September 15, 2015

On Losing My Father

It could be said that people are shaped and changed by a thousand tiny things a day, from getting a paper cut to running out of half and half for your morning tea. If you ask someone the things that shaped them, they can usually point out several major life events that are milestones. I think, though, if you asked someone what irreversibly changed them, most people would point out those few deep-seated holes in our hearts we all gain along our journeys.

When I look back at my life, these wounds are shockingly few. I have been a spoiled middle-class child for most of my life, and I know it. I am also still young, only on the back end of my third decade. Nonetheless, I was changed by my emotional punctures as much as anyone is, with no returning to what I was before.

The first one I remember is when my family lost our house. My mother told us there would not be a Christmas that year, and then she cried for the first time in my memory. I had always before been a child of a house, with solid walls and a yard to play in. Thereafter, I took a step down to apartment living, and discovered the change in status that brought to my tiny social sphere. I was treated like a transient, shunned for the first time in my short life. I broke a little, staggering through the mire of a friendless existence, crying an awful lot, was bullied many times, and somehow bumbled my way out the other side a bit more hardened. It left me sore and less trusting of the world around me, guarded against those whose voices came my way on a daily basis.

The second time was, ironically, when my family gained a house again. The problem was, it was on the other side of town. Even though my social circle had changed in recent years, it was still people I had been acquainted with all my young life. When we moved, my whole world shifted. I was quieter then, and didn’t know how to make new friends. I’d never really had to try and search them out, in my old world they had mostly come to me. The classes were arranged differently than I was used to. I began to fail at things, in class, in society, in self. It took me the rest of high school to come out the other end of that one, and I graduated drifting, struggling to find a place in the world where I belonged.

The third time was the day I lost my sweet little dog. Peaches (she came with that name, no fault of mine) had been mine since the day my parents brought her home, claimed in a strident seven-year-old voice that gets most of what it wants and knows it. For thirteen years we ambled along together, me stepping into the first flush of adulthood while she grew more stooped and frail. Sixteen is very old for a dog, and she had several visits to the emergency vet as seizures began to grip her. Finally, in the dark of one early morning, she cried and began to seize violently. This time when we went to the emergency vet, they couldn’t do anything but offer to ease her passing. Her kidneys had failed; we were out of second chances. I held her while she died, then carried her tiny, cooling body home to be buried. The pain was a physical thing, eating at my insides and clawing for a way out. I picked up a pen and a notebook and wrote and wrote and wrote. For two days straight without sleep I wrote, ranting at the world about the loss of my pet, and the horrible unfairness of the world. Weeks passed before I could stick a bandage over the rawness of the hurt. Even though she was old, even though it was her time, I could not reconcile myself with the inevitability of her death and loss. I learned that some hurts never heal, but take small pieces of us with them when they go.

The fourth time was self-imposed. I joined the military after several years of relatively low-wage jobs in an attempt to find a real career and do something that mattered in the world. There is a frozen moment in my mind, where my family was all packed into my parent’s car, pulling out of the driveway to drop me off at the hotel where I would leave for Basic Training. I realized, looking at that receding garage door, that I would never come home again, not really. A piece of my life was done with forever, and I recognized it as the door closed. My family took me for a steak dinner, a rare treat. I could hardly eat a bite. I gained so many things from the time I served in uniform, but each time I went back to my parent’s for a visit, I knew the difference. It was no longer home. When I moved back permanently, the place seemed changed, but it wasn’t. I was. I mourned the loss of home, trying to rebuild my own small sanctuaries where I could, but it wasn’t the same. It’s a painful truth: you can never go home again.

A few weeks ago, I fell into my fifth and deepest hole. My father has been very ill. Part of the reason I moved back to Portland was to help take care of him. It started over a decade ago with a failing heart, proceeding naturally into a bad heart attack and a stroke, leaving him seriously in need of care for the last six years, and steeply declining for the last two as his kidneys and liver decided to fail as well. All this is to say, his loss was not unexpected. We had planned for it, prepared ourselves as much as possible, and suffered wretchedly with him as he suffered and wore away bit by bit like a stone in a riverbed. The father I knew was only there for minutes out of every day, replaced most times by a sickly, exhausted, vacant stranger.

My father was no saint, especially in his last few years. He and I frequently battled over many things which I won’t chronicle here, suffice to say I spent a great deal of time very angry at him, and had to move out of their house to regain enough distance and perspective to love him again. Even then, we still sparred occasionally about his bad habits, and there were days enough where I didn’t talk to him much when I did visit, nearly every week.

I camped out beside him in his last few weeks, when he became too sick to continue dialysis and made the decision to stop. I spearheaded gathering the family around him to say farewells, granted his few last bucket list items, and dosed him heavily with his pain medications. I sat death watch beside him, alone but for my sister-in-law in the deep of night, when his wet, gurgling breathing suddenly stopped. We ran for my mother and siblings, and my mother listened for my father’s heartbeat, then lay her head down on his chest and began to cry.

Nothing in the world prepared me for what happened inside me then. A piece of me was wrenched out, shattered and bleeding and jagged. A hole opened up, depth and breadth immeasurable, and I fell into it. I did cry, but the crying didn’t do anything. I usually see crying as a boon, a burst dam that fills up whatever hole you fell into to boost you out again. Usually there is relief at the end of the tears. This time, there was nothing but a tiny voice screaming why why Why WHY? Bring him back, bring him back, I don’t care that he was sick and suffering and ornery and manipulative. I don’t care what he was, he was my Daddy and I love him. Bring him back, oh please, bring him back.

There is nothing so irrevocable as death, and the world after is full of too lates. When they came to take away my father’s body, I kissed him goodbye on a forehead that was already cold, and I felt unalterably broken. I still do. I can’t go anywhere in my mind that bears the slightest reminder of him without the pain blossoming anew.

My father loved music. He sang and talked with the kind of deep, smooth voice that announcers and club singers envy. He schmoozed his way through the world, laying compliments fast and thick, and meaning all of them just enough that people warmed and melted toward him. He was bright and booming and energetic. He told my mother, my sister and me regularly that we were the most beautiful women he knew, and I always rolled my eyes. He always wanted hugs, and gave the best kind: deep, squishy bear hugs that left you warm and softened to the hardness of the world. He always told me he was proud of me, that he thought I was smart and talented and wonderful in a hundred small ways.

I had a hundred different nicknames to him. I was his sweetie pickle, his angel face, his dumpling, his precious princess, and his dolly one time. I will never be any of those things to anyone else, and it hurts so much I want to cut my heart out and burn it to ashes.

I have heard a dozen times that we should be happy at least that his suffering is over. I know this should be a relieving thing, but it isn’t. Not now, and I don’t know if it ever will be. No logical reasoned argument will sway my insides against this pain. I want him back for a day, for an hour, without it mattering what we do or what we say, so long as he is there. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. I used to think since this is all we get, making the most of it will leave me with few regrets. I’ve come to the harsh realization that for the best things, the most important ones, there can never, and will never be enough. Not the best lived, most blessed existence will have enough of the people we love to let them go without harm, without holes too deep to climb out of.

It’s been three weeks, and none of this eases. This is the first time I’ve been able to write anything, and it’s like pulling a rusted metal sliver from an infected fingertip. I have been empty and gaping, full of feeling but no words. I know I will eventually come to a new normal, where I don’t cry every day, where things around me will matter again, where I will find more joy than sorrow in the world. Maybe. Maybe this is the new normal, and I will simply learn to live around the pain, this missing chunk of me, rather than the pinholes I had been used to.

I miss you, Daddy. Miss you so, so much. I love you, and I’m sorry. It will never be enough.