I want the 21st of April to come and go… for those 24 hours to somehow be less. To get a pass on the day. I always want a pass on the day.April is the cruelest month. Click To Tweet
I don’t want to feel it, remember it, relive it. 18 years ago he died. My maker, the man who hung the moon, my protector and champion. It was pretty much his body going lifeless in my arms as he finally let go in his first few hours in hospice. It sounds dramatic because it was. Dramatic. Traumatic. It was, and remains to be, the worst experience of my life.
That’s saying something, as in my life I’ve experienced more than my share of unsavory events, from sexual assault, men who believed hitting > hugging, other deaths, depression, a miscarriage. I’ve failed a few tests in my life… literally and figuratively. I’ve been sick, watched friends die from illness, addiction and abuse. I want to say there’s been something worse in my life, and people lose parents every single day, but the whole experience… watching him die, feeling his last breath, and all the things his lungs never inflating again meant he missed. That’s the worst experience of my life. After each life event, I recall the one person missing from celebration.
April 21, 1998 has lead me here, 18 years later, and I can say without pause or a moment of hesitation, that I’ve been living an entire childhood of 18 years without a parent who was supposed to protect me and guide me. Someone who said again and again I’ll always be here. That’s really hard. These past 18 years have been hard. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.Each year after death doesn't get easier or harder, but different. Click To Tweet
It’s defined me, for sure. In some ways it broke me, stole parts of me that I missed, perhaps emotions that I’ll never grasp. In some ways the devastation of the loss made me a more compassionate and empathetic person. I am emotions, I feel everything. My passion, often misunderstood as aggression, is a large part of me… and I know it stems from being all or nothing, giving my all when my all was gone. But for a long time, I was a really shitty human. I am not a success story of coming from loss to the light. I initially learned to be emotionally abusive, cold, detached, abrasive, while simultaneously latching onto men and boys, asserting both my dependence on them and my independent personality. I lived a life that would have, in many ways, shamed my father. My genetic wiring lends itself to being a bit rough around the edges, but my behavior as a whole was a breaking point for many. My walls, my facade- 18 years and growing are still there, in lesser ways. But there.
I want to say I’ll get over it… this too shall pass… move on… that this loss won’t define me anymore. But I won’t, it won’t, I can’t, and it will. Now I’m in my 18th year. Now I am an adult. I lived that childhood as a fatherless daughter, and now I am a fatherless adult with children of my own.
And so I have been searching for ways to make it better. Ways to share him with my family. My girls. In ways that doesn’t make me break, fall to my knees in search of my breath… every time I look at my girls asking me who’s that and I recall for them, as I’ve done a hundred times before- he’s my dad. I want him in our daily lives, but have been uncertain how to do that.
As I grappled for answers to my own burning questions, a friend reached out to me. We met on a brief weekend away in Atlanta, but I often find myself confiding in her, bonding over life, motherhood and loss- struggling to connect through the difference in coastal times. But she knows me, and I learned that when she sent me Passed and Present by Allison Gilbert.
It’s a new take on tackling grief, a road map to happiness and remembering. As I looked through 85 different ways suggested to look forward, to live a rich and joyful life, while keeping the memory of my dad alive, I knew this book was what I needed. Finally. From this book, I am learning. I am learning to take things that I have collected, hoarded, from boxes to crates, airlocked bags filled with things he once wore- once touched or penned, and give them meaning for my family. I am learning what to do with them to make me whole. To fill some of those spaces that I pray won’t always be as empty as they still are 18 years later.
No children, no marriage, no amount of money or sex or alcohol, no amount of self-inflicted pain, prescribed seratonin can fill those holes, dug when he died. It is up to me to start to fill them, lest they remain empty, useless spaces in me. These places need to be patched, so every time I drive over them- each April- they don’t hurt as bad. I don’t sink as deep.
Piles of tshirts, matchbooks, a million pennies sorted by year, cowboy boots, business cards, a lock of hair, spoons from a hundred cities, hockey skates, geometric freehand art only a EE’s mind could translate to paper. These are the things that hold only meaning with me. For my husband and my girls they are things that have a story- if only they could remember what that story is… but they are hidden away in these piles of boxes, crates and bags. They are not doing anything but collecting dust and rusty memories. haunting me each time I find myself digging in them. These are not boxes and piles of memories that I’ve carefully collected to bring joy, they are shrines I’ve locked away in fear of losing him, or my memory of him, that I hide and protect and fear.
I hope to share some of the ways I implement these ideas, my favorite ones are all about re-purposing, but I’ll tell you even 18 years later as I go through old shirts, I am not sure I’m ready to cut them. I am not ready to see these pieces in ways that assure me he will never wear them again. I’m not ready for his shirts to be teddy bears, or his buttons to become parts of a family tree project (an idea I came up with when Addie was born, but don’t have the strength to yet pursue), because that means his fingers won’t be closing them again. He’ll never button up to his collar, add a perfectly tied tie and then unbutton it underneath. That means I’m giving up on him coming back. I mean I know he’s not coming back… but I’m not ready to know. In the bottom of my box is one tattered tee. The Wizard. It’s so pitifully thin, I’ve cradled it and wept through it so many times– how will I ever share that with my girls. Will they, too, have a favorite shirt of their daddy’s?
But I am done collecting. Now I am sorting. Soaking in ideas. Crafting a story for my girls so that they know the greatest man that will ever be in my life. And I hope that I am showing them that it’s OK to grieve- no matter how long the process is. And I hope that they never feel what I feel at 31… I hope this pain stays away from them for a long time. That at 31 this pain of 18 years is not their experience. Not their story of losing the most important man that will ever be in their lives. The man that will never stop loving them, long after he is gone.
Passed and Present is the gift of proactive grieving, the ability to push forward while preserving the past, and 18 years later- it’s just what I needed.