“If you wanna fly you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” — Toni Morrison
It feels very old-timey and theatrical to say “this experience has changed me” but still things do happen that change us. When those things happen we can’t go back in time, we can only go forward or face the uncertain ambivalence between the past, present and the future. For me, I have experienced a lot of changes in my life, I have moved around the country, I have changed jobs and industries, I have loved and lost, but only one thing has really truly knocked me off my feet. That one thing was the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Last week was a milestone — albeit a sad one. It was the 8-year anniversary of my dad passing away. I remember parts of that day though many of the details have been blocked out like trauma that I can’t ever get back.
8 years ago we didn’t keep our cell phones visible and out on our desks, do you remember that? We kept them in our purses or jacket pockets because it was unprofessional to have your personal phone on your desk at work.
So I didn’t have my phone on me. At some point in the afternoon, I did check my phone and see that I had missed calls. A lot of missed calls. From each of my three older sisters and then a few from my brother-in-laws too. I like to think I would have been smart enough to step outside and be in a private space before calling one of the numbers back. I should have known that. But I didn’t know that. I sat at my desk and started calling everyone back. I eventually reached my brother-in-law, he handed the phone to my sister and the rest is a blur.
I remember telling my boss’s I had to leave work. I remember grabbing my things and running out to my car. I remember laying facedown on the hot pavement under the mid-day sun in the parking lot and wishing anything else was happening than what was happening at that very moment. At that very moment my skin was practically being scorched by the black tar and I had little twigs and pieces of grass in my hair and on my clothes. And my dad was gone forever. I drove home — which I imagine is like drunk driving because I don’t remember any of it — and then went to my room and curled up in a ball and cried.
I lived in Los Angeles. My entire family lived in Pittsburgh. I had to get home immediately. I had to do a lot of things that I wasn’t in any way prepared to do.
My closest friends came over and jumped into gear. They called the airline, they packed my bag, they comforted me, they held my hand, they helped me not be alone but also understood that I didn’t want to talk the whole time either.
My dad was a wonderful father and a terrific son. He was a terrible husband. At least that is what he always used to say. Twice divorced, he never tried to remarry again. He dated, as he should have being as handsome as he was — a spitting split between Robert Wagner and Gene Kelly — but never introduced another woman into my life. He was older than my mom, which is why I have sisters from his first marriage that are 15 years older than I am.
My dad lived hard. He was a smoker and a drinker, he ate a lot of red meat and canned vegetables, he thought working out was sunbathing — and by sunbathing I mean using SPF 2 (and that’s being generous) and laying by his community pool all summer. He gives Don Draper a good run for his money.
He was funny and he had a sharp wit that I inherited. I might be a mirror image of my mother but I got a lot from my dad that can’t been seen on the outside. He loved big. Really big. We spoke every Sunday. In fact, he called everyone that he loved on Sundays. It was his thing. He would sit in his armchair, undoubtedly in his living room with the TV on mute surrounded by frames on the walls that included photos but also little things like notes we had left on his desk or letters from camp.
His favorite of mine was a note I had left on his desk when I was all of five or six. I had written:
Dad, do you love me?
If you do, circle yes
If you don’t, circle no
Yes | No
PS I hope you circle yes
It has aged with time, but there it was on the wall next to letters from my sisters with the same sweetness and same blend of humor and nostalgia. These all served as ways to embarrass us and also cherish us.
The one thing my dad did that drove me crazy is he didn’t change with the times. I don’t mean refuse to change with the times in the ways that I do — preferring to read physical books over getting a Kindle. No, I mean he didn’t recognize that as he was getting older he had to take better care of himself.
I remember having conversations with him where I would say, “Dad, I’m 25. Do you realize you could live my entire lifespan still? You could live 25 more years. You really have to take better care of yourself.”
But that wasn’t really his bag. He did what he did. When my grandmother passed away 9 years ago, it was like the one person that really needed my dad on a daily basis was gone. We all needed him, but she depended on him and had for the 25+ years since her own husband, Samuel, passed away. And just like that, he started to age at an accelerated pace. It all felt so unstoppable.
When he passed away, presumably in his sleep or early in the morning, he was at peace. But I have not had the same peace. I’ve been angry for a long time that he left before his time or what I have perceived as his time. I took that anger out on a lot of people in my life. Worse, I took it out on myself. I spent a year deep in grief. That year, like that day I found out he was gone, is a blur. I’ve spent a number of the years since in an in-between of accepting he was gone and being inextricably sad about it.
Each February 27th is different. Not easier just different. Most years my brain feels mushy like I’m swimming and can’t grab ahold of one thought. Most years I feel a surge of “I’m alive! Take charge of the day!” and then “I miss my Dad.” I know these feeling are ok, they’re normal even. It’s simply taken me awhile to recognize these washes of emotion as they come and be able to know how to handle them.
This year I did something new. I feel I needed to try something new. This year, I didn’t try to work. I took a personal day. I started with a SoulCycle class, I went to a nearby coffee shop and had a large cappuccino with an almond croissant and read the entire New York Times and Wall Street Journal cover to cover. I got a manicure. I went home and cleaned my apartment. I baked cookies. I watched Netflix. I didn’t call anyone on the phone, I spent quality time with myself.
To some people maybe this is a normal personal day, but I never have days like this. I’m always squeezing things in, always making time for others, making time for my husband and our puppy and I’m happy to do it, I love spending time with the people I love but somewhere along the way I forgot how much I needed to spend time with myself.
I decided late that evening to put a small note on social media about it being the anniversary of my dad passing away but it was a short note and almost an afterthought more for posterity than anything else.
I am cognizant that each year will bring its own ups and downs. I’m slowly accepting that sometimes there isn’t a reason why things happen. Sometimes they just happen. I am learning to let go of my shit and live my one wild and wondrous life. Not a reckless life with abandon like there is no tomorrow and not a cautious life filled with somedays. I get to live whatever life I want.
My dad might not be with me physically but I get signs from him every now and again so that I know he’s still looking out for me. The best part is now I’m looking out for myself too.
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