It seems as if the Universe has messages for me all of the time. Last weekend, my daughter and I were driving back together from one of our activities, and as she so often does, she brought up what was on her mind. I figured she was about to say something, as she had been staring out of the passenger side window, not really focusing on anything in particular in regard to the view, but focusing internally instead.
“Mom, what happens to you when you die?”
I glanced quickly at her, and smiled. She loves to surprise you with the ‘car questions’, I thought. ‘Car questions’ had become a thing that I’d coined years ago, after noticing a pattern with Sasha and the types of questions she liked to save specifically for the car. Now, it very well may have been that she reserved this line of questioning for the times when she and I were alone for extended periods of time, where the only interruptions would be the flow of traffic or what was on the radio. This perfect scenario just happened to be in the car.
”Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I think your soul gets released from your body, and is sent to either Heaven, or maybe to another body. Really depends on what you believe, I suppose.”
She appeared thoughtful.
“Ok, but what about your body?”
”It either gets buried, or sometimes people like to be cremated.”
After describing what cremation was, which led to a shocked “What the heck” sort of response, she asked; “So, what about someone’s soul?”
”The cool thing is, that no matter what happens to your body, your soul lives on. Just because your body is dead, it doesn’t mean that you really die forever. You can have a body that doesn’t work quite right, or become very old, or sick, but your soul is that part of you that doesn’t need to rely on the body in order to live. At least, that’s how I hope it all works.”
”So, my Dad’s soul is still alive?”
I reached over and grasped her hand in mine. “I think so. I hope so.”
This conversation was so poignant, and became even more so less than 24 hours later when we received word that a close friend of our family’s had passed away around the same time that we were having our chat in the car. When I told Sasha what had happened, I reminded her of our talk, and how our loved one’s soul was not lost, even though her body was.
“She’s still around, just like your Dad is still around,” I told her in between tearful hugs, “Just think of the happy memories, and it’s like they’re right here.”
The conversation about the soul combined with the sudden loss of a friend got me thinking about why death is so hard to cope with, if in fact I hold fast to the belief that there has only been a loss of the body, but not of the essence of the person that occupied it.
Here’s what I managed to process.
When someone you love dies unexpectedly, it feels like a practical joke. Your brain hasn’t had time to process the loss, and so instead of going through the motions, there is a period of time where your feelings are in a state of limbo. Kind of numb, in disbelief, feeling as if at any moment, the person you lost will appear in the doorway or call you on the phone, laughing at the awesome prank they’ve pulled.
Tears come easily during this stage, the fat thick type, where your eyes just allow the floods to roll in but you feel stupid for crying them because surely this isn’t real.
Once the loss sinks in, then the anger comes on like a speeding train. Hard and heavy and solid in its intensity. Pinpointing what you’re angry at is difficult and varied. Angry at them for dying, angry at the illness that pulled them away, angry at God for allowing this to happen, angry that you will now have to live a life without them in it.
Grief begins to feel like a family member who has over-stayed their welcome during the holidays—always present and never giving you any time to relax and just be. Hours and hours of just feeling a discomfort that never settles.
And then, one day, you realize that it’s been hours since you thought about them. You’ll laugh for the first time at someone’s joke, and catch yourself because you allowed yourself to feel joy. The weight lifts the tiniest bit.
The old homage, “time heals all wounds” begins to make more sense. And while you may not be healed, and may not ever heal, the time will pass. Time does go on, minutes become hours, days become weeks, months become years. Before long, you’ll be casually doing some innocuous task like grocery shopping, and you’ll realize that today is the anniversary of the death. The anniversary is always hard, it just is. That date becomes synonymous with loss, and every year it will give you a sinking feeling in your gut. You won’t be healed, but your relationship with the grief will evolve.
The death of Sasha’s Dad has been a hard one to cope with. In many ways, I don’t think I’ll ever be through with the task of mentally and emotionally processing it. Admitting this is difficult for me, as I have a tendency to want to wrap things up quickly and neatly.
This December, will mark 11 years since my late husband died. I’m not angry with him anymore. In fact, time has allowed me to take a look at his death through another perspective. I realize now that he was not himself in those last few months, that the depths of his depression had altered his reality. I continue to mourn his loss, and regret not seeing the depression for what it was—an illness that ruled his life and dictated his choices.
