Reminder to Self and Reminder to You

Be brave. Do it scared. Refer to the sections “Scary, Scary, Scary” (page 12), “Defending Your Weakness” (page 16), “Fear Is Boring” (page 19), “The Fear You Need and the Fear You Don’t Need” (page 22), and “The Road Trip” (page 24) in Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Fuuuucking Grief

Content warning: Talk of suicide, miscarriage, infant death, death, and cancer

Photo by P C from Pexels

I thought I was done grieving and that I had such a good relationship with my dad that I adjusted very well to his death. I thought the second year of grief being worse only applied to parents and spouses, but I was wrong. It applies to everyone, and it feels like I’m regressing in grieving, but I know it’s normal.

TL;DR: The years since my dad died have been some of the best years of my life, and I feel guilty for saying that. It’s not that him being gone makes me happy. It’s that there’s so much that came after he died—because he died—that helped make life better, easier, and I wish that he didn’t have to be gone for it to happen.

In my dream one morning awhile back, it was January 1, 2021. I remember thinking that 2020 was the fastest year of my life (Yeah, because when I went to sleep, it was March 26, 2020.). I didn’t know who won the U.S. Presidential election or how the coronavirus situation turned out, but I remember reflecting on the past two and a half years of my life and realizing that they were the happiest I’ve ever been, and that killed me. How could the happiest years of my life be after my dad died? How could I be happy with my dad not on Earth anymore. In fact, when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I remember thinking that if he died, I would kill myself, too, because I didn’t want to live in a world where my dad didn’t. The day we found out my dad likely had cancer and the day I was told it was time for him to go into hospice care were the two worst days of my life, but what lie between and beyond them were some of the best of my life. Even the day he died was a better day than those two days. I was relieved that he was dead. No more waiting around to find out what was going to happen to him and no more being or feeling responsible for keeping someone alive and feeling like one of the only things that stood between someone other than myself and death and feeling like every action I did could kill him or save him—feeling like I had to choose between keeping myself healthy and him alive and the justification was that unhealthy could heal but death is permanent. You know, conveniently forgetting or ignoring that lack of health often leads to permanent death whether the lack of health was in that individual’s or anyone else’s control. I give myself a hard time very often for enjoying life now that my dad’s dead, even though I know he wouldn’t want any of me or my family to sit around moping about him being gone for the rest of our lives, but objectively, when I think about it, it makes perfect sense why I can enjoy life now that he’s dead.

Some of it is pretty simple even though it may be morbid—so simple that I feel like many people don’t even think about it on this micro a level; I literally never have to worry about him again. No wondering if he didn’t call my mom before leaving work because he died at work or wondering if he’s taking longer than usual to come home because he’s dead on the side of the road. Or wondering if he’s going to get cancer and die too soon. I know everyone says their loved ones died too soon, and I promise, I’m not trying to invalidate you or tell you you’re wrong, but 48 is unarguably way too soon for someone who was such an amazing and good person. And people’s loved ones who died younger than my dad died even more way too soon than my dad. I don’t think it negates the sadness of the death of anyone older than my dad. I think it’s just an objective fact. I wish my dad could have lived to be 70 or 80 or 90 or 100 or 100+, given he would have had a good quality of life of course. People whose babies died or teen kids or siblings died surely wish they could have lived to 47. Knowing what they know now, 47 quality years is much better than 12 weeks gestation, a few hours, a couple years, or seventeen years, even though we all hope for and to some extent expect for 70-80 quality years.

Other reasons are still simple but more obvious; Taking care of someone who is sick and can’t do for themselves is hard. And my dad was the second person dying of cancer I took care of in almost exactly two years. Before that, I was earning a pre-med degree, my first college degree, which was hard enough but I developed an anxiety disorder in my second year that went unrecognized and therefore untreated for two years. Before that was childhood, and while I did have a good childhood, I don’t remember enough of it and have much more meaningful things in my life now that childhood seems bleak in comparison. Before my dad died, my life was on hold—much of it probably my choosing but I wouldn’t change any of it. In some ways, my life is still on hold, but there are less things to work past now. I’m closer than ever to starting the life for which I’ve been waiting.

