This one is for me.
My dad died on October 28th surrounded by his blended family of children and holding the hand of his wife. This ever-gracious nurse extubated him as we stood around him holding onto one another. He was gone within minutes. The three days he lay there comatose were long and tiring. Each day, for me, is marked by a new emotion. Disbelief and acceptance, anger and sorrow, and then… ultimately, most-prominently, regret. With the down time in the hospital, I found myself searching for excerpts, blogs, quotes… someone else’s words that would encompass my emotions and put them to text. I found nothing. I read so many things written about the loss of a parent, estranged or otherwise, and not one said to my soul “you are not alone.” So, this one is for me..
My father tells a story of a time when I had to have been about 8 or 9 years old. He and I took off on his motorcycle for the longest trip he’d taken any of us kids. We rode with a group of his riding buddies, these older men and couples, who at the time I found overwhelmingly intriguing. In fact, after that ride I proclaimed for weeks I would grow up to own my very own, purple motorcycle and take similar rides. I can’t pull from my memory exactly what our final destination was. But there are a few things I know for sure. It was cold. I can recall the black and orange flight-jacket like suit I wore with pride and the matching suit he had. I know that at some point during the journey we all took a ferry ride where the bikes were parked on board. I remember him looking down at me from the top deck as my hand hung off the side of the ship reaching for wind and waves. I recall a festival of some sort and us winning a raffle, the prize I can not seem to make out but know that he would remember. The entire day fits together in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing pieces. There’s this moment in the story that haunts and heals me all at the same time. The motorcycles are all parked in a semi-circle and we are standing in a group of 15 or so. I am standing beneath him, his heavy hand rest on my shoulder, and when I look up he is smiling down at me with such pride. All the other riders were so impressed that his shy, little girl was so tough and they made a big deal of telling him. They’re praising me and telling him how tough I am to hang in there for this long ride. He responds… assuring them that I am loving every minute of it. He wasn’t wrong.
Now, if I am being honest, at this point, I’m not certain if my recall of the trip is a collection of snapshots I saved that day or if the memory I cling to is a file that was written once and rewritten again each time the story was told. Nonetheless, what I am certain of… is that I’d give quite a bit to hear him tell the story just one more time.
At about 7:30 pm last night, my father took his last breath. I’ll never hear him tell that story again.
For some reason that I can not now make sense of, before last night, I was fine not hearing the story. If that story was never told again, I had made up my mind I would be fine with it. I remember when he told my fiance the story for the first time and feeling… proud. Maybe that day I was Daddy’s girl. To hear him tell it, I was always Daddy’s little girl. But I’m not, I wasn’t. There was times I hated the idea and times when I would’ve given anything for it to be a reality.
I imagine for most little girls each one of their memories with their fathers are stored away in the various corners of their minds. They put each one into a little pink box adorned with hearts and bows and butterflies and “Daddy’s little girl” or “Daddy Day” or “Daddy teaches me to…” tags.
Similar to those little girls, the memories I have with my father are probably stored in boxes too. The difference is, the boxes I chose to store those memories in have faded in color. The pink I attempted to color each one in is smeared by years of tears and doubts creating a weld that won’t allow me access. For most of my teenage and adult years they’ve all been stocked away in this huge mind-shed that I, at some point in my life, spray painted “Daddy issues” on the front of and mummified with caution tape.
It’s been almost 10 years since I last spent any significant amount of time with my dad. There are a few visits, a few phone calls, and a few dinners. There is him meeting my son for the first and only time. But, I haven’t put many new boxes into the shed. For some reason, as an adult, a lot of the memories I made involving him didn’t require special storage. I made sense of them as they were happening and they’re just thrown in the normal storage centers of my brain. They’re easy to recall. There is Christmas time visits and birthday dinners… and then those all fade into a cascade of phone conversations we’ve had. They don’t bother me and when asked about my dad they’re the memories I first recall. “I see him here and there. I think we last talked a few months ago,” I’d say or “I haven’t talked to him in over two years.”
I can hear myself saying it now.
I wonder what he thought of the two years we went without talking. I wonder if he was sad or hurt to miss all the things that happened during those two years. I sometimes wonder if he realized it had been two years. I didn’t think about it unless I was ask. Then there were times when I was explaining “My dad, like my step dad, not my real dad” that those little smeared, pink boxes would rattle around.
Then there’s that phone call he made a few weeks ago. He had called and we had talked and he had planned a visit. I think I rolled my eyes at the thought. I think I even complained about it. Now, that he’s gone, it’s hard to admit that. I get some peace from that phone call because I know the last thing we said hanging up was “I love you.” I said it to him and he said it to me. I can hear him say “sweetheart.” That phone call is going to help to heal me.
He didn’t make it for that visit. He called to reschedule and I hadn’t called back. I didn’t call back. I can’t ever call back. That… will haunt me.
These last three days, while my dad lie practically lifelessly in a hospital bed, I made frequent trips into his room. I stood next to him. I held his swollen, numb hands. I rubbed his cold arms. I stared blankly at the machines around him. My thoughts were meshed with the hum of the ventilator that was sustaining him. I cried. And ultimately, I reluctantly and fearfully struggled to opened that shed. I opened just a few of those smeared-pink boxes. I told him about them. I shared with him my favorite memories.
The thing is, grief has no voice. Allow me to share with you, that when it finds a voice, it tells a remarkable story. My grief’s story was not one of moans and screams and desperate pleas. It was not a story of a single, overwhelming moment of heartbreak.
It was just me.
It was me muttering to myself as I stood next to him trying to grasp why I had been so afraid to open all of those boxes. It was me raising my voice to tell him he was forgiven and that he was loved in spite of the years we lost to bitterness and busy schedules. It was anger. It was regret. It was pity. It was sadness.
If I would’ve known that the last words I’d say to my father would be words I wasn’t sure he could hear, I would’ve said them sooner. I would have called him back. I would’ve written a letter and hand delivered it in hopes that we could somehow open all of those boxes… maybe repaint them bright pink…
Although, pink doesn’t really seem like us.