I’m currently writing a book about the year my dad died. It’s geared towards young adults and is more of a love letter to my confused thirteen year old self more than anything. I’m trying to fill in the gaps and make sense of what happened with a mind matured by time and distance.
Last night I worked on a chapter that covers my dad’s accident and the first time I saw my dad in the hospital. Writing the details and figuring out the timeline leading up to that day was fairly difficult, as nothing significant enough had happened in my life to form concrete memories. I had to figure out the small moments of my life that filled in the space between the larger dates, like the day my cheerleading coach quit or my birthday, to help move the story along and introduce the people who colored my life that year.
In some ways, it’s easier to write about the weekend my dad died. Time was frozen yet spiraling out of control at the same time. I replayed a lot of the memories before physically sitting down to write the book. Child psychologists would ask me to play back the day as if saying the words out loud would get me to accept what had happened or forgive myself for the mistakes I made. The three days were etched into pages of diaries that I abandoned after striking a memory too raw to compose. Moments spilled out to the few people I confided in because the sickness I felt in the pit of my stomach from holding onto them became too much to bear. At night I would replay the final days we spent together. Those days always felt more like movie clips than my history.
From a writing standpoint, it’s easy. I remember how I felt in every moment of those days. Emotionally, it can be tough. While I’ve become numb to most of the pain and guilt I feel recalling the days, I still get a craving to see my dad again. It makes me miss him as a person more than any other memory has. Which is both haunting and sweet at the same time.
Certain parts of those days have come up again and again over the years, but others I haven’t thought much about since the day they happened. It’s interesting to look at the days with a wiser pair of eyes. Small things that were so normal to me proved to be crucial to my survival.
Last night I finished a section about finding out my dad was in an accident while at my best friend’s house. Their house was one where everyone slept in, and when her mom woke me up with the morning dew fresh outside and a hint of a sunrise still lingering around, I knew something was wrong. Writing this section reminded me of their home and how comfortable I felt in it. I used to go over without an invitation so often that her mom made extra food for dinner in case I came through. The year before my dad died, my brother and I went over every day after school. Our school bus didn’t take us to our new apartment because we moved halfway between the school year, so we took their bus home and hung out until our parents got out of work. So in addition to earning my frequent flyer miles on weekends, I spent every afternoon there. This house became as important to me as my own childhood home.
I used to resent finding out about my dad’s accident over the phone at my best friend’s house, but as I wrote about that moment last night, I realized I was fortunate. By not being at home, I was able to avoid the anticipation surrounding what actually happened. I didn’t have to see my mom fresh from finding out that my dad was hurt and didn’t have to worry as she grew more and more concerned about why he wasn’t home from his gig yet. Instead, I got to hear the details from my mom once the facts were gathered in a home I was comfortable in. My best friend’s family got to pour all of their support and focus onto me and me alone.
Not only did I find out about my dad’s accident in their house, but they hosted the party after my dad’s funeral. Our apartment wasn’t even big enough for the 3-4 visitors that would pour through in rotation the week after my dad’s death, let alone the fifty or so family members and friends that were planning on sticking around after the funeral. When I started feeling overwhelmed at the stories of my dad or well wishes, I knew the best spaces to get away and hide for a bit to catch my breath. I knew the path to the bathroom and where they kept their old toys so I could play with my little cousins to distract myself for a while. Since it was at my friend’s house, other friends felt comfortable joining in and parts of the party were able to feel like a normal middle school hang out.
Growing up, I don’t think my parents set out to create a second home for me where I felt comfortable. It just happened. But they never resisted it. They always believed that it took a village to raise a kid because they were raised by villages themselves. My dad’s mom was so sick most of his childhood and he was raised by different family members at different times. My mom was one of eight children, and she looked to her friend’s families to get a little extra quiet and care. So they never grew jealous of how close we were to our friends. If they did, they never let us catch onto it. They couldn’t have predicted what happened to us, and how beneficial it would be to have a home away from home, but I’m glad they laid down that foundation for when shit did hit the fan and I needed something familiar, yet not filled with memories of my dad, to sit back into.
After hearing about my dad’s accident, my mom came to pick me up and told me that she and my brother were going to visit my dad in the hospital. She asked if I wanted to go with them. I only had a few hours until my gymnastics lesson, which I didn’t want to miss, and was still processing what was happening so I asked my mom to drop me off at home while she and my brother went ahead. For years after my dad died, I regretted this decision. I still wish I would have gone with them. Had I known what was waiting around the corner, I would have spent every second of the next two days by his side. I don’t necessarily live in the regret of the decision anymore though. Last night when I was writing, I realized how important the few hours that I had alone proved to be. For starters, they were the only hours I’d have to myself for weeks to come. But beyond that, it gave me time to come to terms with what happened before being thrown into it. At the time, my dad was fine. A little banged up, but there was no reason to think he was in jeopardy of losing his life. Yet I was a breathing morsel of exposed nerves. I thought he was dying, even though I was told that he was fine. I often wonder if it was me thinking worst case scenario, or if that feeling I couldn’t shake was my instincts being so in tune with his life that I knew things weren’t going to end with him coming home. Either way, I needed an hour or two to be alone in my guilt and fear before having to face my dad. After letting myself sob and scream then nap, I went to my gymnastics class where I got my last hour of being a normal teenager. During practice, I was able to forget about everything that was going on and just worry about whether or not I’d get my back handspring before the end of the season (I wouldn’t.)
I’ll always be grateful that my mom gave me autonomy. She didn’t force me to go straight from finding out about my dad to seeing him in the hospital. She gave me the freedom to choose my own path and delay seeing him until later that night. While I wish I had gone that afternoon, it did help to have been able to make a decision on my own when I would soon lose control over everything around me. I admire my parents’ ability to let me choose my own actions instead of pushing me to do what I may not be comfortable doing.
I also will never take being active in sports for granted. Should I have kids on my own, some sort of physical activity is a must for me. Whatever that may be. Whether a team sport, solo sport, or just an affinity for hiking and walks, I find having the body and mind connected to an outside goal incredibly useful in navigating tough waters. While I’m a huge arts person, the arts are invariably linked to exposing your emotions. Physical activity allows you to let that part of your brain rest while you work on creating a healthier, stronger body.
In the years after my dad’s death, the only time I ever felt remotely normal was on the cheerleading mat or softball field. I could focus my attention on the sport and performing well. Plus, it provided me a sense of self that wasn’t linked to my dad’s death. It was a bridge to the version of myself that existed before November 11th. It almost felt like I was cheating time – traveling back to before everything happened for just an hour or so.
While challenging, writing this book gives me the ability to trace back over my steps and gain some closure. It gives me faith that even when everything feels horrible, there are small plants there to sustain you. The ability to look back and understand why certain things happened and what it would mean for me in the future helps enrich my life and understanding of my own story.
Even if I sometimes can’t wait to get to the end.