And other reasons are more complex, and I really don’t know how obvious they are to many people—50/50? The first being that even though my dad was debilitatingly sick, and my life was on hold, and I was under a tremendous amount of stress, I got to spend so much  time with my dad that I wouldn’t have gotten to spend with him if he were healthy and able to go to work. He would have spent that time going to work to provide for us (“That’s what daddies do,” right, Jo?(; ), and I would have spent that time going back to school for a Master of Art in Teaching for secondary education (that I do still want to pursue after some years of nursing), and we both would have been too busy to spend that much time together. I think I take for granted/don’t realize how much more time I got with my dad than anyone else—my siblings and at that point in time my mom (Although, she may cumulatively have more time with him than I do.). Everyone else in my family was literally working (my mom) or going to school full-time (all four siblings). My dad always spent time with us on weekends and in the evenings, but I think I had a significant amount of tunnel vision and assumed that since my siblings and I are all his children, that we had the same relationship and the same amount of time with him. It dawned on me after my dad’s death that that was not the case, most significantly when my sister told me that one of my brothers said something along the lines of he didn’t think I realized that I had a different relationship with our dad than they each did, and he was right. After hearing it, it sounds like the most obvious thing, but I was so not aware of it and truthfully did assume that he was the same with all of us, even though he did tell us that he naturally treated us differently because we’re different people.

And the final reason being complicated and simple at the same time. Let’s go back to the quote I threw in the middle of this essay: “That’s what daddies do.” And the story behind it is so precious, but that’s Jordan’s (my sister) to share. My dad wanted more than anything to make us feel loved, and after that, he wanted to be able to provide for all of us. I really think he wrapped up much of his worth in how well he could provide for us whether he should have or not. I remember one time complaining about the house, and he got angry at me. And my dad barely ever if ever got angry at me or at least would barely show it or react to it. I had never seen him like this, and he was so mean compared to what I was used to, but he was hurt, and it was when he was sick, and he was very sensitive when he was sick (I think he finally told himself he had an excuse to be sensitive—you know, sick and maybe dying.), and he very aggressively told me to stop complaining about the house because it made him feel like shit that this was the best he could provide for us and that I was so obviously unhappy with it. When he died, he got to do what he always wanted from the afterlife. He had a life insurance policy that allowed us to renovate our house, and it’s fricking nice. I know it’s such a privilege to live in it much less be so privileged for life before this nice house—literally two years ago—to feel like a dream, not real, a different life, hard to remember. In many ways, it feels like I’ve only ever lived in this nice a house, but I know that’s not true. I wonder how many of you are thinking, “Wow, one of the things you use to justify being happy after your dad’s death is a nice house? How shallow.” I assume it’s many of you, but I think that’s underestimating your compassion. The biggest thing this nice house provides that we didn’t have before that has much such a difference is central air and heat. If you’re from Louisiana, I think it might be easier to understand.

It’s above 80 F for at least 75% of the year. We basically have a 9-10 month summer and a 2-3 month winter, and as bad as that winter feels to me, I’m sure it’s a joke of a winter to much if not most of the world. So to only have had window units in a 3000+ sq ft house was rough to say the least. It was certainly better than nothing, but it felt so inadequate in July. And we’d have to buy new window units for each room at least once a year on average, sometimes some more than once in one summer because again 3000+ sq ft. So compare that to yesterday, I had to wear a different outfit in our house and outside because the house is so cold to me that I still have to dress like winter, but it was 87 F yesterday and sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and a pullover hoodie were not cutting it outside.

And then perhaps my favorite thing that came out of my dad dying was my fiancé Aaron moving in with us. I don’t think my dad would have ever let him move in, at least not before he was sick. I would still be skeptical about whether he would have let had he survived cancer, but my mom who arguably knew him better than anyone (And I say that with total confidence.) says she thinks he would have let had he survived cancer. But having Aaron live with us is probably my favorite part of my life. He is my favorite part of my life. Getting to go to bed with him every night, literally in his arms (Until he’s ready to fall asleep because in case anyone doesn’t know, it is extremely uncomfortable to sleep while cuddling, even spooning—I know. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.) is something I hope I never have to miss out on again. I used to go on spontaneous overnight trips with my mom and, yeah, be sad that I don’t get to see Aaron if I were gone during our day together, but the trip was fun enough that it was worth it. Now, I can’t stand it. My mom and I came home early from a trip because I was so homesick and cried two or three times (I also was put on a new anxiety medicine when I came home, so I’m sure that had something to do with it.). I hesitate and ultimately don’t go on overnight trips with my mom anymore, even if it’s to see one of my brothers whom I get to see once or twice a year (Sorry, Justin. I swear I love you!), and I had to hide in a bathroom and cry on a weekend trip for a nursing school convention that was two nights away from home (Hey, NASN and LASN. This is embarrassing—kind of.).

So, when I stop to think about it, it does make perfect sense that life is still good and in some ways better since my dad died, but I still go through waves, which I’m sure is normal, of feeling guilty for enjoying life without my dad in it.


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