In the years leading up to my father’s death, I’d been preparing for it. He was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago and, since then, his health slowly, but surely, deteriorated.
When it comes to grief, I learned no amount of mental preparation will suffice. Sure, I’d seen grandparents pass away, but this was different: this was my dad, the man who I both loved and at times loathed.
My father did not go easily into the night, either. Cancer came first but was followed by COPD and emphysema. His struggles with substance abuse complicated matters further, as they always did.
June 22, 2018 – the day he passed – was a Friday night. The night before we exchanged text messages about sports. The week before we celebrated what would be our last Father’s Day together.
My dad was a complicated person, a man with a seemingly good heart but with character flaws that drove the rest of the family nuts. He often did and said things that astounded us. His stories of debauchery and rebellion became legendary in our family.
In my adolescence, our relationship became tense. When I got sober, I learned about resentments, those poisonous wells of hate that swell in your heart and drag you down.
I learned to let things go, to forgive, and our relationship improved. Often, I wanted to save him, from himself. He always seemed hell-bent on self-destruction and, the more I came to know myself, I could relate.
I prepared for the end and I asked myself, “What will it be like?” “How would I react when he passed?” “Would I keep it together?”
I read countless books on death and dying, mortality. I wrote a fictional short story about an alternate version of the afterlife. I prayed, I went to church, spiritual direction, anything to fortify my heart against sorrow.
What bothered me most
What I learned is there is no bargaining with death. When it comes, it comes swiftly, and it doesn’t respond to questions. There’s no way to know how I’ll react, either. My preparation may have helped, but my future projections didn’t match reality when we learned he was gone.
I’ve always been an emotional person, sometimes even becoming slightly melodramatic. The first year after he passed away, I was a wreck: I couldn’t work, I couldn’t focus, I could barely function.
But the dark clouds did eventually lift, and I don’t regret that I cried out to God and wailed and screamed. My father had always been the center of my life as far as relationships went, so losing him of course was painful.
One year later, I see how my father’s death ended one chapter of my life and started another. My life looks much different today then this time last year, and it reminds me of the cycles of the seasons: the winter of depression giving way to a springtime of hope and renewal.
What bothered me most about my father passing away at fifty-five years old was the thought that he did not lead a good life. While he could be aggressive and made some enemies, I think this isn’t the case.
Never reject yourself
I read an essay by Richard Russo a few years back about his own relationship with his father. Russo detailed how his father had racist views the writer didn’t share, and other things that bothered him.
Russo said that while he disagreed with these views, hating your own parents only makes you reject yourself. I agree with this. Despite my father’s flaws, it was impossible to fully hate him, and whatever hate I had for him was only due to my immense love for him.
One year later, the pain of losing my dad is mostly gone now. I’m able to see his life for what it was, the good and the bad. He was a character, as my family liked to say, and he did lead a good life.