14 years seems like a lifetime right? Maybe as a 30 year old it does because it’s almost half of my life, but my life has changed a lot in the last 14 years.
14 years ago I was a sophomore in high school, worried about my club volleyball team and probably about what boy liked me (but sports were always more important). I was also learning how to live through my teenage years without a dad, because just over 15 years ago my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. Our lives changed as our family learned how to come together and fight it, and then 14 years ago today our lives changed again as we learned our “new normal” without him.
A month ago my best friend’s dad passed away unexpectedly and I started reliving everything again, but with a few years of knowledge, trying to do what I could for her. I realized that I’d never really talked about it on my blog, and since this is a place where I relieve my stress and get emotions out through crafting and blogging, it seemed the right time to get it out and maybe help others. Apologies in advance for the possible rambling and erratic thoughts as I get this out of my head..
This is for Kirstin and anyone else is going through the loss of a parent.
When our family went on our first skiing trip, is when we knew something was wrong with my dad. He wasn’t himself – I don’t know how else to say it. That was December 2002 in Park City, Utah. I’ve looked back on that trip so many times. Not long afterwards, we learned that my dad had brain tumor about the size of an orange with arms coming out. There was surgery to take as much out as possible and we knew there would be chemotherapy and radiation in the future as well.
I remember doing homework and listening to cds in the ICU waiting area during this time. There was also a spot across Peachtree by a drug store that we’d go for lunch and that the nurses were so nice – probably because I was a kid and my dad might die, but regardless, I appreciated the blankets or sweets they’d bring us.
When he came home I made a banner hung on the bridge upstairs and can still see the scar and staples in his head from surgery. I had just turned 15 when this happened and I got some of my driver’s ed hours taking him to radiation treatments as I was learning how to drive.
Some of this was a blur (or I purposely blocked it out), but I have really random memories of my dad then, especially as you look back on them.
At our first Relay for Life, dad walked as a survivor and we were there with the town’s tennis center team. While they were at the survivor dinner inside, the weather got really bad and a severe storm hit with that greenish hue in the sky you hear from tornados. Literally hail falling, tents flying, etc. I can laugh now, but it was scary at the time.
My dad was given a year to live and since he was diagnosed in January 2003, we knew it was likely our last Christmas with him. We took a picture of our whole family and I think it was our last one as a family. My sister was in college so we weren’t always together (although luckily she wasn’t too far away). Also, luckily I had a straightner by then and my hair wasn’t a huge unruly fro haha.
The worst day was when one of my close friends called me and told me her mom passed away. Mrs. Shafer had stomach cancer and had been diagnosed after dad, but it moved quickly and she passed away in January 2004. I was at their house with her when I learned something happened with my dad and he was having emergency surgery. Someone picked me up and took me to the hospital to be there with the family. Needless to say, I’m still not a huge fan of hospitals after all the time I spent there.
Playing on a club volleyball team meant I was all over the southeast for many weekends and when mom couldn’t be there I would travel with friends’ families or my grandparents would take me to tournaments. I’ll never forget the one in Spartanburg, SC that my grandparents took me to and we stayed with my cousins. Apparently dad hadn’t been doing great, but no one shared the news until after the tournament. That’s when I got to talk to my mom and learned that dad was going to be put in hospice care. Winning the tournament didn’t seem so important anymore – I wanted to be home. I was sitting in my cousin’s room and just kept crying after I hung up and he sat there with me. Just being there was what I needed because no words would help.
Having your dad, the man who’s your hero and the strongest person alive as you grow up, be confined to a hospital bed that’s in your living room is about as depressing as it sounds. We were so happy he was home, but you knew the days were limited. We switched up how we ate at the table so we could face him and include him in dinner conversation.
I can tell you a lot about that last night. Lauren was able to come home from college for the first time in a few weeks and we were all together. After dinner, Lauren and I were working on the video for my dad’s service because we knew it was coming (but at the same time talk about a crappy thing to be doing) while mom and dad were in the living room. I remember messing around and putting a bunch of rubber bands around my pony tail to make it stand up on my head and showing dad and laughing. That was the last way he saw me – goofing around. Mom went upstairs to put pajamas on, and he passed away with all of us together. Technically it was on the night of the 20th, but the funeral home wasn’t there until after midnight so the official date has always been marked as the 21st. Something I’m sure he laughed at.
The next few days were a blur. Lauren actually got a ticket running a stop sign as we were getting her funeral clothes – she didn’t make a complete stop near the Avenue. There were issues with the video we made for the service and the compatibility of technology at the church and I remember re-exporting it so many times on different discs hoping one would work.
