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Grief is Never Linear

Losing a parent is hard. Losing a parent with whom you barely had a relationship is… complicated. My dad died a year ago today – and it’s no easier today than it was then. When I think back on our relationship, or lack thereof, I realize to anyone on the outside, my grief probably doesn’t make any sense.

My dad left when I was only 2 ½. He struggled with alcohol and drug addictions, and continued to do so for most of his life. I had no memories of him that I could recall. My mom barely spoke about him - something that I don’t begrudge her because he wasn’t kind to her – but I was this little girl who wanted nothing more than to have him around. I’d created an entire story in my head about who he was, why he wasn’t with us. I vividly remember coming home from school one day, sobbing, after an especially ruthless day of kids being assholes and me being a boyish-looking, fatherless girl with an afro, I was an easy target. My mom held me while I blamed her for him not being there, begging her to let me go live with him, not wanting to believe her when she said she didn’t know where he was, but also knowing deep down that she was telling the truth. I was ten years old.

After a summer of babysitting, I saved up all of my money to take horseback riding lessons. Then I saw an episode of some talk show where they had an ad for a company that would help you find people you’d lost – this was at the infancy of the internet, kids, we didn’t have Google. So, I took all of that money and signed up. They sent me a list of Kens, Kenneths, Kennys, Ks - and my best friend & I went through every single one, screening out the people with the wrong middle initial, and then I set to writing. I hand-wrote almost 50 letters to Ken Ls across the country and I heard back from 1. He wasn’t the right one, but he wrote back. 25 years later, I still have that letter and never forgot the kindness a stranger showed to a desperate 12 year old girl.

I was so afraid my mom would feel rejected if I told her what I was doing, so I kept it from her. She found the packet though, turns out between the couch cushions is not a proper hiding space, and wasn’t mad. She used the white pages (google it, kids) and found my Aunt’s number, who still lived in our home state. She took down our info and said she’d pass it on to him, IF he wanted to talk to me. Yeah, harsh. Luckily for my little heart, he called the next day, and I heard my dad’s voice for the first time in 10 years. I don’t know how to explain it, but when he spoke, I just knew him. I couldn’t have told you what he’d sound like, had daydreamed about him so many times, never hearing his voice, but some part of me recognized it. I was so nervous; I didn’t know what to say. He told me I had two little sisters and asked about school, the usual. I made him a photo album of my favorite childhood photos and sent it to him, and he sent me a birthday card that year – the only one I ever got from him.

For the next few years, our relationship would continue to be weird. I was becoming a teenager and he lived on the other side of the country. When I was 16 he came to my town for a business trip and for the first time in 14 years, I saw him, hugged him. It was all so surreal. A part of me was so angry with him and the other part of me just wanted him to pull me into his lap and tell me how much he’d missed me and loved me. I wanted him to see me and never be able to leave again. He only came back one other time. Over the next 20 years, he’d pop in and out with phone calls and broken promises. I stopped answering. In my head, I forgave him, but I was still hurt by the abandonment of it. My little sisters and I became closer though. We started talking, we’d visit each other. I got to watch my youngest sister graduate from college and take my oldest nephew on his first trip to Disneyland. I got to build memories that we’d missed out on not growing up together.

Early last January, my aunt – yeah the same one – messaged me on Instagram telling me to get in touch. I asked what was going on and in typical petty fashion she said, “Initially I wanted to see if you had a number for [sisters] just wanted you to know that your dad has stage 4 cancer of several organs” OK. I can’t even go into all the layers of wrong in that, but just know it felt like a punch to the gut. I called my sister, she’d just gotten off the phone with the same aunt, and we sat in it. Neither one of us really knew what to say. He hadn’t said a word to any of us. He’d been diagnosed a year prior but hadn’t wanted to face it. she’d been trying to call him, not getting an answer, but then she asked me if I wanted to talk to him – if she got him on the line. I guess I wasn’t ready for that, but I knew that time wasn’t really a luxury we had.