It pierces my heart to know that our daughter is growing up without him. I wish I’d done more while he was alive to help him, but I didn’t. That is a regret that I’ll have for a lifetime. The best thing that I can do to honor his memory is to ensure that our daughter is being raised in a loving and caring environment. I am fiercely protective of her, and I know that’s what he would have wanted the most. To know that I was being the best mother I could, to our child. In this, I have not failed him. In her eyes, he still lives on. The passing of time only intensifies this fact.
Aside from the gift of a beautiful child, he left me with many gorgeous memories. The trips we took to Japan, Canada, and the beach in California. The Persian culture that he introduced me to, and which has given me a love of Iranian food, and literature.
He encouraged me to complete my education, and to travel. Every time I hear the theme song of Friends, or hear Michael Jackson’s Thriller, two of his favorite American things (ok really, it was Jennifer Aniston that was his favorite, but you get my point), I can’t help but think of him. I can’t explain it, but I somehow know that he is around at times. It’s not a creepy thing to think about, in fact I’m glad that on some level, he understands that our daughter has grown into a smart and witty and gorgeous young lady. I hope that he has found peace—I think he has.
Time has softened the blow of his death to a moderate degree. I still think of him often, it’s hard not to considering that our daughter resembles him so much. The only difference is that now there is also understanding.
In the months preceding his death, we’d argued about things that had happened in the past, the things that we were going through in our present, and had fretted about the future. At some point, he stopped arguing with me about what would become; I now recognize that this was because he knew that there would be no point in arguing about a future that wouldn’t involve him.
I can’t help but tie in his passing when other people I love pass on. Call it a form of emotional PTSD, or muscle memory, or however you’d like to classify it. When loss occurs, the tie-in of memory can’t help but rear up like a coworker’s head over a cubicle (what former coworkers and I used to call ‘prairie-dogging’). And maybe just maybe this recollection is his soul whispering to me, “Remember me too!”
If this is true, just for his benefit I’d like to say that I do remember.
While time may not heal completely, it’s nice to know that the memories remain. I hope that one day, when I’m no longer here that others will remember me too.
My brain hasn’t wanted to focus on this fact, and yet has done a lot of focusing on this fact.
If that sounds confusing or convoluted, well, that’s accurate. If it sounds perfectly understandable, that’s also accurate, and I assume that you’ve been in the spot that I am currently in.
Here’s what I do know. Talking about it, helps. Talking about it, makes certain people uncomfortable. Talking about it with certain people makes me uncomfortable.
Trying to focus my thoughts, and put them all together to accurately portray what I’m feeling about the passing of my Dad, is quite possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to put into words.
Sometimes I am near-normal, and can make it through a day, or a few days without thinking of my Dad and getting teary-eyed. Then there are the days when I’m completely nuts, and I cry at the dentist’s office…not something I recommend. I mean, I really like my dentist, and I have to go back there eventually. Now, I feel as if I’ll have to avoid making small talk and eye-contact.
The story, and the memories are what remain now.
It took me a long time to decide what to say about my Dad. Do I share memories of him, of the times when I was a child and he would sneak me off to the 7-Eleven (or the ‘goodie store’ as we called it back then) to fill up a paper bag of candy and bring home? Do I go into the last months of his life, when I was trying to find a connection with him, one that had been lost years ago? One thing always seemed to road-block me. How do I talk about the relationship that I had with my Dad without sounding angry, or callous?
Before you read the rest of this post, here is what I want you to know.
I love my Dad.
This blog is about finding my truth. Stumbling through the memories, and feelings, and emotions to find the truth inside of me. To learn about myself, and connect with my journey in a way that is holistic, healing and honest.
In being true to myself, I have to be honest with myself as well. That means all the honesty…the good and the bad. Sometimes it’s a good road, nice and easy. Sometimes it’s rough, tangled, and tedious.
This story is a mixture of both.
October 8, 2015
George woke me up this morning.
Last night’s sleeping pill was causing confusion. Used to get the memories to stop rolling on like clothes tumbling in a dryer, and taken to make the constant flow of tears dry up. This tiny pill was now causing a short-term memory loss.
“I’ll take Sasha to school.”
Typically this sort of treat is met with an audible sign of contentment, as it meant 20 more minutes in bed and a round of coffee to enjoy before my brain had to be useful.
“She didn’t want to get out of bed, had the covers pulled up to her neck and everything.” He stroked my hair. “She said that there was someone in her room.”
