The past month has been life changing. It started on a good note, with my attending the workshop of my dreams, making new friends, and learning the ins-and-outs of my own writing. I’ve posted about VP. I don’t need to repeat how incredible an experience it was. However, it had one more benefit.
It didn’t stop my dad from dying; it didn’t stop the hurricane that hit while I was at my mom’s house in Brooklyn, N.Y. But it put things in perspective and helped me process these experiences.
As hard as writing can be at times, it’s easy when compared with taking your loved one through a battle with cancer. Though my relationship with my father has been a long distance one for the past fifteen years, he’ll forever be my father. Distance and a physical body don’t matter. What does matter is that he supported me and was encouraging even when this vile thing consumed him from the inside. He never let on if he had any moments of anger or doubt. I know my mom dealt with some of that. It wasn’t easy for her, and I don’t envy the side of things she had to experience. I can well imagine what she went through and it breaks my heart, especially knowing that what I’m picturing is probably only half accurate.
I’m the emotional one in my family, usually the first one to break into tears. That’s not how I wanted to say good-bye to my dad. So I made plans. At the visitation and wake, I was my father’s daughter: I greeted all the friends and family that came to pay their respects. By making it about my father rather than about me, I learned how much he was loved by people outside the family. It’s one thing to know your dad is a good guy. It’s entirely another thing to hear so many people say it, to hear it in their accounts antics at work. (I’m not the only one who knew what a stubborn and funny man my dad was…)
I wrote and presented his eulogy. It was easier to write than I expected, but much more difficult to deliver. My sister Christina accompanied me to the podium in church. Without the warmth of her hand on my back, I’d have broken down in tears on the first page. What kept me from doing this was knowing that Dad was proud of both of us standing there together.
The cemetery was the hardest part. At that point, I was done being there for everyone else. My sisters and I hung back, allowing family and friends to place their flowers on dad’s coffin. When they stepped away, we had the chance to say the final goodbye.
Even my sisters pulled away finally, but this is where I got stuck. I suddenly felt like I was abandoning the last bit of him. It awoke the pain I felt when I received the phone call that he’d died. I can’t even describe the pain. It’s not physical. It’s like something reached in and tried to strangle my soul. I know the body in that coffin isn’t him anymore, but it’s one thing to know it and another thing to actualize it. Some of you might even understand what that means.
I’m okay most of the time, but this has changed me in a few ways. The very thing I loved about my father was his sense of humor and his joy of children. My best memories of us were from my childhood. I want my children to remember me the same way. Sometimes, when my kids are down, I think of him and wonder what he’d do cheer them up.
The other thing that changed for me was what I call “the moment”. I work hard at my day job and my writing. I work hard to keep the house in order and the laundry cycled fast enough. I work my tail off trying to keep the kids up to date on their homework and medical needs. Sometimes I fail. But in all that day-to-day stuff, there are moments that count more than others (like the ones I referred to earlier) and there are moments that are wasted that should have been spent on something else.
I feel older after all this. It’s not that I don’t have a dad anymore. I do, he’s just not on the same plane of existence as I am right now. It’s that I really do think I lost a piece of myself. I think we all do when we lose someone we love that much.
As things went downhill with my dad, one of my biggest personal fears was being unable to write when things went ultimately wrong. The day before my dad died, I started a story for him about a woman diagnosed with rapidly terminal cancer. I was never going to show him, that would have been too much. The day he died, I flew home to Brooklyn. On that flight, I finished the story by hand. I spent the next week transcribing it little by little. It was torture, but I made it through. I think it’s the best story I’ve written to date. It incorporates something of my dad and something of myself. I’ve been revising and worldbuilding other projects since then. It wasn’t until tonight that I really drafted new words on a story. It was hard to write because the words kept coming out in the voice from the story I wrote for my dad. It means I’m not done with it. I’ll be finishing that revision before moving on to this new project, but don’t think for a minute that I don’t consider this not writing.
I just need to finish this level of emotion before I go into the next phase. I have enough moments of anger to know that this next story will play out when the time is right.
I don’t like this new club I belong to, but that’s life and death. We’re in it. Might was well live it to the fullest. Fight til we can’t breathe. Love til there’s no heart left to love with. Whatever you do, do it your way. Do it proudly.
I’m sorry to hear about your dad.
I think that’s the story I owe you a crit on. It is a powerful story.
Dawn, I can honestly say I can empathize with quite a bit of the raw emotion and outlets you mention… I went through a very similar cycle, wow, about 15 years ago (lung cancer, USMC for 27 years, died on 4 July). I was the one that spoke for the family (I, however, broke horribly while standing up there), and wrote a story about it… It was one of those “had to be told” sort of things, and at the time it was probably the best thing I had written in a raw sense. 15 years later, it’s still something I consider myself to close to to edit (it would be more in line with Creative Non-Fiction, than Fiction)…
But it was cathartic. It allowed me to process a lot of things that were going on at the time, and put the moment into a time capsule. Maybe I’ll roll the story out for my nephews (both born after their grandfather had died), or my son (just born this year) so they can know a little about that moment. Maybe I’ll finally be able to go back and comb through the story with a critical eye for editing & revision.
Good luck with the story, and good luck over the next 13 months… The first year is the hardest, especially through the holiday season. Just keep writing – something.
I’m so sorry to hear about this. You’re in my thoughts
I’m sorry for your loss. Such a hard way to get perspective.
Love this: “Might was well live it to the fullest. Fight til we can’t breathe. Love til there’s no heart left to love with.”
Condolences Dawn. Perhaps it isn’t much consolation, but my father also had cancer. Luckily he pulled through, but the fear always lingers there in the back of our minds, whether or not it will come back.
One thing I do know though, is that it made me into who I am today, both as a writer, and as a person. I know you already are, but like Jeff said, keep writing. Sometimes its the best thing you can do, even if its not meant to share with the world just yet.
Hi, Dawn. Don’t be too hard on yourself if there are times when you can’t write. Do what is right at the time. After my grandparents died, one after the other, two years ago, I couldn’t write, and trying to force it was awful.