CRISTINA: “There’s a club. The Dead Dads Club. And you can’t be in it until you’re in it. You can try to understand, you can sympathize. But until you feel that loss… My dad died when I was nine. George, I’m really sorry you had to join the club.”
GEORGE: “I… I don’t know how to exist in a world where my dad doesn’t.”
CRISTINA: “Yeah, that never really changes.”
I thought I should address this topic, since I’ve made a few inferences to it in previous blogs. I’ll forewarn you that this topic may depress you and you might start feeling sorry for me. But I really wish you wouldn’t.
I’ve gotten those sorry looks from people for 20 years of my life. The first times, I’m sure, were at his funeral. But, the first time I truly remember feeling it is engrained in my memory; it was when I returned to school a few days after my dad had died. It was close to, if not the, last day of school.
I arrived late because my mom had let me sleep in – not thinking that I’d want to go to school. But my sister had gone, so I got a ride in about mid-way through the day. I remember being escorted to my second-grade classroom by someone from the administrative office. I don’t remember who she was, but she gave me the look and gently placed her hand on my shoulder as she walked me down the hall. This was the first gesture of many in the 20 years to come that would scream, “Oh, you poor thing.”
When I got to the classroom, most of the kids looked at me funny. I think the only one that acted normal was my BFF and neighbor, who was glad to see me because she was otherwise going to have to bring my folder of they entire year’s completed assignments and projects home. A big weight to bear for a tiny 2nd grader. But, looking back, maybe the other kids weren’t the ones that acted strange. Maybe it was me – because I knew that I was different, and that I was now baring the biggest burden of all.
The loss of a parent is devastating, no matter what the age. But losing a parent when you’re so young changes who you are, to the core. The natural progression of life is supposed to make it a little easier for kids, if it happens the way it should. First, you lose a pet, maybe starting with a goldfish and working your way up to dog or cat. It stings, but doesn’t completely devastate. You learn the cycle of life, that living things die and that some day you will too. But it’s a concept like the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus…you can’t really see them, so you wonder if they really do exist.
Then, you see the life cycle play out in front of you. You watch your grandparents grow to be old, they get ill or weak, and you learn how life wears on the body until it eventually breaks it down. It’s extremely painful, but in an expected and eventual kind of way.
Then, you see the same with your own parents… first, when you’re little, they seem really old. You think there’s no way you’ll ever be that old. Then, you grow up and they become your friends and you realize they were never old at all. Until the time comes when you give them grandchildren and you realize they will soon grow to be old…reaching the inevitable end that your own grandparents did. And that end is crushing and heartbreaking.
Finally, you grow to be old yourself. You lose siblings, then your friends and maybe your spouse. It’s saddening, but you find comfort in knowing that you will probably join them sometime soon.
That’s how I define a normal pattern. But when something happens that disrupts this normal pattern, it causes a child to face the reality of death sooner than their little brain is really ready. And they are never, ever the same.
Whether their parenting is good, bad or indifferent, losing a parent as a child is devastating. Some people are surprised that I have any memories of that time at all, because I was so little. But, I wonder how you can forget something like that? I have both good and bad memories of my father, but I try to just relish in the good. It is easier that way. But I am angry. I am angry that I had to (emotionally) grow up before I was ready. I am angry that he didn’t find his children reason enough to be healthy and stay alive. I am angry that I can’t remember the sound of his voice or the color of his eyes, and most of all that he made me carry this weight for the rest of my life.
I dread the day that I have to explain to Charlie what happened to his grandfather. I dread is as much as the inevitable question that arises in friendly discussions about my family – “What about your dad?” In the past, I would respond with, “he passed away when I was little.” As if using the phrase “passed away” softened the blow to its intended recipient. It’s not as final as what I tend to respond with now. “He’s dead.”
The finality of that statement is abrasive, but I say it anyway because I’d rather have the person be taken aback than feel they have to give me the sad, puppy dog stare or say “I’m sorry.” Why be sorry? It’s not your fault he died. You don’t need to send me your condolences – I’ve had a life time of them. I was branded a survivor the day that it was written in his obituary, but it’s not how I live my life. Yes, I am different. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I think about it every day. Yes, it makes me sad. But, I’ve lived more of my life without my father than I ever did with him. Time has a funny way of healing, and I’m doing just fine.
And silver lining – Charlie and I are lucky to have Rick, who came into my mom’s life when I was about 15. While it’s pretty normal these days, I’d say we are dysfunctional version of the Brady Bunch. Even though I was “older”, my step-dad became the father figure that I longed for my whole life. He brought me to the school dance for my first date. He taught me how to drive and was there when I failed my first driving test – oops! He came with mom to drop me off when I went away to college. He walked me down the aisle. And, he is, for sure, the grandfather that Charlie should have had all along. For him, I will be forever thankful.
I often find myself wondering where my dad is, and if he’s looking in on me once in a while. I think so. And, I’m pretty sure he’s proud of who I have become, happy with the man I chose to marry, and is very proud of his first grandson.