My head jerked toward him. Toward the words, the idea, the realization. My Dad, who’d just been dancing with me at my wedding 6 months ago, and who had taken his last breaths of life the night before.
“You think it was your Dad? Saying goodbye?” His face registered sadness, and I could tell he was trying his best to tread lightly.
I had gotten the call around 11 pm the night before. Dad had passed, no real details yet, but the killer was known. Cancer.
He’d found out about the dark spots on his lungs in June, two months after he’d driven from Oklahoma to North Georgia, where he saw me get married. We had initially set the date for June, but moved it up to late-April to take better advantage of the antebellum garden blooms and fickle Southern springtime weather. We’d wanted to avoid the rain, and the stifling humidity.
I’d said it many times since, that I was glad we’d moved the date. Otherwise, my Dad wouldn’t have been able to be there. He was so proud on that day, so handsome. He bought a suit. He met some of my dearest friends. He met my in-laws who I knew he’d love, and with whom I knew he’d share a bond with. He got to know me a little bit better. He’d voiced a concern to me about dancing in front of our wedding guests during the Father/Daughter Dance, and had laughed when I told him, “Don’t worry Dad. No one will be looking at you.”
I hadn’t wanted to get out of bed, but I did. I fixed a cup of coffee, and as I waited for it to cool down a bit, I wandered upstairs. I know it may sound crazy, but I wanted to be in the last place where my Dad’s presence was felt. In Sasha’s bedroom.
My little girl’s bedroom was askew, as usual. Bed unmade. Socks everywhere. Pillows on the floor. Plush animals stuffed in every single corner.
I made her bed, carefully fluffing the pillows and placing the assortment of plush toys among them. I sat down on the mattress and closed my eyes. I thought of my Dad, and what his face looked like the last time I’d seen him. I thought about what he’d looked like when I was Sasha’s age. He had bright blue eyes, and dark brown hair that was almost black. He had one of those really boisterous ‘Southern’ laughs, the kind where the entire mouth opens to release sounds that can best be described as ‘unencumbered’. When he yawned, his hand would shake. He called me ‘baby girl’.
Suddenly I felt an overwhelming sense to talk directly to Dad. And so I did.
“Daddy…I want you to know that I’m not afraid. That I’m glad you chose to be here with Sasha.” I looked around at her stuffed animals, at her zebra print bedspread, at her pictures of Marilyn Monroe.
“I also want you to know that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t come to see you one last time. I’m sorry that life got in the way of seeing you again.”
“You should know that I really do love you. And I’ve missed having you in my life over the years. No one has ever been ‘Dad’ to me, only you have.”
“I wish that I’d been more open with you about my feelings. I wish I’d told you that I was angry with you for not being in my life more. I regret that we didn’t talk about the distance between us.”
“But Dad, I need you to know that there wasn’t a single day where I wished for a different Dad. I always wanted you.”
“I know you probably won’t believe that, but it’s true. I never wanted someone richer, or smarter or more handsome. To me you were enough. I only wanted you to be there.”
At this point, with tears streaming down my face, I could only get out one more statement, but in my mind, the most important thing I wanted to say to him. “Dad. I forgive you.”
The second those words were released into the air, I felt lighter. As if I’d just been freed from a vice-grip like hug.
The best years with my Dad were from the ages of Birth-Twelve. For those first 12 years, I was ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’. He was my confidante, my friend, the person who I’d show my bad report cards to in lieu of showing them to my Mom who was always scarier regarding bad grades than my father was. Back in the mid-80’s the bad grades were attributed to my ‘daydreaming’ during class. This was before the term ‘creative’ was a misnomer, when simple classroom daydreaming wasn’t allowed, and the teacher’s solution for my ‘head in the clouds’ attitude was to move my desk away from the large window that faced the playground. It didn’t work of course, as being removed from the natural light just made me sleepy.
When my parents divorced for the first time, I was 8 or 9 years old. I was devastated and didn’t understand. I remember weeping so hard for my Dad, that it was almost a howl. I missed him being at home. I would cry so much and for such a long duration of time, that my Dad would eventually come by and pick me up, taking me back to his house with him where I would settle down and look forward to the next morning’s breakfast, when Dad and I would sit at a table in a cafe on Main Street and order doughy biscuits drowning in thick sausage gravy.
