Everywhere I look I see calendars… On our fridge, in my locker at work, my phone widget, the break room at the plant. I see the dates change, marching on as inescapable as a rising tide and as ominous as nightfall to a lost hiker in the woods. This isn’t new, but the gut wrenching sensation as July 24th approaches, is. One year sounds both long and short depending on what you are thinking about it in reference to, and it has been both.
Almost one year ago I lost my dad. No long illness prefaced his heartbreaking exit from this world. No movie scene dramatic music playing, no emotional last goodbyes. I was at work, starting my shift, when I received a text from my brother that something was wrong with Dad. My two brothers had met him at his small office in town and had been talking when he apparently collapsed and ordered them to not call an ambulance. I texted back that they needed to call 911 anyway but he convinced them otherwise. A few minutes later, I received another text that they were going to take him to the hospital to get checked out. I let my lead man know that I needed to go and assured him that once we figured out what was going on and got Dad situated, I would be back to finish my shift.
As I walked to my car, my thoughts went nuts. “What if something is REALLY wrong this time?” See, nothing had ever really stopped Dad. That Easter prior, he had wrecked his motorcycle at approximately 70 MPH and walked away with some road rash, a broken rib, and broken wrist. That was it. I watched him bandage stitch worthy cuts with a paper towel and electrical tape growing up. Nothing, and I mean nothing, stopped him. But my thoughts wouldn’t let it alone. I flew down the highway to the neighboring town where the hospital was, in excess of 100 MPH, not caring about cops, I just had to see my Dad.
As I pulled in, I saw Dad’s truck under the drop off awning of the hospital, and a crowd surrounding the truck. I found a parking spot and ran inside as fast as I could, but not fast enough. Dad had suffered a heart attack, the nurse informed my brothers and I, and they were “working on him.” Cool, he had had two of those over 10 years prior, I remembered. No big deal. He had lost weight, kept his blood pressure under control and with the exception of smoking, looked healthy as could be. The minutes rolled by infuriatingly slowly until over an hour went by. My grandparents, my Dad’s parents were there now, along with my wife and two young sons. We were called back to a room and my heart jumped. “He’s ok!” I thought.
I was wrong. The room was empty. No Dad, no gurney. The somber faced doctor informed us that they had done all they could but Dad didn’t make it. I remember vividly the cry of pain that I heard from my grandparents. I remember the room spinning and hitting my knee on the floor and looking angrily skyward. I remember getting up and hugging my two younger brothers while choking back the tears and trying to process what we had just heard. I was 27 years old….Too young to face life without my ever present, wise, caring, and loving father. My wife was pregnant with our third child, he would never meet her. My sons would grow up not knowing one of their grandfathers. My mind would not quit. The implications of losing Dad were too numerous and severe to even process. Who would help me with home improvements on my first house my wife and I just bought? I didn’t know any of that stuff!
My wife begged me to ride back with her, that I didn’t need to be driving. I refused. I needed to be alone. I needed to say “Fuck you” over and over to whoever or whatever deity had just stolen my Dad from me. I still had my radio from work, and in the moment, taking it back and putting my tools away was the most important thing I could do. I had texted my lead and let him know that Dad hadn’t made it. When I walked back into the maintenance shop, the guys told me I needed to go home. There were hugs and “I’ll pray for yous” as I got everything handled. My supervisor told me I had 3 days bereavement that would be paid, but I could take as long as I needed. It was surreal walking back to my car and heading home. Dad couldn’t be gone. It was one of those really bad, detailed dreams you wake up from, it had to be.
Night brought no sleep that night. My tossing and turning kept waking my wife up, who was trying everything she could think of to try and comfort me. She needed sleep. Our boys needed at least one parent functional the next morning, and she WAS pregnant after all. I got up and moved to our sitting room recliner and the thought hit me: pictures! They were all I had left!!! I got on Facebook as though they would delete Dad’s account and all pictures of him within the hour. I saved EVERYTHING that had Dad in it. Sitting in the chair, exhausted, I would doze off, then wake up sobbing. Anger, crushing sadness, anger, crushing sadness, a laugh at a good memory, then back to anger and sadness. Was I losing my mind? How could I go from sobbing to laughing to clenched fists and back again?
I scoured the internet for advice. But every article or blog post I came across referenced a father dying at old age or from a lengthy illness. Mine was 52. It was a Monday. It was sudden. Had NOBODY gone through this before? Could nobody give me a 5 step plan to continuing life and being ok? Where were the goddamn answers?? (Hint: there aren’t any, really) I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. The next day, there were phone calls, condolence texts to answer, and checking on my little brothers and my mom. Checking in with my dad’s sisters and parents. Trying to be strong, and some sort of comfort for everyone, though I was clinging to sanity by a razor thin thread. Stetson, my oldest child, was 2. He kept wondering what was wrong with Daddy, as I would spontaneously erupt into body racking sobs at the thought that the one person that could get me through this was the person we just lost.
Mom called. Her, my brothers, and I needed to meet with the funeral home and start planning. Planning a funeral? May as well ask me to design a teleportation device. I had no clue, STILL have no clue how I got through that. Nobody wanted to make a decision on anything, we all just looked at each other at each question the funeral director asked, not wanting to step on toes, or hurt anyone’s remaining feelings. I still hadn’t eaten, hadn’t slept more than a few minutes. We did it though. We planned a ceremony and burial that we believe Dad would be proud of. He had no will. We winged it, but it went smoothly.
The day of the funeral. The internet said it would bring closure, but it didn’t. The funeral mass at the Catholic church in town did nothing for me. I was (am still) furious at God, or whoever is up there. The burial itself did nothing for me. Just drove home that point that Dad was gone. Six feet of soil now covered my father, my hero, and my closest friend. The one man with all the answers could give me none.
Fast forward to the days, weeks, and months since. I still cry. Hell, I’m crying now. I cried this morning, and last night. I’ll cry tomorrow too probably. But I’m grateful that I had such a close relationship with Dad for those 27 and a half years that it DOES hurt this bad. I’m grateful that he was in my life, when so many of my friends never knew their father, or he was abusive, etc. Every time I swing a hammer, turn a wrench, listen to classic rock, I feel him with me. When I mow my lawn with one of my kids on my lap, I remember that he had done the same with me. When I shoot his guns, or look through pictures, the memories flood me of time spent shooting, camping, talking, and driving. He left me with so many good memories that I can one day share with my own children.
If you are reading this and you have gone through something similar, know that you aren’t alone. If you, like I was, are scouring the internet in the hopes that you’ll find answers to your pain and grief, you won’t. At least not quick ones. All I can tell you is take time for you. Don’t get so caught up trying to be strong for everyone else that you neglect yourself. I’m just now learning this. Cry. Cry whenever and wherever you feel that you need to. Pull off the highway if your eyes get too blurry. Let it out. Keeping that bottled up will do nothing but hurt you worse. It’s cliche, but try to think positive. Don’t dwell on the “what ifs,” focus on the good memories. If a particular missed opportunity to say or do something really tugs at you, speak to your loved one, say you’re sorry and move on. Make sure to learn from it and prevent those emotions with your loved ones still living. Don’t measure your grief “journey” by other people’s standards and experiences. Seriously, don’t. Only you will know how best to navigate the complicated waves of often conflicting emotions you will feel. Get a tattoo if you think it will help. Grow out, or cut your hair. Dye it. Change your clothing style. Take a trip. Just try to stay away from destructive things like drinking or drug use.
I hope this helps at least one person.