Right now, I need to tell you the story of the day I lost my father. I need to convey this to you because I’m moved to do so. When the mood strikes, ya gotta go with it. So I need to tell you the story and I need to bring you back to May 12, 2002, a Mother’s Day out of all holidays.
I remember an overcast sky heavy with the promise of rain and I remember waking up in my parents’ bed that morning. My brother had flown in from Oklahoma and he was still asleep when my mom called–her voice calm, her tone with a hint of urgency. For the last two weeks, family were flying in from all over the country. We were surviving on food brought over by relatives and close friends. I was finishing up my first year of high school just trying to get through Algebra with a passing grade. For the last two weeks, my mom had been staying at the hospital sleeping on the hard, leather chair next to my dad’s bed while simultaneously trying to make sure I was picked up from school and taken care of by some of our closest friends. Once my brother had made it to Chicago, she said, I could finally sleep in my own house and not live out of my backpack. It was such a relief yet utterly bittersweet to have my brother home because it marked the beginning of the end of my dad’s time with us.
When I talked to my mom on the phone, it was instinctual–today would be the day for our goodbyes. I moved fast, quickly dressing in the red oversize sweater my parents gave me for Christmas and then poking my brother to get his ass in gear. I don’t remember who drove to the hospital. Those details escape me. But all around us the gray sky closed in on the hospital as we parked the car and proceeded to my dad’s room. The oxygen mask had been taken off. Tubes and IVs were removed. The little hair my dad had on his head was neat and combed. His unmistakable voice had been reduced to almost a whisper as he spoke in between restless bouts of sleep. My uncles and aunts and cousins all filled the room with my mom naturally next to his bed, her face looking as equally tired as my dad’s. And I stood in the room just processing it as best as a 14-year old could.
Death was hesitant. It chose not to be swift but I don’t think my dad suffered or was in any kind of pain. I think Death was kind to us because it chose to give us time to say what we all needed to say. But by mid-afternoon, I was growing restless just as my dad was. It was like I was pissed off at him for not moving on. I think I even said to my mom that it was time for him to go. Not something a “normal” 14-year old says about her dad. So I did the only thing I could and climbed up next to him, snuggled against his left side and laid my arm across his chest. I didn’t cry. I just held him and whispered, “Dad, it’s OK for you to go. I love you and you were such a good father to me. I’m gonna miss you, but you have to go and move on. It’s time.”
I left the room shortly after but my mom always reminds me that as soon as I left my dad looked over at her with tears in his eyes. He refused to pass away in front of me because even in sickness and death, he wanted to go as a fighter.
I sat on an uncomfortable couch in a waiting room down the hall with the rest of my dad’s family. Outside, the sky was growing black and I think I overhead one of my aunt’s talking about rigatoni or lasagna or pizza or something. With the start of the thunderstorm outside came one of the doctors with the news. I ran down the hall to find my mother curled up against the nurse’s station’s desk area and my brother sobbing into my dad’s neck. And just as the rain really began to fall, the good fight was over.
I can’t tell you what it was like going back to a house with just one parent. We went through the motions you go through when you lose someone you love but in so many ways, I was grateful.
I got to hug my dad and tell him how much I loved him. So many people aren’t afforded the luxury of telling that to someone who passes before they get the chance to say “I love you.” I had 14 amazing years with my dad who taught me self-defense and how to swim by throwing me in my aunt’s pool when I was only 3-years old. I hold on to the sound of his laugh and his child-like perspective on life. I get to watch so much of him manifest itself in my own actions and habits. For these reasons alone, I see the silver lining in losing him.
Love is hard. Love is even harder when you know the idea of losing them is obvious and certain. But with loss comes greater life lessons–acceptance, moving forward, resilience. There are only so many tears we can cry before we look in the mirror and realize our only option is to truly go on whether we like it or not. Be grateful for the moments you have with the ones you love most and be grateful for what they pass as their legacy after they’ve left this world.