Oh February, you really are the perfect storm of self-indulgent, narcissistic, retrospective, introspective nonsense! It’s shortly after the turn of the new year. It’s my birthday. It’s my kids’ birthdays. It’s too cold to get outside and do anything. It really does put me in a nice little pocket of talking to myself. Thank you technology for allowing me to talk to myself publicly for the benefit of all mankind.
It’s an odd thing getting older. You hear people talk about it all of the time, but when it happens to you it just really is indescribable. It’s very similar to a first kiss, or maybe your first hangover. People can talk all they want about it, but you’ll never know until you’re there. I feel the same way each time the calendar flips its page and sends me one year closer to whatever awaits me at the finish line. This feeling of inevitable speeding forward has only been amplified by the fact that my dad died in December. When the top branches of your family tree are suddenly pruned, you find yourself at the top looking down. Suddenly you are no longer a part of something; you are the head of something. It occurs to you that slowly, secretly, you have been building a world for yourself to live in and that the consequences of your choices are far too real.
My dad was diagnosed with lung cancer last summer, and it took him away shortly before Christmas. His dad died of the same thing, when my dad was roughly around my age. It definitely gets your head turning about what the future holds. My dad was probably the strongest guy I’d ever met, and he fought this horrible confusing disease up until the end. I saw him 4 days before he died. We talked, joked around, told stories. It was just a usual visit with him. We hadn’t seen each other in just under 3 years and it felt like we hadn’t skipped a beat. That was our relationship though. We’d learned to cope with the distance. Time held no real significance for us. It was a special connection, something that is difficult to explain.
If you know me, or have read through any of my other ramblings then you may have caught on that my connections to people are not necessarily typical. I don’t miss people. When they leave, I don’t often think of them. When they die, I have an easy time moving on. I haven’t seen my mother in about a decade and on a daily basis it tends not to phase me. I hadn’t seen either of my brothers in about 6 or 7 years and the sun just kept shining. Call it a safety mechanism, or call it being a self centered ass, but I just don’t really miss people when they leave my life. Understand the gravity of the statement then, when I say that I miss my dad. It eats away at me, and puts a painful lump high in my throat. A lump that I have to choke back more than I’d like to. It’s taken a couple of months to process him being gone, and even now I find myself wanting to talk to him. Every time it snows here I feel like I should call him. We had a shared amusement for Indiana’s definition of “bad weather.”
I saved the last string of text messages that we had exchanged. He told me that he loved me, and I told him that I wished I could have stayed longer during my visit. Then I sent him a picture of my oldest daughter working on her homework at the kitchen table. That image was the last thing that he got from me. He died shortly thereafter, and my step mom had to call me with the news. I don’t know how else to describe it, but when she told me that he was gone, something broke inside of me. It was like a piece of me shattered and I haven’t quite figured out how to rebuild that piece yet.
I hadn’t been to a funeral in about 16 years and it was a strange experience to go to his. I can remember going to many funerals when I was a kid. I remember sitting near the back of churches, and funeral homes. I remember looking at the relatives of the deceased and wondering what they were thinking. I remember feeling a strange detached sadness for them. It was similar to the feeling you get during ads for the humane society. You feel a sadness, but not anything strong enough to truly impact you. I always knew that by and large my life would be unchanged after I left the funeral. It’s a very different perspective when you’re in the front row of a funeral.
My children had never seen me cry, and frankly it was a record I was hoping to hold on to. I have no idea why, but I just view crying as some sort of personal defeat. It’s a clearly visible sign that I’ve lost control over my own emotions and my body. As I sat staring at my father’s body in front of me though, I was overwhelmed. I thought that the grief would be more general. I thought I would feel a vague sense of loss, or something very widespread, but it was so specific. Thoughts kept bursting into my mind and driving the rusty nail further into my heart. They weren’t thoughts of all the times that we’d had together; rather, it was thoughts of everything that we’d talked about doing. My son’s first hunting trip, planning my family’s future farm, buying my first truck, choosing our first horse together. The list went on and on. Each scene played in my head like a short home movie that would never exist. I thought of how much he’d talked about seeing his grandkids graduate high school. I thought about him dancing with my daughters at their weddings. I thought about him showing up to my son’s bachelor party someday. Then I thought about my own wedding day. There’s a picture of my brothers and I standing with my dad at my wedding. All of this was a flood of water that crushed my lungs and took the fight out of me.
People don’t know what to say to you when you tell them that your dad has died. They throw out hollow phrases of condolences, and I believe most mean well, but there’s nothing worth saying. My dad and I had a relationship that most will never understand, and few have had the opportunity to experience. I was raised to hate him, and was instructed well in that skill. I wasn’t raised by him, and never knew him as a father in that regard. I knew him as a mentor. I knew him as a friend. I knew him as a man that I wanted to be more like. He represented the qualities that I wanted to bring out in myself, and thanks to genetics, qualities that I knew I had hidden somewhere in side of me. When his former boss pulled me aside and told me how proud my dad was of me, and how much he talked about me, it was probably the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me. Without knowing what to say I told him I was trying my best to live up to the family name.
When someone dies, the instinct is always to say something benign like, “He was a good man.” My dad truly was good. He was better than me, and better than most. I think that the world was better for him having been in it, and I honestly believe it will be worse without him.
As I look at my kids, inching away from me with every passing year, I can’t help but feel gratitude. It’s of course sad to watch them grow up, and know that someday they’ll head out on their own, but I am undeniably grateful that I get to watch it happen. With each passing year, and each milestone reached, I am thankful that I got to watch it. Each morning I wake up and I pray for two things. The first is that he will keep our small family together. Regardless of what else happens, or where life takes us, I ask that he keeps us together. The second thing I pray for is that we all have understanding and acceptance if his plan separates us. The older that I get, the more I can look back at my life and see all of the mysterious changes, moves, decisions, heartbreaks, and successes building up like a puzzle. Each piece is too small to even recognize but after 32 years on this amazing planet there is a picture starting to form. It’s a picture I don’t believe I will see finished in my lifetime. A picture that I don’t think I’ll fully understand until long after I’ve left this life.
So while I live each day with a fresh new pain that I’ve never know before, and a longing that I can’t quite describe, I also live it with nothing but gratitude. Gratitude for the three amazing, beautiful, and truly awesome little people sleeping across the hall. Gratitude for the stunning creature that sleeps beside me now. Gratitude for the close few that I call friends. Gratitude for the even fewer that I call family. Gratitude for a life that I never asked for, a gift that I don’t deserve.
Until Next Time