My dad died on Dec. 3, 2009. Dads die, and even though I knew my dad's turn would eventually come, and we spent months preparing for the moment after his cancer diagnosis went from bad to hopeless, I was not prepared. And I'm not prepared today, 10 years later, for what feels like his second death.
The end of the decade, for many, comes with a sense of renewed purpose; looking back at the growth achieved, the hardships faced, and the excitement for what's to come. The solid meat and bone of your feet placed firmly on the earth proves you've made it past whatever shit you overcame, even if the inner traumas that sprang forth from those years remain. But whatever state you may be in, at least you're there. For me, 2009 was the worst time in my life: my dad was diagnosed in May, and his death came just seven months later. I've learned to live with his absence, because there's no other choice. But the end of this decade has felt strange and difficult because of this heartbreaking milestone. It feels like, from here on out, it will be harder to remember his voice, his laugh, his scent—his presence will continue to fade from a bright image to one dulled by the passing of time.
My family celebrated this past Christmas at my brother's new house. After one of her regular fits of reorganizing and cleaning, my mom brought a few old jackets of my dad's that she had found, and held them up enthusiastically for us to take. I was immediately flooded with images of my dad wearing the jackets: wrapped in the navy windbreaker while hanging out in the garage; warmed by the shearling in the free promotional trucker jacket as he fought a T-Mobile customer service rep over a bill. The images were mundane, but those moments are what I miss. Just him being there, being a dad. A couple of weeks earlier, during dinner with my boyfriend, I broke down in tears after I called him out for being kind of rude to his dad. "It may not seem like a big deal, but one day he'll be gone and none of that will matter.” I choked out, “You'll just wish he was around." Was I projecting? Yes, especially considering everyone has their own relationship with their parents that hold different histories. It’s just hard to lose someone.
In leaving behind the decade, I also move further away from his time with us. Someday I’ll have lived longer without him than with him. After 10 years, it becomes a little harder to remember a person who died, and the reminders of their presence disappear further: the clothes and other remaining personal items have long been gifted, photos might be put away, and other people tend to move on. The folds in the fabric slowly begin to flatten. Until my mom pulled out those jackets, I couldn't remember the last time I held anything of his. In Christmasses past, all it took was a mention of our dad to prompt the eruption of tears. This year, we kept it together. I think one sibling took a jacket. I decided not to. It seems we've gotten to a place where we can see a jacket or talk about him and be OK, which is a good thing. But I inevitably beat myself up about it, feeling guilty about letting my grief subside then arguing with myself for being masochistic or self-indulgent in my sadness. I also don’t want to inadvertently turn myself into a stock image found if you search for “grief”: wistfully staring out of a window, rain sprinkled on the pane, maybe a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, a cup of tea in my hands, face expressionless and void of any defining characteristics, other than stringy hair.
The process of living without my dad has been hard, and I can see how it's affected me not just emotionally but also in practical ways. Trying to figure out a retirement plan would be less overwhelming if I had the guy who managed to retire at 50 off a retail job giving me pointers. Seeing people post about taking their parents on vacations, or paying off their homes gives me a pang that I will never be able to show him my gratitude in that way, even if I make up for it with my mom. Granted, all I can currently afford are coach tickets for a flight to New York for my mom to visit me, and maybe a Michael Kors bag from an outlet store, but it's something.
My dad only knew me in the deepest struggle—broke, underemployed, divorced—and never got to see how his sacrifices as an immigrant and support as a father allowed me to flourish. Those are the times when he dies again, in my eyes. Then something sort of magical happens; someone will mention a random thing and it will conjure a flashback. Just the other day, a friend played The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” over his stereo and I told him and my boyfriend about how my parents used to dance to “Light My Fire” at the Tijuana club they'd go to when they were dating in the early 70s. That led to reminiscing about my dad singing The Guess Who's "These Eyes" impromptu to my mom as she cooked. In those moments, he comes back at full color.
Time marches forward, and there’s nothing I can do about that. It just feels like from here on out, staying connected to him will be harder. I see it in my siblings who tell their kids, who never met our dad, about their grandpa, hoping that they'll love and care about him too, even if they never knew him. I imagine this when I think about maybe having kids of my own.
He's more gone now than he was yesterday or 10 years ago. Each new day, new year, new decade, he'll be further away. Accepting that seems like adding a new layer to my grief. When we lose someone, and the years pass, the onus falls even deeper on ourselves to keep them from completely disappearing and hoping for those moments of magic that brings them back to us. I don't know where I'll be at the end of this decade, but I know I'll wish he was here.
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