On this day ten years ago, in the early morning hours- my dad passed away unexpectedly in our family’s home. He had beaten the odds, recovering from stage 4 cancer and undergoing precautionary rounds of chemotherapy and radiation following a very intricate but successful surgery that had taken place months earlier- when he went into cardiac arrest. I had been at the house, coming over to crash on my parents’ couch after a very late night out with friends who lived in the area- and had been surprised to find him still awake when I got there.
My dad was notorious for falling asleep early and at the drop of a hat, so for him to be up at 2-3 AM and eager to talk to me about my night and how my friends were doing was unusual but a welcomed conversation. I got him caught up with what everyone had been up to, talked about what we had done that night (which included a bonfire and using a bedsheet as a makeshift projection screen so that we could play ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ movies for the neighborhood on the side of my friends’ apartment building) and travel plans I was making for the end of Summer.
I remember teasing my dad when he explained he wasn’t feeling good but waved off my suggestion that I bring him to the hospital if it was getting to be too much. He was stubborn and sarcastic- but so was I. That had always been the nature of our relationship. A lot of jokes and wit but never out of spite or malice- only out of love. The last thing I ever heard my dad say after I told him to “stop being a pussy” and left the room to go to bed was his laughter. He had the best laugh.
And then he was gone. In an instant- and to this day I wonder if he knew what was coming and hung in there long enough to have one final conversation with me where we could laugh and play before he left us.
I’ve written about that night. I’ve talked about it with friends, with family, and with my therapist. Getting into the grizzly specifics and the hazy memories of desperately performing CPR on my dad while somehow knowing that he was gone, my mother screaming on the phone for paramedics to hurry, my dog cowering and whimpering in fear amid the chaos until an ambulance arrived and I could cuddle him while praying for any kind of miracle- and then the somber and silent drive to the hospital when that miracle never came.
There are things about that night I don’t remember- be it from shock or utter despair or trauma. I don’t remember calling my friends that I had been with just an hour earlier (but evidently, I called them to tell them what had happened.) I had also apparently called my boss at the time, leaving a voicemail apologizing for not coming in the following morning- but I do remember a nurse wrapping a blanket around me after I had made the decision to remove my father from life support when they determined there was nothing that could be done. She draped a scratchy blanket over my shoulders and sat with me in silence for a few minutes- half-hugging me while I stared at my shoes.
Moments of kindness from friends, family and strangers alike are what helped me get through those first few weeks. Cards, flowers, handwritten memories of my father and the phone calls from everyone- from immediate family all the way to the surgeons who had saved his life- and who were beside themselves that he was gone. Knowing just how much my dad was loved by everyone lucky enough to have met or known him wasn’t surprising- he really was the best there ever could be- but it made me feel less alone in my grief.
And now, ten years later- therapy and memories are what keep me grounded and present, no longer having debilitating panic attacks or sporadic bouts of depression and anger (all of which developed in the months after his death when my pain and what was then guilt for not being able to do more to have saved him became all too consuming to deal with on my own.) I still miss him all the time, still think about him regularly- and I wonder what he’d think about the milestones and changes his loved ones have reached and undergone in his absence- new relationships, jobs, apartments/houses, graduations, etc.
A few months after my dad died, I was watching an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ with my mom- which has been our tradition since the show premiered back in 2010. We’d get together weekly to eat snacks and watch it together. It was a re-run, I believe- and in the scene a character, Andrea- is asked by another character, Beth- if things ever get better as she’s struggling to cope with the recent death of her mom. Andrea, who had lost her sister not too long ago on the show- ponders the question for a moment before answering:
“The pain never goes away- you just make room for it.”
It sounds silly to quote a fictional character on a show about a zombie apocalypse- but it really resonated with me and still does. It has been a decade since I lost my dad- and since I last spoke to him or heard him laugh or sang Beatles songs with him- but I’m able to function. I’m able to go about my day and live my life to the fullest. I’m still able to have fun and try new things and meet new people without feeling overwhelming or crippling despair- and I couldn’t say that ten years ago. Ten years ago, I never thought I’d be able to say it again.
The pain hasn’t gone away- I’ve just made room for it.
And I think he’d be proud of me for that.