Father’s Day Once Your Father Dies
Two and a half years ago, my father died unexpectedly five days before Christmas. He was in El Salvador training for a bike race, riding on windy roads up lush green mountains to gain endurance. But on December 20th, after riding for three hours through rough terrain, he was hit by a car as he waited on the side of the road to turn into his house. A man swerved to avoid a pothole, hit, and killed my father. He had spent so much of his life abroad in the United States, only to die five hundred feet from the house where he was born and where his own mother had died. That day plays in my head all the time. Every second of how it unfolded. The phone call where I was told he was gone, and how I had to pull over into a gas station because I couldn’t comprehend what it meant. (I still don’t comprehend what it means.) Within hours having to leave my kids, rent a Suburban and drive to Miami with my sisters and our husbands to get passports so we could make it back to him in El Salvador and say goodbye.
We buried him on December 23rd, and I returned at midnight on December 24th, just in time to kiss my children’s sleeping sweet faces and wake with them on Christmas morning. Having the saddest day of your life fall during what’s supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year was hard. I insincerely smiled for my kids, as I tried to navigate the world without the man who was with me for every second of my life; who championed my every achievement; who comforted me after every failure. Even though I had my husband, my children, my four sisters, mother, and step-mother, I felt out of place and alone. The whole world seemed different. The air smelled different. Food didn’t taste the same. Everything seemed so silent sometimes. I had conversations with him in my head all the time, imagining what he would have said about my septic system costing a fortune to replace in the house he told me not to buy.
If I lived until sixty-nine like him, that would be thirty more years until I would see him again. It seemed so long. Would I still remember him? Would he remember me? My heart had broken into so many pieces, and for months my body operated out of instinct. Get the children to school. Feed the children. Smile when needed. But underneath a sadness had set in that became all consuming. I caught myself not listening to my children sometimes when they were talking because I’d be caught up in a memory floating through my mind, and I’d feel horrible when I realized. I worried they’d remember how sad I was so I tried to hide my tears. I would feign driving to the grocery store, and cry in my car listening to old voice-mails and looking at pictures for hours unable to actually go in the store.
At thirty-eight years old, I learned that although it takes at minimum ten muscles in your face to make you smile, it only takes one broken heart to make you frown indefinitely. After the first months, I knew I should be getting better, but I still cried every day. I would tell myself to pull it together. He was almost seventy-years old. There was always going to be a time where I would be without him. That is the natural progression of things. My father had lived a good life. I felt selfish and embarrassed for mourning so heavily when others had faced tragedies of a greater magnitude. I kept telling myself if God had to be with a baby or a forty-year-old that morning that’s where God should have been, and my father would have said the same. My father would have told me to let him go. But even though I’m a rational person, my mind could not convince my heart to accept that my father, my hero, my friend had died. My heart couldn’t process death being forever.
I realize now that I suffered from complicated grief. I should have reached out for professional help. A year and a half in and I still cried constantly, and fixated on my father’s death. There were days that felt so dark, and I kept that to myself. Even now, it’s hard for me to admit that although I’m someone who’s poised and put together, someone who’s a mother and a caretaker, someone’s who’s a Catholic and a Christian, I questioned whether life had any meaning or purpose without my father. In retrospect, that was a dangerous place to be. But I wasn’t mentally sound enough to appreciate the gravity of my grief, let alone conquer it. I recently stumbled upon a quote while reading Bianca Marais’ Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, which tugged at my heart: “grief is a city all its own, built high on a hill and surrounded by stone walls. It is a fortress that you will inhabit for the rest of your life, walking its dead-end roads forever. The trick is to stop trying to escape and, instead, to make yourself at home.” It took me over two years to learn to live with loss, to pull myself back from its’ grasp. And even though sometimes I wanted to be alone in my fortress, I’m in a better place now because my friends and family stayed by my side.
It will be my third Father’s Day without my father. I have convinced myself this year I will be okay. Finally, my heart no longer floats around in my body looking for his face, listening for his voice, but honestly sometimes it does. I still miss him terribly. We all do. Father’s Day without my father still feels raw, his absence acute and painful. But that’s okay. I only miss him so much because he loved us so much. I don’t know if I will ever be able to celebrate Father’s Day without being slightly sad, but I’m focusing on also being happy. When I think of a memory with my dad, I’m learning to smile instead of cry. Grief has become my home, and like most homes on any given day it’s full of a myriad of emotions, sadness and love, regret and hope. Although permanency is hard to digest, I’m accepting that he’s gone. My dad would want that for me, and I need to want that for myself.
So, if this is your first or tenth Father’s Day without your father, know that my heart is with yours. Grief is a universal language, but it’s spoken in so many dialects and in so many unique ways that prolonged grief can feel shameful. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t move past the loss of my adult father. But grief shouldn’t be compared. Everyone has the right to mourn. The universalness of loss should be what binds us together: a commonality that transcends political, religious and cultural differences. Meghan McCain and I would probably disagree politically, but I’m sure she too has cried in the parking lot at her local super market over the loss of her father. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to talk about being sad. Talking about it is how we get through it.
There’s a piece of my father in me that burns so bright, guiding me, whispering in my ear, “hija, hija, love your sisters, love my wife, take care of your mother. Don’t forget who I was or where I was from.” Yes, Daddy, I know. You were a champion. You never forgot anyone. Don’t worry, Daddy. You’d be so proud of us all. I will never forget any of it. None of us will. I love you. Happy Father’s Day.