It has been quite some time since I wrote a post about grief.
I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it’s that I’ve had so many things happen recently that I’m too distracted to think about my dad. Maybe it’s because I typically write during downtime at work and am unwilling to go there. Maybe it’s part of getting older and distancing myself from my dad’s death. Don’t get me wrong – I miss him often. The Eagles Super Bowl, my brother having a baby, my nephew’s music career taking off… but it has been awhile since I’ve felt true grief.
Today I’m breaking that streak.
I’m writing a book about the year my dad died. All of the time I’ve spent on the book so far has been on the events leading up to his accident. The weight of replaying his death was pushed aside as I reveled in taking a walk down the path that led me to my 8th grade friends. It stung a bit when I talked about the ways my dad and I didn’t quite see eye to eye but I’ve made peace with a lot of that.
Maybe I’m more of an optimist than I give myself credit for because I didn’t think it’d be hard to replay the days right before his accident. I thought that since I replayed them in my mind hundreds of times, writing them down would be no different. Oh, how naive I was mere hours ago. Because as I started to write about the last time my dad picked me up from school, I had to choke back tears and fight to keep myself together until I got to a good enough stopping point to grab my stuff and head back to my apartment.
I know writing this book is ultimately good for me. It’s helping me realize things about myself that I truly didn’t know existed. It helps me process my thoughts and gives me some sort of control over such a horrific part of my life. But sometimes it reveals parts of me that I wish didn’t exist.
My guiding light is to be as truthful as humanly possible when writing about events that happened fourteen years ago. The whole reason I’m writing this book, aside from my own selfish desire to record my life and prove that I went through it for something greater than pure pain, is that I want other kids going through similar situations to know they’re not alone. I would have given anything to know a story like my own when I was a teenager. I would have loved to be told by someone who has been through it that it’s okay not to be okay. That I’ll never fully have it all figured out but the good days will eventually outweigh the bad and at the end of the day, the worst year of my life would also hold some of the best days of my life. So I’m not masking how I feel, which I’m coming to find is hard as fuck.
The chapter that got me today is called November 7th, 2003 and is about the last time my dad picked me up from middle school. He called me out on wearing a skirt that my mom told me I couldn’t wear to school and I was irritable. He took me out for ice cream and our conversation was forced. He was trying to reach me and I just wasn’t there. I didn’t want to be reached. I was a pissed off teenage girl who just wanted to be anywhere but with her parents.
I told him that he needed a new car. I was embarrassed because we had an old car and I was now going to a school where a lot of my friends were more well off than we were. He told me the only way he could afford one would be if someone crashed into him. I secretly hoped it would happen. I didn’t want him to be hurt, or anything like that, I just wanted the car to be banged up a bit so we could get a new one. That’s not what I’m having a hard time with. I understand and accept that it was an uncanny remark that ironically foreshadowed what was to come. While I was convinced at first that those words caused my dad’s death, I didn’t live in that ridiculous theory for more than a day or two.
The part that haunts me the most is what came next. My dad parked in our driveway and sat for a few seconds in the driver’s seat. I wondered why he wasn’t getting out. I followed suit and allowed the awkward silence to float over the car. After a few more seconds he looked at me and said the sentence that I wish I could erase from my brain.
“Sometimes I feel like you don’t love me.”
“Of course I do!” I shot back. But despite my best attempt, I don’t think I convinced either of us. He smiled at me, got out of the car and headed into our apartment. I remained there and felt like I had just been punched in the gut. Because the truth was, I couldn’t find it within myself in that moment to love him. I wanted to. I knew my dad was one of the best around and that even our recent inability to see eye to eye couldn’t erase that.
I sat in the car for a few minutes eating my ice cream between sobs. I wanted so badly to be able to tell my dad that I loved him and mean it. I searched and searched for the love I knew he deserved but kept on coming up empty. I wanted so badly to be able to run up to him, throw my arms around him, and tell him that I loved him but my broken thirteen year old heart had been through too many changes in too short of a time and I blamed him for all of it. In the moment, I couldn’t tell him that I loved him. And I knew I couldn’t fool either of us.
I felt like the worst daughter in the world. I knew my dad was a good man and that I was lucky to have him as a father. I wanted so badly to say that I loved him, I knew deep down I did, but I didn’t feel it in my heart. I couldn’t help but wonder – What was wrong with me? Why was I so broken?
After calming myself down, I made my way up to our apartment. My dad, resilient as ever, already outwardly moved past what must have been one of the most heartbreaking exchanges of his life. He was all smiles when I walked in, as if nothing had happened. Looking back, I’m sure I hurt him. Every parent fears the day their child resents them. While they recognize that it’s the natural way of things, and that it’ll pass, no one enjoys the moment it knocks on their door.
And I know every teenager goes through a period like that. But not every teenager’s dad gets in a car accident the next night that would eventually end in his unexpected death.
That’s what’s so cruel about losing a parent at thirteen. You don’t get to grow up and apologize for how selfish you were as a teenager. On the day you finally realize everything your parent did for you, they’ll be long in their grave. You don’t get to look back and laugh at the way you acted and you don’t get to make up for your mistakes.
With my mom, I was able to have that conversation where I tell her I see how much she sacrificed for us and she tells me it’s a mother’s job. Where I tell her that I’m sorry for the way I treated her and she reassures me that every teen is like that. I didn’t get to do that with my dad.
And yes, I know he knew. I’ve been told every single comforting phrase from every single person in my life. He’s watching over me and knows. Everyone is like that as a teenager. He would never want to see you beat yourself up. He loves you and you love him and that’s what matters. I’m a good person.
But there’s a difference between the closure you get when you can have that physical conversation with someone and trying to read the mind of a ghost.
No matter how much I’ve tried to forgive myself, or how many times I’ve been told that he knew I loved him, I’m sitting here fourteen years later with the same pit in my stomach and hole in my heart. And honestly I don’t think it can be repaired. The only way I could ever patch it is if I had been able to have a conversation with my dad about that day. That opportunity is just something that can’t happen.
And that’s okay.
We all have sharp, broken pieces. We can smooth out as much as possible, but there will always be some holes. It’s part of being human. We try to ease our suffering as much as possible but there will always be some things that hurt as bad as they did on the day we got those wounds. And we will spend so much time trying to twist them and pretend they’re not there. We’ll search for any words from friends, family, therapists, teachers, books… anything to try and fix it. Our loved ones will try and patch it up for us because it hurts them to see us hurt. But at the end of the day, we can’t fix everything. And that’s one of the most beautifully human things about us.
I don’t hate myself and don’t live every day regretting what happened on November 7th. It’s one unfortunately timed day out of a million wonderful moments that made up my relationship with my dad. It wasn’t the defining moment. My worth isn’t defined by that single exchange and I can live with what happened. Most days I forget it even happened.
But sometimes it creeps up, or you decide to rip it wide open by writing a book about your life, and you want to crawl back into your thirteen year old body and hide away in you reading teacher’s classroom or group therapy room or behind your stack of books. Those nights are hard, lonely, and unable to be smoothed over with good intentions or reassurance.
I’ve been down this road before, and know that at this point in my life, it ends with waking up tomorrow feeling fine. But tonight I’m sad. And that’s okay. Because my dad died as the result of car crash when I was thirteen and that really fucking sucks.
That’s what grief is.
It’s ugly, it’s uninvited. But it’s real, and it’s the truth.