My dad is dying.
I heard those words ringing in my head, in my own voice, though I’d only just read them in a Facebook message.
I dropped, physically, slumping into the couch, eyes welling up… “shit.” I muttered it, though Dave perked up… What’s wrong?
He’d asked so innocently, I didn’t want to tell him everything. That’s the drama in me… everything seems to stop when one of my friends loses a parent. I DID THAT! I want to scream at them. I did that 18 years ago so you wouldn’t have to. Not one got it then. No one knew the turmoil, and now, year after year, I am dying inside watching my friends lose a parent.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be… but it is. Kind of. I mean parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, though my own buried my brother. But are we, in our late 20’s and early 30’s, supposed to be burying our makers? The only people who will ever truly love us unconditionally? Are they supposed to be dying as we near pivotal life decisions, marriage, births of our children?
They aren’t really ever supposed to leave. I firmly believe that. I have, on more than one occasion, threatened my mother into not dying before me… whatever that means. And in that thinking, I found myself scrambling yet serene. I have done this before. I have lost my whole world, and now I know that my footing would be gone. I would be lost. I would want to die, too. And I have prepped my husband for that. He knows that he will have to step in as more than a spouse, a father and a support. He will have to be my only lifeline to wanting to take another breath.
When my friend told me the news about her father: a sudden diagnosis, late nights, hospice- all with her wedding on the horizon, I knew how hard it would be for her and her soon-to-be, and my insides broke all over again. Dave knew what he was getting into. He’d seen me drunk, crying in April, sure to not recover or ever sleep again. He’s seen me cry, scream, punch the ground of the cemetery as we visit for Christmas and place a beautiful wreath upon the grave of the father-in-law he’ll never know. He’s been with me as we stepped upon hallowed ground with our bouncing baby girls, each one of them, to introduce to their Grand-Dad, Mark (and Uncle Jon, too).
He knew I’d already lost and what that meant for me. For him.
But what happens if this isn’t something you were prepared for? How does a girl marry without her father? How does one marry a fatherless daughter?
I wanted to write something to anyone in a situation of major life changes while encountering death, because while this isn’t uncommon, each time is unique. There is no relationship like that of father and daughter… no two are alike.
And when you marry a fatherless daughter, she isn’t totally married. The piece of her that was not “given away” always lingers in a wedded purgatory. That part of her that will not get to share her father with her future spouse… even if you knew him, you never knew him as your father-in-law. What it would be like when he heard the news of his first grandchild, or your first home, or to be called in the middle of the night because something sprung a leak. You won’t know him as a father as she did. And that piece won’t be married. It will drift in and out of pain.
That unmarried spot remains a black hole. It is as painful as one could imagine, even when convinced there is no pain at all- the days you may forget she’s lost a parent. Someone who is supposed to be there forever. Someone who said I’ll always be here is now gone, and you are here. And you said you would never leave and she believes you. But her psyche doesn’t. It cannot. Because she’s been lied to before. And it wasn’t really a lie. We all know everyone dies. But you try telling her that. Better yet, don’t. Just know that black hole is there. And it is a part of her that is not married to you… or if it was, that part that was given away has passed and you must not try to fill it.
As with all black holes, if you get too near, try to fill it, you will get sucked in. Lost. Forgotten. You will lose yourself trying to fill and unfillable gap. You, yourself, will become forgotten. You will destroy your partnership trying to fill it, so don’t. Instead, fill around it. Plant a garden of memories that cherish that lost person. Remember on your happiest days- whether it’s a beautiful summer day on the beach, a vacation, the birth of a child- that parent would have loved those things, too… and they want to be remembered. “She has your Dad’s curls,” I recall Dave saying a few times over the years, though he himself has curly hair. Remembering the father-in-law he never met, a man he’ll never know, has meant the world to me.
The bad days, too.
“I hope my Dad keeps our baby close.”
I remember thinking that after we lost a pregnancy… imagining him holding our first child in his arms, my lost brother ogling over him or her as I grieved for what was never to be.
That black hole. It’s a piece of her that doesn’t grow up. Doesn’t forget. Lashes out. Is childish, a bitch. It always hurts, even when she doesn’t feel it. And you will have to work your way around it each day in a different way… it will be routine, a new way you learn to love, to cultivate your relationship. To grow that garden around that black hole. Not to hide it. Not to accentuate it. To love it. To love the deepest, saddest, darkest part of her.
Some days she will just need to do what she needs to do. It’s not as freeing as it seems… she’s not doing her thing, she’s surviving. In the grieving process, every step is her own to take and no one else’s. She needs to grieve as her mind is able. There are no rules here. And you? You do you as best you can in the worst possible situation. You hang onto what you have and pull her back in when she forgets it. The light is out there, but you can’t find it for her, you just have to hold onto it for her. When she’s ready, she will see it. Though the clouds will always loom.
And this… this is how you get married to the one you love in the midst of losing a parent.