The day of the funeral is really spotty in my memory. I remember what I wore (I had bought it weeks earlier for the funeral) and sitting in the pastor’s office with family beforehand. My dad’s side is Scottish so there were some kilts and a lot of our family’s tartan. I don’t really remember walking in, but I was nervous that the video wouldn’t work. We had someone play bagpipes at dad’s request and I will now always cry when I hear Amazing Grace on bagpipes.
Everything kind of blurs again until I go back to school. In high school people are pretty consumed with very unimportant things and I got so mad at people for caring about dumb things. There is cancer and hurt and pain around you, why can’t you see that? My dad is dead. Who cares about what someone said or a pimple on your face?
I was especially mad at God. Why would you let someone who meant so much to our family and others pass away? I was young, I needed him. Mom and Lauren needed him. The world needed him.
I poured myself into sports and my friends. Volleyball was a place I could be a normal teenager, not the girl that just lost her dad, looked at with pity.
As a teenager, I was already moody, but became even more terrible to deal with. My mom and I constantly butted heads as we navigated our new lives and tried to grieve at the same time. If it wasn’t for her realizing we were on a road to destruction, we wouldn’t have the great relationship that we have today. She saved both of us.
In these 14 years, I have gone through so many emotions: Disbelief. Anger. Acceptance. Sadness. Jealousy.
I would give anything to have had my dad see me win state, at my high school and college graduation and especially walk me down the aisle at my wedding. That one hurt the most. The first few weddings I went to, I couldn’t watch the father daughter dance and would come up with an excuse to go to the bathroom or go outside for a few minutes to cry.
The first wedding I went to with Hunter was emotional because the bride’s dad was terminally ill and he danced with all his daughters instead of just 1 father / daughter dance. Needless to say, I was a mess and so appreciated what they were doing even more than a normal wedding attendee. I was also so jealous. I wanted that dance too.
I still get so mad when I see people who can have a relationship with their father take it for granted and not have one. I want to yell at them and tell them to enjoy it! I would give a lot for one more day. For Hunter and my brother in law to meet my dad – He’d love both of them. For one more hug. One more dad joke. One more sound of his voice other than the voicemail recording saying our home phone number.
People say “It gets easier with time”. It doesn’t, but you learn to live your “new normal” without them. It sucks. The first year of everything without them sucks. Every holiday sucks and you have this internal struggle between keeping things the same as they always were or making new traditions. There are a lot of tears and anything can trigger it. I have cried in so many places and found myself explaining why I couldn’t pull it together… then getting the look of sympathy when they hear why. I didn’t want this to happen.
I used to also get mad at people saying that they understand. They don’t or at least very few do. If you do, I’m so sorry because it’s terrible. If you don’t, then just be there for your friend – bring food, sit there in silence, send a card. It’s amazing how notes from people can make you feel better. I still have a book of all the cards, notes and emails I received afterwards.
There are also a lot of signs. The cardinal is our symbol of dad and our family always happens to see a cardinal or hear a certain song when we need to. The day before we got married, there was a cardinal sitting on our back patio table as I walked outside to drive downtown and meet my family. When I saw it, I just sat down and cried. Dad was there with us that weekend and wanted to make sure I knew. Also, he may have been keeping an eye on Hunter haha. There are a male and female cardinal that sometimes hang out at our new home and we know that it’s dad and Hunter’s mom (she too passed away when he was young).
So what have I learned in the last 14 years? Our family is strong. There were several times where things may have seem unsurmountable, but we did it. Times where I wanted to stay in bed, be a bum and not get up, but I did, we did, and we kept going. It sucked, but we kept going. We kept living. Every year at this time I look back and think about the things the 3 of us accomplished and how proud Dad would be.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect and am nowhere near it. About once a year (it used to be much more frequent earlier) I have a pity party and just cry. I focus on what I don’t have, but I need to adjust and realize what I do have. I have my mom and sister. I have my husband. And grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, etc. I have had a team behind me willing to be there with me through anything. While the void that my dad’s death created in my heart will never be filled, my heart has still mended and I am still here, living.
I recently read a quote from Joe Biden that really spoke to me because it rings true:
There will come a time after you’ve lost a loved one, when a smile will come to your face before a tear comes to your eye.
It’s true, so remember that when the times are tough and think of the great memories you did have with them. I was so lucky to have had 16 years of memories with him!
If you’ve made it this far through my post, I thank you for listening. It was therapeutic writing this (yes, 14 years later) and actually sharing it. I hope you never have to go through this, but if you do please know I am here. I’ve realized that part of my life is to help those cope with the loss of a parent, which is why this is more of an open letter to share my experience in hopes that it may help someone.
I love you and you too will get through this. Day by day. One step at a time.