When the phone rang, a million things went through my mind, but when I answered, and he said his typical “hey baby” I was 12 all over again. In my 20s I hated, HATED, that he always called and said “hey baby” or left messages and would say “hey baby, it’s daddy” you LEFT me. How dare you still act like I’m your baby girl. How DARE you. I never told him that though, bc the thought of him not saying it was so much worse. This call wasn’t what I expected it to be – at all. After the hellos, he started crying – I wasn’t ready for that either. He’d never let his guard down before, always pretending like nothing was wrong, that our lives and relationships weren’t fucked up. Looming death has that effect though. He began apologizing for, well, everything. And I let him. I’m usually the first person to get uncomfortable when someone apologizes, tell them it’s fine and thanks but I totally get it blah blah, and I had to bite my tongue not to do the same now. We had a new sense of urgency, we both felt it.

He needed me to know how sorry he was, I needed him to know how much he’d hurt me. For the first time in 30 something years, I told him how it’d felt, growing up without him, without his guidance on being black in this country, in the south. I told him how unloved I’d felt no matter how many times he’d say, it just hurt worse bc it still wasn’t enough for him to stay, I wasn’t enough. And we both cried and spoke truths and it fucking sucked and was also the healing I didn’t even know I’d been missing. I had been living with this wound that wouldn’t heal, but I’d learned to bandage it up, keep it clean, even though it continued to fester, but now, now I had these words, these apologies, that I thought I’d never get and that I’d have to just live without. It was finally the ointment I needed to begin actually closing the wound. Then he said something to me that makes me sob every time I think about it, because it was the first time I ever felt like he truly meant it.

When I was in middle school, I played the saxophone, and was in choir. I love my mom, but she can’t sing to save her life (sorry, ma) she told me that my dad had played the clarinet and was actually really really good. That I’d gotten any musical talent I had from him. When he came to visit that first time at 16, we’d talked about it and I said I wasn’t playing anymore, but I was still singing. 20 years later, here we are talking, knowing that we only had a few months left, and he brought up that night - And I’m going to paraphrase bc 1. It’s so beautifully personal, and 2 it’s too fucking painful – but he said that as I was speaking, looking at grown up me, all he could still see was me as a baby, the same face he'd always known. He sat there staring at me that night, in awe that he’d help create something so beautiful. That he thought he was doing me a favor, staying away, knowing what a mess he was in his own life, not wanting me to get anything from him bc he didn’t think he had any trait worth giving – but he gave me music anyway. Ya’ll I heard him say “I love you” anytime he called or left a message, but this was the first time I actually HEARD him say he loved me. Remembering an obscure reference to my childhood, the way he told it, it was like that night was a movie in his head – he remembered every detail vividly, 20 years later. My daddy loved me in the only way he know how, in the only capacity he could. These were the words I needed more than any I love you, because they didn't just tell me, they finally SHOWED me, that I was enough. We spoke a couple more times after that, he knew his time was limited, and he wanted so desperately to tell me about his past, who he was, who my grandparents were. I began looking at houses to buy, so I could move him down here with me, help take care of him in his last days. Get to make memories and say our goodbyes. Life really just loves to knock the teeth right out of you though and a few days later, he slipped into a coma and was moved to hospice.

I’d spent my life wondering what I would do in this exact moment. When I was 18, a friend I’d met during my travel gap year had the same type of relationship with his dad, and his dad died while he was still travelling. It’s amazing how trauma bonds you to people. We’d only known each other maybe 6 months, but he called me, bc I was the only person who would understand. He asked me what I would do – would I end my trip, go home be there for the funeral? I thought about that conversation more often than I’d like to admit, but never was able to find the right answer and didn’t know what I’d do. Before my friend's dad passed, I remember having a deep late night conversation about what we’d do if our dads ever got sick. Would we let them die alone, would we want to be there, would they deserve us being there? It sounds harsh, but unless you’ve had that sort of relationship with a parent, you’ll never understand the guilt and truthfulness of that feeling. When the moment came though, it wasn’t even a question anymore. I immediately started looking for plane tickets – during a pandemic. When I tell you the universe gives you what you need, I truly believe it. The other half of my soul called me and said “when are you leaving” and I said I think Friday afternoon, and she said “I’ll be there Friday morning to pick up [my dog]” not a question, but a statement to something she knew I didn’t know how to ask for, a help I needed & didn’t know how to convey.

