Fourteen Years Later
November 24, 2016
I had forgotten. I was standing on the sidewalk holding the leash while my dog smelled the grass near the curb that separated us front the street. I watched her. Her sweet little tail wagged in delight at what she was discovering. Her golden brown coat and her bouncy little ears shimmered like ginger sugar cookies. Every time I looked at her, my heart ached with how much I loved her.
“What day is it?” I asked her.
“November 24th”, I answered for her.
“Oh, I guess I forgot,” I whispered. “Yeah, I forgot”.
Seven days had passed and I had not once remembered the anniversary of my father’s death. Every year on November 17th I remembered, until this year. I had never developed a ritual around this date. I usually just let it come and let it pass, but I always remembered. I remembered it in the way that I remembered to take a shower in the morning, a habit of my body and my brain to know that November 17th was coming up. That it was here. That it had passed. But this year, I forgot. Fourteen years in and I finally forgot.
I had often wondered, over the years, when I would start to forget. When would I find that the length of time from his death started to weigh heavier than the strength of his presence when he was here. Fourteen years, apparently. Does this mean that I have stopped caring? I think some people would say yes. But this is the question with death, with loss, with grief. Is the absence of thought about the person an example of how I no longer care? Or does it mean I have dealt with my pain and grief head-on, that I am stronger than ever and I am empowered by my loss? Or does it just mean that no matter what I do, no matter what I think, no matter if I remember or if I forget, the time and space between then and now grows wider and the person just gets further and further away.
The funeral was the easy part. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. And there were people there. Lots of people. Everyone had wonderful things to say about him, of course. They were there to focus on his life and remember him fondly. They were there to emote, to reminisce. To talk about how he had died too young, about how he was full of life, passion, humor and joy. To give comfort to me and my mom and my sister, to say a final goodbye and to move on.
I wrote and read the eulogy at his funeral. I was twenty-two years old. I stood at the podium inside my childhood church and cried my eyes out in front of everyone we knew. Nobody batted an eye at my excessive emotion or my accurate depiction of his charisma and his humor or even how I called out the deep, unforgiving sadness that had demanded most of his attention. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement, patted each others shoulders, smiled agreeably. He was a troubled man, wasn’t he. Yes, yes, that is why he died so young. Let that be the lesson, friends. It shall not happen to me, they think silently. I shall be spared. Of this, I am certain, they think. I shall go home now and continue to avert death by simply ignoring it.
Twelve years after the funeral, as I rearranged an overflowing closet, an old photo of my dad in his better years drifted out of a box onto the carpet in front of me and I fell into a puddle next to it, my face soaking wet with tears, clutching the photo, touching his face as if it was really him and asking him, begging to know, “Where are you?! Why aren’t you here?! Where did you go?! I still need you!”.
There was no ceremony then, no flowers, no church, no audience. Just me and a flimsy photo.
No beginning, no middle and no end.
I still can’t believe that he died. Fourteen years later, I still can’t believe it. Not in the way that I think he is secretly living in Spain or something. And not in the way that I’m delusional. But in the way that only a person who has lost someone that they love can really understand — I just cannot believe he died.
It wasn’t that we didn’t know it was coming either. He was a chronically relapsing alcoholic for ten years prior to his death. While he spent years in our home portraying the role of active and invested father and husband, he also spent weeks in rehabs, countless nights at AA meetings, called collect numerous times from the Wayne County Correctional Facility asking for just one more bailout. And the hospitals. Of course, there were hospital visits because of the accidents. Car accidents, bike accidents, accidents with no known cause just blood and cuts and bruises left to prove that something had happened, yet no one knew what. Not even him. He rarely remembered what happened, where he had been or what he had done. Even so, we loved him. We loved him the way you loved a movie star or a politician or a newborn baby. As a potential prize full of promise, excitement, change. A savior that would always bounce back. After every single accident, rehab, lost job, argument, he bounced back. Each time brighter than the last. I’ve got it this time, he’d say. I am going to kick this thing once and for all, he’d promise.
We believed him. Every single time. We believed him.
Therapists, doctors, and even friends, would subtly or overtly say, “he is going to kill himself one day, you know. It is culminating”. The weight of those words from friends or therapists just do not compare to the actual weight of hearing a voice on the other end of the phone saying, “it’s about your Dad, he didn’t make it through the night this time”.
Perhaps, unexpectedly, it was a relief when he died. Only those who have been in the throws of a family riddled with addiction can actually understand that. Others will probably judge. His struggle gave our lives purpose. And afterwards, life became painfully still. We no longer had anything to fight for. No one to root for. The politician had fallen from grace, the movie star had gotten arrested, the baby grew up. There were no more phone calls in the middle of the night from the county jail. No car accidents. No blood, no arguments. The worst had happened. It had finally culminated.
And so, I became restless in the newfound silence. I could not gain my bearings. I could not define myself any longer. Who was I without this rumbling tragedy brewing in my life? Sometimes, I still do not know.
His story is an open book that never closes. It is the first book I ever read, and so, when the pages ruffle every once in awhile they catch my attention. Sometimes the tears flow. Other times, a faint smile passes across my face. Or, even after all this time, I will just shake my head in disbelief at the waste of it all. But that book has never closed. This is the thing with grief. There is no end. And there are no people. The closest I have come to feeling that another person can understand, is when I speak with someone who has lost a parent too young, suddenly and tragically. Only they seem to grasp this grief. And this does not include family. Family has a vantage point that is so close to mine, but just far enough off that we can’t agree and arguments ensue about how he should be remembered, or how he was or what it was like. Actually, it becomes easier to deal with these memories alone, so that I can come and go from them as I please.
The first time I met a friend whose father died from a heroine overdose, we connected instantly in a way I had not connected with anyone before. The sadness that surrounds deaths from addiction can only be known from experience. There is blame that outside people place on the addict that does not exist when it was your addict. Your love, your loss. Your politician, your movie star, your newborn baby.
I don’t know if it was wrong of me to never actively seek a solution to the grief. I suppose I never really wanted it to end, as if an end to the grief meant the end of my dad — an actual metaphysical end. And I never wanted that part of him to die too.
I did try therapy and several 12-step programs and they all helped. But they never eliminated the one fact upon which I base so much of my existence. That this person died, suffered and died, and there was nothing I could do. Try as I might. I did everything that a little girl, a teenager and a grown woman would do to help. We all did. But in the end, he died anyway.
This is not guilt — not at all.
And it is not solvable.
It is truth in it’s purest form. The indisputable message that death always sends. The bottomless certainty of existence — that we are utterly, inevitably powerless.