because I was expected to. I missed my father terribly and I was heartbroken, but I did not understand. I knew logically that his death meant that he was never coming back; that I would never see him again. What I did not understand is how the death of a parent wholly alters the shape and being of a child and his or her future self. I did not understand that to the outside world, I would forever be that child who lost her father too young and should be pitied, or that I would forever be wary of any kind of relationship with men, terrified so much by the mere possibility of loving and losing them that I would subconsciously push every one of them away. I would be forever broken, and forced to build a façade that gave an air of acceptance and even slight indifference “because I was so young,” when it happened, though the truth lay in the opposite. When he died, I was too young to experience the grief as I needed to. I shut down, and the part of me that needed to process all those emotions in order to move on and grow hid quietly in a corner, biding her time.
When my father-in-law died, that hidden part of me burst from her shadowy forgotten corner, glowing in a passionate and terrible rage born from fear and despair. She brought forth with her every feeling I had spent the last 11 years since my own father’s death unconsciously subduing, and I thought I would die from the sheer concussive force of her escape. I have spent the years since my father-in-law’s death trying to put out the ancient fires of loss and anguish that she stoked, but over time I learned that those fires can never be extinguished. They are always there, smoldering endlessly like hot coals. However, I have learned to ease the flames through understanding what the lives and deaths of two of the three most important men in my life did to me as a whole. I am a completely different person because of each of those men, both for their influence on me while alive and just as much for their influence on me in death.
With their lives, they made me a woman of immense, unabashed love. Because of them I am strong and free-willed, independent and humbled by how lucky I am to have the family and life I do. With their deaths, I learned resilience, acceptance, and humility; how despair and the mere fear of it can drive a person to manic paranoia and crippling instability, and how to process –and even love– the intensely altered person I became. My love for them and my heartbreak at losing them brought about in me a fervent gratitude and wonder at the astounding man I still do have with me, and a constant desire to never take a moment of our amazing life and love we share for granted. These remarkable men taught me how to take something so profoundly negative and devastating and find the obscure, glowing silver lining there that helps to bring some balance and meaning to seemingly meaningless and cruel twists of fate. I am better because of each of them and everything they are and were, even on my worst days. Better, and eternally grateful.