My father passed away on a humid June day and even though I watched him take his last breath there was something about it that wasn’t real. He had just done the most final thing a human can do and yet it wasn’t final.
His eyes were slightly open, he looked comfortable and peaceful. He didn’t have a care in the world because he no longer was aware of the world we lived in. I cried a little, but not like I had when he was admitted to the emergency room two days earlier. When his eyes were open and tracking. When he could hear those around him but couldn’t speak. There was this man, my father, who stood 6’2” and weighed 185 pounds by the time he was in middle school, this larger than life figure in both stature and personality who had been rendered helpless. The man who did things his way or no way at all, who expected nothing but your best self and demanded excellence; his presence was as big as his body. The man who had never backed down to anyone or anything, was retreating by force. Force had never worked on him before.
When he was admitted, the doctors and nurses explained what was happening but offered no next steps. It became clear that next steps no longer existed. I stepped out of the room to text my best friend who lived 1,000 miles away to tell her what was happening. The screen of my phone was obscured my own uncontrollable tears.
Two days later he was gone.
He had been a medical miracle for thirty years. There were triple bypass surgeries and pacemakers and experimental surgeries with panic-inducingly low survival rates that he had not only been among the first in the world to receive, but came out of without complication, stronger than ever. He even had two metal plates in his chest that literally held it together for the rest of his life. There were a lot of nights as a child that a relative or family friend watched me while my mom stayed by my dad’s side in the hospital. In elementary school, I would go to class and fixate on the clock, watching the seconds tick by when I knew my dad was in surgery. There were many times when my mom was told to give those close to us notice and a chance to say goodbye to him because like so many times before it, “this is it.” And then, with the best luck in the entire world, it wasn’t it. Some of the best surgeons and doctors in the world couldn’t explain how he not only survived all he had been through, but was by all accounts, “fine.” He was immortal.
And then, on the 11th day of June at the age of 72, just a few months after his birthday, he was gone. And then I had to tell people he was gone. My best friends who still live on the east coast where I grew up. So I did, several days, and weeks later when I could bring myself to pick up the phone.
Throughout a half dozen phone conversations I calmly told them my dad passed away. There was a distinct matter of factness to my voice that I couldn’t have practiced, couldn’t have been intentional.
“You seem fine,” my best guy friend told me while I finished cooking us dinner.
“You’re handling this well,” someone who I can’t quite remember told me while they squeezed my shoulder under the purple neon lights of a Summer Solstice party.
“If I may say this...you seem to be doing well,” a guy I had started dating one week before my father passed away told me.
“Well, I’m not going to cry in front of people,” or some variation was the answer that came out of my mouth. I told myself I wasn’t going to turn into some sort of nervous wreck who couldn’t get it together for life, floating through the days like a shell-shocked ghost. My dad would tell me the same thing in his Southern accent that had faded after decades living outside of Tennessee. “I just want you to be happy, darlin', don't worry about me.”
My newly-married roommate from college called to check on me. “I hate to say this but…you seem like you’re dealing with this really well,” she told me.
“It’s okay to cry, you know,” my aunt told me over margaritas at my favorite Mexican restaurant three days after my dad passed away. “I'm fine.” I told her.
And I kind of was. Life went on for the next two months: I drank wine with my friends on the rooftop of my building in summer air, flew to LA to see the guy I was dating and we drove down the PCH at night, stopping to look at the beaches along the way. I did everything I could think of to keep myself busy enough to not have to deal with myself.
I took pride in the fact that I seemed fine. This made me such a strong human being, right? Wrong. So very, very wrong.
All it made me was a human being who was in denial about being in denial. I didn’t even realize what I was doing; I somehow managed to shut off my emotions without realizing I’d flipped a switch. Just like when you drive a car late at night, you seem to glide along the roadside. The music is on but you’re not listening to it. All of the sudden you’re home without a memory of how you got there. Did I stop at the lights? You wonder. And you did. But you were on autopilot.
I was on autopilot for the first nine weeks. Everything was the same. And then it wasn’t. It took 9 weeks and then whatever sort of "fine"-seeming exterior I’d had that people kept commenting on, cracked. And once there was a crack, I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I sobbed at random times. I stopped texting people back. I came home from work at 6 p.m. and went straight to bed. Life was completely unbearable. The sheer weight of daily existence was crushing me. Nothing mattered, really.
I was later told by a counselor that I experienced delayed grief – but there is no right or wrong way to deal with it. Of course counselors and therapists say don’t overeat, don’t stop eating, and don’t drink too much. (All true, by the way.)
But what I’m learning, and learning to deal with – is this. Life goes on. I will never talk to my dad again. Luckily me being a millennial and my dad being born in the 1940s, I have tons of unopened voicemails from him that I can listen to when I’m ready. He was the only person who ever left me voicemails. I’ve only been able to listen to two so far.
I think about my dad at least once every hour. And I doubt a day will ever go by when I don’t think about him. That will never change. But like my counselor told me, I have to figure out how to let him live on through me.
“He will always be your dad,” she told me. “That will never, ever go away. But you have to learn how to deal with your grief because you have your whole life ahead of you. Relationships, love, your career. If he was here right now, what would he tell you?”
“To get over myself.” I laughed. “Which is funnier if you had gotten a chance to know him.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “So that’s what I’ll help you do. People don’t really leave us you know. That was their body, it was just a vehicle. Your dad, and everyone is a soul. And I personally think that after you die they’re around us. Like the wind. You can feel them nearby. They’re always there, because they’re in here,” she put a hand over her heart.
By Kathryn Greene