13 years ago today, at about 9 in the morning, I received what would be my very last email from my dad. It wasn’t a profound email or anything; if memory serves me correctly, it was just a forward of some silly joke passed onto him by his golf pals. But for years, I saved that email — too sad to open it and read it, and terrified by the notion of deleting it and never seeing his name in my inbox ever again.
I was only 27 when my dad passed away. It’s never a “good time” to lose a parent, of course, but at 27, I was really just a kid. I was living in New York at the time, trying desperately to figure out who I was, and who I was really meant to be. I needed him. He’d always been my steady footing when I felt shaky, my strongest support system and cheerleader, and my greatest source of unconditional love and guidance. He was the wisest, kindest, cheeriest, most loving and lovable person I’d ever known.
13 years later, and the pain of losing him really hasn’t subsided. I think of him daily and wish — more than anything — that he were still here in this life with me, enjoying the three beautiful granddaughters he never got to meet; sipping a Vodka with the son-in-law he would have absolutely adored, and sitting with me for hours on end trying to solve all the world’s problems — discussing history, the importance of treating others well, and pondering the real meaning of life. I really miss that man.
With that, I’d like to share a piece I wrote years ago, about the day my dad passed away…
Surviving Dad – Recounting the Day of Loss, December 22, 2007
As I slung my purse over the back of my chair, I heard Dad’s voice in my head: “Don’t ever do that, honey. Someone could easily reach in and steal your wallet and you wouldn’t even notice.”
I knew he was right. In fact, two years ago he’d been proven right when someone stole my credit card out of my bag while I was on a dinner date. But here we were at a family style diner on Long Island, New York, a good 40 minutes away from Manhattan – the scene of the aforementioned crime and my home since 2002 – and I was pretty sure none of these upstanding, well-to-do people were pining for the five dollars, outdated cell phone and wadded up gum wrappers I was carrying in my purse.
But because my bag was dangling from the back of my chair, and out of hearing range, I didn’t hear my phone the first time it rang. When I finally did hear it ring, I decided not to answer because I was sitting at a big round table with my boyfriend at the time, and his family. I didn’t want to be rude. I figured the caller would leave a message.
But then it rang again, and seconds later, my boyfriend’s phone rang. It was my brother. Something was wrong.
My widened eyes were already brimming with tears. “Get it,” I gasped.
As instinct took hold and the hard lump in my throat forced my breaths to become dangerously shallow, I was painfully aware something terrible had happened, and that life as I knew it would never be the same.
From the time I was a little girl, I’d had an awareness that my dad, 48 years my senior and with a weak heart and clogged arteries to boot, might not live to see me grow all the way up. The imaginary timelines started well before junior high: If I get married at 25, Dad will be 73. If I have kids by 27, Dad will be 75. Well the biggest gift I received on my 25th birthday was a perfectly wrapped package of anxiety and the cruel realization that timelines don’t carry weight in the real world. Even at 30, none of these life events had happened for me yet.
“Hello?” My boyfriend’s voice wavered as he answered the phone. “Don’t worry. I’m with her,” he assured my brother before he handed me the phone.
“Danny?” My voice was small, like a child’s.
Those were his words. His only words.
My tears were instant and forceful.
“You’re lying!” Through heaving sobs, I screamed this, incoherently, at my brother for minutes. I knew he wasn’t lying – as soon as my boyfriend’s phone rang, I felt the disastrous truth deep in my soul. I knew the way a mother intuitively knows that her child has been hurt; the way a daughter intuitively knows her father has taken his last breath.
I looked up and saw the entire restaurant was staring, horrified. They all knew too. My chest and head felt like they were going to explode. What happened to the air? Why couldn’t I breathe? I felt like a caged zoo animal, wounded and blubbering, on display for everyone’s entertainment. I had to break free.
I ran from the table and found an empty corner near an exit sign. Where was the door? Why was there no door near the sign? Isn’t that what exit signs are supposed to indicate? A place to exit? To get outside, into the fresh and free air, and mourn the sudden, unexpected loss of one’s father in private?
“You’re lying!” I screamed it again. It would have been the cruelest joke my prankster brother had ever played, but at that very moment, I would have given anything for him to say “Just kidding.”
He didn’t. And he was crying, too. I’d never heard my brother cry.
“Dad died, Marissa. I’m serious. I am in just as much shock as you.”
“What? I don’t understand. How is this possible? HOW? How did this happen?”
I’m not sure I ever heard his response, and it’s possible that at this point in time, mere minutes after the incident occurred, he didn’t yet have the answers. But I was suffering from such an overwhelming mixture of agony, disbelief, embarrassment and worry that I’d physically lost the ability to hear, and process, information.
We left the restaurant immediately. The minute we got into the car, I called my mom. As shaken and shocked as I was, I knew she was worse.
“Mommy’s right here,” my aunt said when she answered my mom’s phone. I hadn’t called or referred to my mom as ‘mommy’ since I was a little girl, but in this moment, it was the exact thing I needed to hear. I needed a mommy. Daddy was gone, but I still had a mommy.
I was hysterical and she couldn’t understand a word I said. But I heard her calm, even tone and knew immediately she was in shock. This shattered the broken pieces of my heart into even tinier fragments. I was in New York, and she was in Arizona, where she and my dad had recently begun spending their winter months to get away from our home state of Minnesota’s bitter cold. I needed to hug her, help her, be with her, and I couldn’t. I needed her to hug me, help me, and be with me, and she couldn’t.
The rest of the day was a blur, but I know I had many phone conversations with each of my four older siblings. We were all enduring the same mix of violently shifting emotions. One minute we’d be laughing at a funny thing Dad had recently said or done, and the next we’d be bawling so hard we’d lose the strength required to hold our phones to our ears.
None of us could understand what had happened. Dad was a warrior. He had conquered so many health issues in his life, from heart disease to prostate cancer. He’d recently undergone a surgery that was supposed to be routine. Unfortunately, he died from complications of that very procedure we were all assured was “no big deal”. My brother said it best when he commented, “It would have made sense if Dad had a heart attack, but I can’t comprehend this at all.”
Somehow I managed to get myself packed that night, and on a plane to Minnesota for my father’s funeral. Somehow, I managed to write his obituary and eulogy. Somehow, I managed. That is my dad in me. The persevering, “life is for the living”, mentality. That is my dad.
Dad, a positive, upbeat, jolly guy, would be very disappointed in me if I fell apart. He always taught me, even in the most difficult situations, to view life’s bright sides. If he could speak to me now, he would say, “This was the moment you were terrified for your entire life. But it happened. And you are still here, alive and surviving. You can do this.”
And then, as he expressed to me every time I was nervous for a new life experience, “You are always so afraid to try new things, honey, but then you go, and do them beautifully. This time will be no different. You can, and you will, do this beautifully.”
Just like the warning about hanging my purse over the back of my chair on the morning he passed, Dad’s voice was, and is, still speaking loudly to me. He may not physically be around to walk me down the aisle or play grandfather to my future children, but I now realize he spent my lifetime prepping me for these big moments, instilling within me valuable life lessons, and molding me into the person I am proud to be. And I am certain I will continue to hear him – his words of wisdom and loving guidance – throughout my life. Dad resides within me now. And contradictory to my childhood fear that he wouldn’t be around to see me grow all the way up, it is this belief that assures me he will be with me for the big moments, and every other moment too.