Saturday, November 18, 2023

On the 20th Anniversary of My Father's Death

 (Note: this is a post about my father. Well, his absence, his death. Over the years I’ve written a good bit about my father. Enough so that I’ve been accused of “not wanting to heal” and told to “just get over it and move on.” If you can’t read my words without rolling your eyes and wishing I would just toughen up and grow a pair, then move along. I’m not writing for you. If, on the other hand, you understand the complexity of life and relationships and loss and grief and don’t mind hearing the words of a sensitive soul as she processes an important anniversary, read on.)

It was 20 years ago today that it happened. I was crossing the front yard, returning from the grocery store, having gone on a road-trip-snack-finding mission in preparation for the next day when we were planning on heading south to Florida. We were pulling all four kids out of school in order to go on a press check near Tallahassee for my husband’s job, then on to Pensacola to see my dad. That was our plan. He was dying. This would be my goodbye to him. 

I crossed the front yard and standing on the steps was my husband. “Bonnie called. Your dad died.” Just typing those words brings tears to my eyes. Still. 

Something broke in me at that point. My dad was gone. But he had been gone. In some ways he had always been gone. 

But something about this, the finality of it, tore through me and tears that I had stored up for years, decades, broke loose. A Johnstown Flood of intense grief, sweeping through every valley and nook and cranny of me. 

Flashback. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving. We pull into the driveway after school and the garage that had, over the past couple of weeks, become a holding center for various pieces of furniture and boxes of possessions, was empty. He was gone. Gone. Gone. 

Gone. I couldn’t get past the word. I felt the word the way you feel hunger or cold or punch to the gut. Gone. it took my very breath away. 

I didn’t ever grieve him gone before. He wasn’t really. He was just across town, calling every so often to ask me how old I was and how was school. He wasn’t really gone because he would come and pick us up once a year, two or three days before Christmas, and take us out to eat. He wasn’t really gone because I would see him in articles in the newspaper or ads for his Dale Carnegie classes. 

He wasn’t really gone because he had never really been there. Or I had been so afraid of him when he was. It’s hard to remember now. That was so long ago. 

But gone. I didn’t really notice the impact for several years. But once I did…it was like a trap door had opened up and I had fallen through to this deep underground cavern, pregnant with emptiness. 

I realized that I had to grieve not just what I lost, but what I never had. 

You’d think by now it would be easier. It’s been 60 years since I was born. Forty-six years since he left. Twenty years since he died. And yet I feel the lack just as keenly as ever. The relationship that so many people take for granted, I cannot fathom. 

I cannot fathom being taught how to hit a ball or go fishing or play an instrument or work on a car. I cannot fathom intelligent conversation or shared silly songs. I cannot fathom shooting the breeze. I cannot fathom being valued and respected in any, any way by any man (other than my husband). 

For years I was told that God would be my Father. That he himself, he alone, would be able to fill whatever Grand Canyon of emotional and relational need that I had. But he didn’t. And just telling me that only put the burden on me with the message: “If you had a right relationship with God you wouldn’t feel this pain.” 

But I do. I still do. 

I suppose I always will. Last I checked, grief didn't have a timetable.  Not 20 or 46 or 60 years. Especially when you grieve not only what was lost, but what never was.