How I Survived When My Dad Died

Today marks the third year of the passing of my father. I publish each day’s article after having written it the day before. I chose to postpone addressing the inevitable emotional struggle of the day of his departure in order for my feelings to be real time…a vital component of everything I write. On the first anniversary of his passing, (doesn’t that sound so festive? “anniversary…”) I was still very much in a fog from the loss. I don’t remember certain blocks of time between October 2015 and October 2016. I don’t have photos, journal entries or events to help me reconstruct what the first few months were like without him. As normalcy seemed to be returning, my awareness would again take flight and I was somewhere other than where my physical body would suggest. I spent a lot of time grieving, of course. But, I spent as much time thinking of the future and how impossible it felt to go through life without his wisdom at the ready. Nothing stumped him. I could call, frantic, upset, a mess with infinite reasons why a talk with dad was warranted. As soothing and logical as his advice, was the composure with which he received and processed any information, no matter the content. It was the grown up version of a child falling down and looking to the face of their parents to see if they were ok. If it didn’t rattle dad, I breathed easier. And, it was a known and accepted fact that not much rattled my John Wayne. Dad had a way of looking at things that still brings me back to my center, when I can stop myself and the incessant, fragmented thoughts long enough to let it sink in…”It either will happen, or it won’t.” Simple, right? It was for him. And, because I believed that HE believed it was that simple, I immediately worried less about the issue. Dad could be so quiet in a roomful of company, during the holidays for instance, that no one thought he was either interested or listening to the conversation at hand. How very untrue. After an hour of babbling and scatterbrained remarks, Dad would effortlessly shut the whole room down with one, incredibly cerebral observation. If he was talking, people were listening. He didn’t waste a lot of time on extra words, extra thoughts or useless facts. He was gifted with this amazing ability to insulate his peace, impenetrable by people or situations, regardless of how irritating, irrational, nasty, obnoxious or opinionated they were. Wow. His keen abilities at human interaction still amaze me. I’ve watched dad drive busy-bodies crazy with a single retort to which they couldn’t draw a comeback. It wasn’t his intention. It was his way. It was his measured thoughts, his quiet tone, his ability to contemplate his words before he spoke. And, as importantly, his ability to contemplate yours. As much as I love being told, “You’re so much like your dad,” I know if I lived to be 150, I could never achieve restraint of tongue like my dad, nor could I stfu while I let the blowhard standing in front of me dig himself a hole deep enough to just kick in the shovel and walk away. Dad had a knack for that, too. Remaining silent eventually turns the tables on most every judgmental loud mouth seeking to stir yet another proverbial pot. They didn’t get to him. If anything, he’d let them run out of steam and proceed to tell them a completely unrelated story, ending with, “…so the moral of the story is…” all the while, the drama seeker was waiting for a comeback, baffled, and later, exasperated, that it never came. “What did THAT have to do with the price of eggs in China?” my mom would ask. “Nothing.” Dad laughed. It never got old, watching him work a room or beat a guy at his own game. That was about as vindictive as dad ever grew. Beneath all that humor, wit and unshakable peace was a man who would give you the last of anything he had, and never tell you it was his last. If I exhibit a fraction of the grace, kindness and love for my fellowman that my dad showed on a daily basis, I will call my life a success. For those who don’t know, I lived in Colorado and my parents lived in Tennessee, where I’d grown up and left when I was 18. But, I always made it home to see mom and dad. I never traveled home in October, as I would always make it home for Thanksgiving. In 2015, I decided, rather impulsively to fly home on October 12th for a week, and surprise my parents with an extra trip. I was going to be right back there the following month for the holidays. On October 16th, I’d loaded the rental car, and came back into the house to tell my mom and dad goodbye. This is as good a place as any to tell you that my daughter, 18 at the time, had also decided to take a trip to Tennessee to visit her grandparents. Neither of us had planned ahead, so neither of us knew the other was going until a day or so beforehand. As it turns out, Lindsey and I were not only on the same airline, we were on the same flight. And, we had seats next to each other. We’d picked the same travel dates for both arrival and departure and the visit was all the more special. As I hugged my dad, like a thousand goodbyes before, he looked up at me from the edge of the couch, where he’d needed to pause and rest. He searched my face as