If I said that I lost my dad sixteen years ago today, it might conjure an image of him wandering around a bookstore, hidden in the history section. Or, perhaps, in the Brown County art gallery he loved so much. He used to take an excruciatingly long amount of time staring at each oil portrait and landscape, so it would have been easy to lose track of him in our quest to find the fudge shop.
If his spirit has any agency over its free time, he’s probably there now poring over a Marie Goth, and I hope she’s standing alongside him answering questions about her technique. But on this day in 2001, we knew exactly where he was. It was the rest of us who felt lost.
My cousins had lost their mom to cancer three years earlier – this was to be our family’s tragedy. To the extent that any grief can be, it sounded a warning as it approached: a macabre whistle trumpeting the train’s approach. When our grandpa died 20 months later (cancer for him as well), it was a dark display of cosmic timing. Another Christmas arrived, yet again with a smaller and more subdued group soldiering on in silence as Midwesterners do.
And then came our November, swift and silent. He left to pick up my brother from tennis, and in less than the length of a highway on-ramp, he had died.
It felt unearned and almost shameful, that grief. I was almost surprised to see my cousins and uncle at the funeral, as if they might be angry that we had taken their mantle of grief. The whole thing felt gaudy and loud and attention-seeking, and while I had spent hours practicing an Oscars acceptance speech in the bathroom mirror, I wanted no part of this sudden infamy.
I wanted my normal life, which now felt like a party that had ended suddenly while I was in the ladies’ room. I had turned away for a moment, only to return to soured punch and deflated balloons in an empty room that would never feel full again.
I tried very hard to push through, thinking I would find familiar normalcy on the far side of a year. I bore down, desperately holding onto my last finger’s grip on a cheerful explanation of how it had been hard, but I was fine. Surely this experience had deepened my faith or made me a stronger person. It had to have, because what if it hadn’t? What if it had just been a horrible thing that had knocked the legs out from under our little family, filling me with a desperate fear, sadness, and unease that I didn’t know how to sit with, which made people uncomfortable when they felt it leaking out of me?
Of course, I had to let myself fall apart and then slowly walk alongside my mom and brother in creating a new collection of traditions and ways of moving through the world, which I haven’t always done with willingness or grace. From a distance of almost half my life, it feels more like a bad dream – the kind that leave you uncertain of what’s real during your waking moments – than a fresh and urgent grief.
It feels a bit strange to live through this day and its bitter memories while also being grateful for the new family we’ve found as a result of this loss. Today, I’ll resist the urge to share tidy life lessons and morals of our story and simply say that I loved my dad and love him still. I will try to be forgiving and kind to myself for stumbling through sadness and proud of us for always moving, always trying.
I am grateful to have a loving family, and I’m lucky to be where I am: still moving, still trying.