I was about to turn 10-years old when my dad passed away in lung cancer. It was back in the mid-80’s when treatments were not nearly as advanced as they are today. On the top of my wish list that Christmas (which I started writing in the summertime when he was still alive) was “dad to be alive” naturally followed by a puppy and a red bike. I had an idea what death meant; a person became something like a cloud and went on living in another world. But I had no idea what death meant for those left behind.
When you are nine years old the race against time sort of resembles ration in wartime. I understood the clock and calendar, however my concept of time was based on routines such as having dinner, reading a story, or taking a bath. When the doctor told us that my dad had another six months to live, I entered a time warp where I now needed to disperse all these actions differently to make time last longer.
Six months as a child equal forever. Six months of having fish every Wednesday in school for lunch, six months of doing homework, six months until Christmas, six months until visiting grandma… And now, six months suddenly seemed less than an hour. I tried to control time by recreating moments. I tried to fit in as much of my best behaved self to make sure his last months with us would not be wasted. I tried to act a more mature and imitating grown up phrases in hopes he would remember even more of me, not just me as a child. As if the memories we had already created before he got sick were any less because they were in the past. It was like a real-life Jenga puzzle in which I added on, removed and replaced emotions and behaviors to keep it all together. Some days we had moments that felt forever-like and drawn out like salt water taffy, whereas others were quick like the sound of ice breaking. I struggled with the race against time. What if I missed a moment?
Six months turned into seven before he decided to leave us. The sun set low on a crayon blue sky that September morning. He passed away in our home, without a struggle. I curled up to his body, still lukewarm and beautiful. I hugged his chest, squinted my eyes hard to see if he would give me one more breath. He didn’t. This was it, all the Jenga pieces had all fallen.
I wish I could tell you that this made me become mindful, or realize how short life is, or any of those wise things one might expect. It didn’t. At least not in that moment. Instead it took me on a roller coaster for years and as I grew older, my emotions dealing with loss didn’t. I didn’t get why I sometimes I felt pockets of sadness resting at the pause of my exhale, or an impulse to scream in the midst of someone’s birthday party. Five years passed, ten years passed. I was growing further apart from my childhood. Although I missed him, I became an adult who was a stranger to him.
Similar to addicts, part of our emotional intelligence stops developing at the age we are when we lose someone no matter how old we are. Life just splits into two: the before and after. The before is clear as day, whereas the after often feels like made-up and vague.
Last year marked 30 years of my dad’s passing. I stopped grieving many years ago, along with making any peace that needed to happen. When I miss him I still do so with an adult’s understanding, but with a child’s memory. My biggest fear used to be losing my memory of him before he got sick, as if he would fade like photos exposed to light. But life is not linear, and therefore neither is memory. As long as I keep the 9-year old dear to my heart, I will never lose him. She still holds all the memories, she giggles and prides, stores scents and touches, whispers silly secrets and she moves to the rhythm of conversations we used to have. They are one. Embedded in this body we share, she once in a while releases a secondary pulse of what feels like sweet music to my veins reassuring me that I am good, I am looked out for. We did make the most of time. She is my wild, a soft but willful voice who reminds me where I came from.
Losing a parent changes us. Although our journeys are different all I can say to those who are there now is that I see you. I hear you. And as difficult as it can be, I honor the journey you are on.