I’ve been avoiding you. Up until now, I really couldn’t stand the thought of addressing in words what I think or feel about anything.
When I taught writing, I used to have my students visualize a stage in front of a full audience. I told them to look and see who was in the audience. To question why the audience members came to listen to them. And to try to come up with a way to grab and maintain the audience’s attention. It’s how I have always written.
But four weeks ago, an empty seat appeared – front and center – in my audience. I lost my favorite subscriber and my biggest fan – my dad. For the last few weeks, I have visited my dashboard with plans to write. But when I step out onto my mental stage, I just keep seeing that empty seat. And the words don’t come.
Since the death of my father, I have been frequently asked by many people how I’m doing. Several times a day. No, I don’t resent the question or think it’s stupid. It’s genuine concern.
But I find that, despite my standard response of “I’m doing alright, thanks”, I am struck by the realization that I really have no idea how I’m doing. The past six weeks are a bit of a blur. For me, it’s still the end of April, and I seem to have a lot of trouble fixing the correct date in my head. June something.
I spent two weeks in a zone of automaticity – ICU, eat, sleep, repeat. And, because my father’s chances for a full recovery looked so good, tears were not acceptable. It was extremely important to me that he understood how well he was doing — which he was. I knew he needed strength, so that’s what he got.
And then the second stroke attacked.
I had been home for a little over three hours on my stepsister’s night shift at the hospital, when I got the call to return to Gainesville. A little over an hour later, I arrived and was informed of the gravity of the situation. There were a couple of last-ditch efforts, tests, results, etc. But I knew long before the doctors finally stated it that he was gone. He would never have wanted to be kept alive artificially, so we declined to keep him on life support. He died peacefully two hours later.
I cried all that day. From the first realization in the wee hours of the morning until he passed that night. I hadn’t shed a single tear until then. Daddy and I used to joke that there was never a need to fall apart until it becomes absolutely necessary. But I fell apart that night alright. The whole cycle of life struck me so hard. I thought of how much my grandmother loved her little boy. How much I loved her little boy as my father. What his death will steal from my children. How easily we roll and overlap from child to parent to child again.
The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was let go of his hand.
As we stepped out of the hospital a few minutes later, it began to pour –which struck me as oddly appropriate. Like maybe the sky was crying too. And I went home to learn how to no longer be my daddy’s little girl.
The past month has been another blur. Flowers, cards, photos, music, out-of-town mourners, the visitation, writing his eulogy, the funeral. Policies, accounts, closing his practice, probate. The decision to return to work for the last couple of weeks of school. I’ll admit – the thought of taking a personal leave was mighty tempting.
I have lost loved ones before, but I have never experienced a grief like this. It’s profound. Despite legally being an adult for twenty years, there was a part of me that was still somebody’s little girl. There was still somebody on the planet who had to take me in should I need shelter. Somebody to bail me out if I got in a mess.
Now there is no one left to take care of me — but me. Suddenly, every decision I make will come from my own analysis. I no longer have the wisdom of my father, something I relied upon more than I realized. I’m 38. And, though it sounds crazy, I feel like a grown-up for the first time. Feeling my mortality and a loss of innocence.
Through all of this, I have made a discovery. I am more my father’s daughter than I even knew. People looked at me strangely throughout the week of the funeral. At the visitation, the service, and the reception. People kept remarking about how “pulled together” I was, how I could still laugh and make jokes, and how they were amazed I could deliver the eulogy without crying — on the outside. And it brought me back to when my father lost my stepmother to cancer. I remember him going about the business of carrying on after her death. Him going through the motions, but private in his life-altering grief. I see him in me. And I am realizing more each day how much of what makes me tick is inherited from him and his approach to life. I loved him dearly. But I liked him even more. How I’m going to miss him liking me.
Instead of answering how I’m doing, I should just start saying, “I’m doing.” Which is exactly what he would tell me to do. Just keep doing. Get up every day. Go to work. Take care of what is necessary. Go to dinner with good friends. Laugh with your children. See a movie. Until it isn’t such an effort to move about. If you do otherwise, you’ll just sit and rust. A concept my dad would never approve of.
(He used to tell people he would never retire. Even if he just kept a handful of clients and worked one day a week. He maintained that if you retire, you can never go on vacation.)
So, here I am stepping out on my stage again. And, instead of avoiding the empty seat in the front row, I’m going to try to visualize him sitting in it still. Still encouraging me in my decisions. Still proud of me. Still the greatest friend I’ll ever have.
And hope that he is still subscribing from far away.