Life seems to sneak up and happen when I’m least expecting it. I’ve been a “grown up” for a long time now. I’ve been married for almost twelve years, been a parent for almost seven years, been working for a long time…all the things I thought made me a card-carrying grown up. Turns out, I was wrong. I looked like a grown up and acted like a grown up (well, sometimes), but inside, I was so far from it.
I’m the youngest of three kids, and the only girl. My brothers will tell you that means I’m spoiled, but nah…I disagree. I am, however, really close to my parents. Well, I was, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Luckily, I married a wonderful guy who loved my parents as much as me. We actually enjoyed spending time with them, and he was so patient when it came to listening to my Dad’s advice (on everything…Dad was never short on opinions) and listening to all of my Dad’s stories (sometimes over and over again). When our daughter was born six years ago, my Dad was already retired and home all day, so he cooked for us more days than not and took care of our daughter as often as he could. She loved going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and of course, she got to do all kinds of things that I was never allowed to do as a child (eat grilled cheese for every meal, jump on furniture, sit on the dog…you know). My Mom and Dad were just a part of our lives—every part of our lives. My daughter even went to my Mom’s daycare, and we lived just five minutes from them. And then we did something very grown up, I thought…we moved to a town an hour and a half away. But we still saw my parents at least once a week, and I talked to my Dad on the phone every day at least once. We’d still spend weekends together, and we took vacations together. Even 80 miles away, they were still a part of our everyday lives. It was effortless, too—they just WERE a part of our family. We weren’t a family of three, but of five…only two of us didn’t live here all the time. And then we became a family of four, and with them, six. We even bought a bigger car because we spent so much time together and didn’t want to have to worry about taking two cars places. The plan was, after my Mom retired, they’d move here to our town and things would go back to normal. Ah, but you know what happens when we make plans…
Last summer, we started noticing that Dad wasn’t eating well, then he started losing weight. After a lot of denial, it was confirmed: cancer. And not a friendly kind of cancer, either. It tore him up, and it did the same to all of us. Overnight, it seemed, he went from being my Dad—the one who knew everything, who was always there for me—to being sick. Suddenly I found myself in the role of adult child…talking to doctors, being there for my parents, consulting with my brothers. Suddenly, my perfect little life wasn’t so perfect anymore, and everything seemed to spiral out of control. It’s a year I don’t like to think about very much, and I’m sure my family feels the same way.
Come on, you know how this one ends. There were some twists along the way that threw us all for a loop. Mom and Dad’s house burned three days before his final cancer surgery—not sure if that’s irony, or what, but here we were, thinking my Dad was going to go into the hospital and not come out, looking, ironically, for a place for them to live. Well, he did come out of the hospital, and we all pitched in to make the new place feel like home. We all put life on hold and took a couple of short trips to places Dad wanted to see, but he was too sick at that point to really participate in anything. And then one holiday weekend, it felt really important that we all gather for a meal. So we did. Dad helped cook, then laid down to rest and essentially, died a week later. It went so fast—one day he was carving a ham, the next he slept all day, the next my Mom called to say that he’d fallen and cut himself badly…we drove in to make sure they were both okay, and they were, but he was already going. The next day I packed up my kids and my stuff and went to stay with them, thinking this was the beginning of a long process. And the next day, we had to call in hospice. And the next day, he didn't regain consciousness. A few days later, he was gone. Just…gone.
It’s the weirdest thing, when someone so close to you dies. Every single thing in your life is compromised. The simplest things can send you reeling—a memory, a meal, a smell, a word, crazy things, like coupons (Dad loved a bargain). Nothing is easy anymore, everything hurts. But you go on, because you don’t have a choice.
Our family is lucky, because for the most part, we’re pretty close. But it turns out, that doesn’t matter—with Dad gone, we’ve all retreated to our own corners to tend to our own wounds, sort ourselves out. Life has gone on, and I guess we have, too. In many ways, though, I’m frozen in time. I’ve come to realize that I wasn’t a grown up at all…at least, not before. But after, that’s a different story. I may not be alone, but I’ve lost the one who’s guided me through all of life’s big moments. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t always right, and sometimes he drove me absolutely crazy. But he was my Dad.
I remember being little. For some reason, we were at a motel and we were swimming in the pool. I remember Dad telling me to hold on to the side of the pool…and letting go, anyway. I still remember my shock at going down, down into the water and not being able to breathe or do anything about it. And I remember the strong hands that reached in and pulled me out. I remember one time after a storm when the water was rushing under the bridge in our neighborhood, and (in my memory my brother pushed me, but most likely I just stumbled) I almost fell into the current. And I remember the strong hands that grabbed my coat and hauled me back just in time. It was always like that in my life. My Dad was always there to remind me where the side was, where I could hold on. When I let go and tried it on my own, he was always there for me, waiting for me to need him again. He went from being the side of my swimming pool to the bottom. Whatever it was that I was up against, I could try it on my own and always have him to touch, propel me back up if I needed it. Sure, I could swim—I looked like a grown up and acted like one, remember?—but I never had to wonder what was down below me. My Dad was always there, whether I really needed him or not. He was just always there, waiting to be there for me. Even through his illness, he was there on his good days to talk to me about work, my kids, my life…he never quit telling us stories about his life, and he never quit giving advice. And now these are the things that I use to hold me up when I get tired of swimming.
You know, if you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you, sure, I’m grown up. But I was still swimming in a safe, clean, orderly swimming pool. I knew where the boundaries were, I knew what my limits were and I knew that all I had to do was touch bottom and propel myself back to the surface. But now I’m swimming out in what feels like the open sea. I have no idea what’s under me, I only know what’s not there—the bottom. Sometimes the water is pretty dark, and some days it’s churning so hard I’m afraid I’m going to go under and not come up. I’m not alone out here, but my Mom and brothers and even my husband are doing their best to stay afloat, too…so I have to do my best on my own to keep my chin up out of the water. Because, as hard as it is, I’m the bottom for my kids. And I have a lot to live up to.