This happened so often that my Mom and Dad decided to ‘give it another shot’, and remarried for roughly a year. By the time I was 10, and the second marriage between my parents was nearing another divorce, I was ready for them to be separated. They were two entirely different human beings, who were more volatile together than they were apart. I would happily go and spend evenings with my Dad, or visit him at his flower shop. The naive child that I was, never realizing just how damaging relationships could be. A lesson I didn’t know then, but would discover with much frequency as I got older and began pursuing my own romances.
Shortly before my 13th birthday, my Mom and I moved to California, while my Dad stayed behind in Arkansas. My Mom had met someone and was getting remarried.
I loved California, but I missed my Dad.
For a few years we kept up the travel game. I’d fly out to see him in Arkansas, flying as an unaccompanied minor and wandering the airports alone (security was much more lax in the early-90’s). I’d stay for a large chunk of time, typically a month or two, settling into the spare bedroom at my Dad’s house which used to belong to my Great-Grandma before she passed away. The house was old but quirky, with floor heaters that would smell like gas when they first ignited, and with a giant yard that would become carpeted with pecans courtesy of the large trees that would grow and release new nuts every season.
Over the years, it became more difficult to get out to Dad’s house. He got remarried, and his new wife had 4 sons, all younger than me. The boys were rambunctious to say the least. I would come home after a summer spent in the South and my Mom would remark that I looked like a drowned rat.Stringy hair, tired eyes, bruises on my arms from the boys roughhousing. I had little time alone with my Dad because the house was always full, and then one day I heard that my stepmother had told my Dad that she wasn’t sure I should come visit for such long periods of time because ‘I bothered her sons.’
That statement, and the subsequent lack of communication left me in a lurch. I was 16 years old the last time that I spent any extended time in Arkansas. I waited for the invitation from my Dad regarding when I was to return, but it never came. Meanwhile, photos and stories of my Dad taking the boys out to the lake to go jet-skiing would trickle in. I’d like to say that after a while I stopped looking and listening, but I didn’t. I didn’t stop caring, or wishing that somehow my Dad would regard me in the same manner in which he regarded his stepchildren.
Years past, and life continued on. I spoke with my Dad when I could, but the interactions with him grew increasingly frustrating and painful. He constantly forgot what I did for a living, and when I would tell him, he would either tell me that I should have never given up modeling, or that I should have married Bill Gates.
Three things to note about the above. I haven’t modeled since I was about 19 years old, and also…Bill Gates. I’m sure he’s a nice person, but I think he’s great with Melinda. No hard feelings there, Bill, I’m sure. Finally, and most importantly…this was a pain point for me until just recently. I have been a writer of some sort since I was in High School, when I discovered that I had a knack for words, and a penchant for disappearing into a world filled with promises of escape, of excitement, of darkness and light. I’ve never truly desired to be anything else, and so knowing that my Dad took little or no interest in that part of me…hurt.
As time went on, and my life changed, I spoke to my Dad less and less. I was dealing with some deeply personal things, such as the death of my husband, and my child becoming ill, that nearly sent me over the edge. All through those difficult times, I wanted my Dad to be the sort of parent that I could lean on. Every time, I was disappointed. I suppose it’s true that this caused me to become more self-reliant. What it also caused, was for me to be so self-reliant that I distrusted nearly every single person in my life, especially men. This may sound cliche, but when I discovered the pattern, it made perfect sense. The first man in a woman’s life is her Dad. Every single relationship thereafter, is a layer built upon that foundation. What this meant for me, was that every man would eventually lose interest and leave. Self-fulfilling prophecy up until now, as every single one has. Does this make a marriage difficult? You bet your ass it does.
My Dad spent a lot of time considering people who didn’t consider him quite as much. In the end, at his funeral, his three biological children showed. We were also the ones who were there by his side, making decisions regarding his healthcare and making the funeral arrangements. The kids who he spent years considering and preferring, didn’t show.
If it sounds as if I’m bitter about my Dad, well, yes. In a way, I suppose I am. However, when I uttered those words of forgiveness in the middle of Sasha’s room, I meant them. I think I understand now, the type of person that my Dad was. In all honesty, I don’t feel as if he was ever trying to disassociate himself with me. Instead, I feel that he was trying to please the people in his life, who were in his life on a daily basis. That was my Dad…he considered other people’s feelings in order to be the ultimate ‘good guy’, the one who would always give, the one who people would hold in high regard and respect. Unfortunately, my Dad was also the type of person who made bad choices, and losing out on a life filled with his children, was one of those bad choices.