When I showed up on Friday, my little sister picked me up from the airport and we went straight to the Hospice. He didn’t even look like himself anymore, just a shell of who he was. The nice thing about hospice though, is you can stay as long as you want. We stayed just a little while the first day, it’s hard seeing your parent in that state. But over the next few days, I would spend a few hours working from my hotel, and then spend the rest of the day into the evening working from his room. I’m convinced he could hear us, and I made sure his favorite music - swing - was playing at all times. I played him a few of my recordings – he’d never heard me sing. I told him about my hopes and dreams and fears and all the things I couldn’t tell anyone else. We 3 girls all had a chance to come by his room, spend alone time with him, say our goodbyes. My brother was out of the country so I text him to ask if he wanted to say goodbye too, I didn’t think he had much longer. So we face-timed. An hour later, I looked up from my computer and I couldn’t see his chest rising. They don’t have monitors on in Hospice. I was calm at first, and then I put my head on his chest and there was nothing. Panic set in. I was alone. He was gone and I was alone.

The next few days were a blur – dying is a lot of paperwork and making impossible decisions all while trying to deal with your emotions. We didn’t have a funeral, Covid was rampant, and we were all spread everywhere, so his ashes are here with me – not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to buy a house for us to live in together, but hey, that’s life… and death. Losing my dad healed some things, in the days leading up, but his death also opened new wounds. Things I never got to say, he never got to say. Time we should’ve had – he was only 65 – why couldn’t he have apologized BEFORE he was dying, why didn’t he tell us a year ago? Some other these, deep down, I know the answers to, but others, I’ll never know.

Going through family photos, I heartrendingly learned that there is only one of us together – doesn’t that suck. There’s no fixing that. But then I remind myself that I was the only one there with him when he died. I was the only one holding his hand, and telling him we’d be ok, to just let go, be in peace. It was traumatic as hell, but also a moment no one can take from me or share. I was lucky to have some time with him before he passed, to hear him say things I didn’t even realize how badly I’d needed to hear. I know that, with my whole heart, but also grief is a bitch, so there’s that.

This wasn't really meant to be an about me post, but it's the only way I really know how to talk about him. So much of our relationship was how his absence affected me more than it was about making memories, but he was more than just me or my siblings. He had his own upbringing, his own traumas and demons, his own life outside of us. He grew up in Virginia, in the south, down the road from where his great grandparents were enslaved and his father was "a mean son of bitch" who never let him call him dad - only Bootsy, a nickname. His first real connection to love was to his nephew that was born when he was 12 years old. He couldn't say enough about his love for that baby, but he died, when he was only a year old. It makes his distance more understandable that way - the trauma of losing the one person that loves you back unconditionally, the fear of that repeating again, it followed him into parenthood, and into death.

Clarinet days

He was funny, charming, and had a great smile. He loved swing music and country, and would have words for anyone who told him he couldn't like country and be black - we're a hot tempered bunch. His nickname was Rudy, a moniker he got from a friend back in his teens, because of that same temper. He was first chair clarinet back in his day, and I only wish I could've heard him play, but he sold it, back when I was young, to help out his sister - yup, the same aunt - and never found the time to get a new one. He loved karaoke - loved it so much he bought a professional karaoke set and after he retired, he would Karaoke DJ at events. He was so worried about all the bad things he could pass onto me, to us, that he didn't even fully realize just how much I was already like him in so many good ways. So, here’s to moving forward, grieving, healing, and growing.


Go in peace

go in kindness

go in love

go in faith

Leave the day

day behind us

day is done

go in grace

Let us go into the dark –

not afraid, not alone

let us hope

by some good pleasure

safely to arrive at home

1 Comment

Thank you for sharing my friend.

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