I said, “I love you, daddy.” He said, “I hope I see you again.” Mom and dad always had a hard time when we left, no matter how often we visited. I said, “Dad, I’ll be back next month…for Thanksgiving.” I hugged him again, for reassurance. Two weeks later, I flew back to TN to plan his funeral. It was a known fact that dad and I shared an uncommon bond, even for fathers and daughters. At 44, I didn’t know anymore about how to get by without him than I would have at a much younger age. I was a lost human. When the family decided amongst themselves that I should write and deliver his eulogy, I managed to utter, “I’ll do it.” I wrote and discarded dozens of pages. I threw the pen down, stood and crossed the living room into the kitchen, staring out at his car in the driveway. Wouldn’t he be walking in the house any minute? Was he upstairs- getting something out of the shed? Was he just doing some minor maintenance on mom’s truck? The answer to each question that emphasized the disbelief under which I was operating was, “..no..” I returned to my paper, and tried to collect my thoughts, his service now the following day. As I drew a deep breath, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “What would dad do?” He’d keep it simple. He’d tell the truth. He wouldn’t be too wordy. That was all I needed to write, in one draft, my dad’s eulogy. I read it to my sisters, my mom and my son and daughter. When I looked up, they were crying, and nodding their approval. The family had asked a close friend of dad’s to standby in the event that I couldn’t get through delivering the words I’d written about my hero. I knew they thought I would, but I didn’t need a back up. I crossed in front of his casket, adjusted the microphone, and spoke. I didn’t break down outwardly. I was composed, like my dad. I wasn’t rattled, visibly, like my dad. I proceeded to read to those who’d come to honor him what he’d taught me. One lesson read: “He taught me to wait…for the fish to bite, for him to finish talking, for the sausage to brown before flipping it”. Throughout my life, these seemingly unremarkable moments were impressing upon me, teachings that would transfer to every possible situation, frustration, challenge or problem I would ever have. The five pages of teachings required little expansion. It made sense, as he did. So, as grief came in waves, I learned to let it be. To not stop or try to ignore it. To not fret that it would last forever. And, to wait. That the crushing pain of his absence seemed, at times, it would take my very breath, I remembered how he’d taught me to swim out of a rip current in the ocean- to never swim against it, in an attempt to make it back to shore, but to parallel the shoreline and, eventually, I’d be out of the harsh current trying to pull me under. “It’s like a treadmill, baby, that current. If you ever find yourself caught in one, you’ll know Don’t fight it. It will wear you down. And, that will take you right under.” This is how I grieved my dad. In the same way he’d taught me to survive a rip tide. I didn’t fight it. I let the grief parallel me, regardless of what I was doing. And, when I found myself stumbling across ginger snaps in the grocery store, his favorite snack, I’d leave my cart, go to my car, cry it out, and go back in to finish my business. He’d taught me so much more than I’d ever realized. I decided after his death and several months of severe depression, I was doing him quite the disservice. He’d raised me not only to survive without him, but to thrive. Today, as I sit here, reliving memories and sharing this bit of my hero with you, I have right beside me, one of his favorite shirts. I have dragged this thing around like a kid with a favorite blanket. I’ve had coffee with this shirt folded on the table. I’ve wrapped myself in it when I’d have an urge to call him. And, when I’ve cried, needing him, I’ve skipped the tissue and cried right into this shirt, snot and all. It’s how I’d have done it if my head was on his shoulder. These paragraphs are reminding you of someone, right now. Whomever it is that you’ve lost recently, or maybe years ago, or that you may be in the process of losing, know that as much as there is love, there are lessons. When we hurt so badly we simultaneously feel both everything at once and vast, cold nothingness, close your eyes and reach for the simplest response from your hero. It is there. They are a salve and a shield, these lessons. These teachings, when lived, keep alive the ones who kept US alive. The greatest honor I can possibly bestow upon my father is to thrive. Honor your hero, today. Don’t try to outswim the wave that is grief, it will surely win. Relax. Cry into a shirt, if you need. What’s something, seemingly minor, that they taught you? If it is the first thing that comes to mind, I promise you, it is not minor. It directly transfers to a much broader, deeper scenario that you never recognized as it was being conveyed. And, as we all have our coffee or our gingersnaps today, let’s send out some tender thoughts to our brothers and sisters around the planet, as we all cling to the shirts of our heroes. Peace, Warriors.

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