One of the last ‘real’ conversations I had with my Dad, was also one of the first ‘real’ conversations I’d had.
The night before my 38th birthday, my Dad called me. I’d only found out a few days prior that his medical tests had come back confirming the Cancer had spread to nearly every single organ, as well as to the bones and lymph nodes. Dad had called to wish me a Happy Birthday, and we ended up talking for nearly 2 hours, which is the longest phone conversation I think I’d ever had with him. For the first time in a very long time, my Dad told me that he was proud of me. Proud of the mother I am to Sasha, proud of the way that I’m raising her. He then said something that I never expected. “Shanna, you’ve turned into this magnificent person. In spite of having had me as a father.”
I cried. Those words hit me so deeply in the middle of my chest. I think mostly because I never thought that my Dad gave me much consideration, especially enough to be proud of me for being a good Mom. Never mind the fact that my Dad hadn’t said many heartfelt words to me since I was a child, minus the random comment on Facebook. I definitely cannot recall him ever calling me magnificent. What a powerful word…magnificent. That’s not really a word you hear very often, is it? Especially in regard to another person, and here it was being uttered to me, by the one man who I always wanted to regard me as just that…Magnificent.
That left me with a choice. I could either chose to focus on the pain over time we’d lost, or I could chose to acknowledge the pain, forgive the time lost, and move forward. I chose to move forward. Forgiveness just feels better. Healing, albeit a slow process at times, just seems like the healthier choice.
This past Saturday marked a month since my Dad took his last breath, and passed away into whatever comes after this life. He was ready to go, to join his own Mom and Dad, and to see my oldest brother who passed away years before I was born. In the last few months, he attempted to make peace with several people in his life, including myself. I suppose that’s what you do when life is slipping away, especially when you know that your time is coming. You chose to make amends. That’s what my Dad did. He told me that he loved me, told me he was proud, told me that he thought I was magnificent. Hell, he even spoke to my Mom about the days when they were married, laughed about memories they shared, and yes, attempted to have it out with her over emotional scars I suspect hadn’t completely healed.
Whatever mistakes, or missteps, or stumbles of his own that he’d made, my Dad wanted to make amends when it came down to it. And whether it’s because he didn’t want to carry the burden of words not said with him, or because he didn’t want me to carry them…in the end, I know that my Dad, loved me.
The last time that I heard my Dad’s voice, was as I was driving to pick up my daughter from school. He called and we chatted for a half-hour about his health, and the roommates he had in the hospice. He sounded more alert than he had in weeks. I drove around the block a few times, just to keep him on the phone for a bit longer. When I finally had to go, I told him three times that I loved him. I just felt the need to say it multiple times. The last thing he said to me was, “I love you too baby girl.”
Regrets. Do I have them? In spades.
I wish I’d been braver, earlier. If I’d only had the boldness to say to my Dad what I was feeling, sooner…I might have had more time to get closer to him. To discover why my Dad made the choices he did. Maybe I would have been fortunate enough to see a completely different side of him.
Here’s what I feel contented about. That I was able to dance with my Dad at my wedding. That my brother and sister and I were able to have one last family photo together. That he made amends with so many people, before the road had run out…including me. That I was able to tell my Dad three more times, that I loved him. That I was able to hear him say he loved me in return.
At the end of his life, many people told me just how much they loved him, and regarded him as a kind man. I was happy that several of my closest friends were able to spend a little bit of time with him during my wedding day, getting the chance to know this man that up until that day, had simply been a picture on my wall.
Dad, you are and will always be, profoundly missed. The years of your absence in my daily life left me a bit harder emotionally than I may have been had you been a constant, but it also made me who I am today. I’m strong, Dad. Your baby girl is strong. Your baby girl loves. Your baby girl…is okay, or at the very least, is on the road to being okay. I’m glad that you were mine, and that I was yours. I’m choosing to predominately focus on the good memories of you, the ones that make me feel peaceful. The summers at your house, the way your blue eyes and dark hair used to remind me of Elvis, the picture that you kept on your computer until forever, of a 6-year old me. Imperfect as we were/are, I know that I was loved, and I hope you knew I loved you, too.