I used to dread anniversaries such as this, the anniversary of that stormy, frantic, gray day that dad died. Each anniversary reminded me of everything I lost when he left. A piece of me went with him, and it’s one I would never get back. That day, my ten-year-old life was forever changed, my childhood cut short by this tragedy and it transformed me as a girl, and continues to affect me as an adult. I know that, without my dad’s influence, and had I not experienced that loss, I am not even the same person that I would have been if my dad had lived into my adulthood.
I try not to get lost wondering who that other me would be.
I notice that when I talk to people who’ve also lost a parent as a young age, many describe it as a hole in your heart that will never completely heal. As a daughter losing her father, I also lost the one person who could provide unconditional love, or at least it felt that way.
Robert Frost said “You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular.” If this quote had been written by a woman, I think it would have said the exact opposite. Daughters don’t have to deserve their fathers’ love, but they do have to deserve their mothers’. Fathers dote on their daughters and love them unconditionally, whereas mothers are often tougher on their daughters. Frost also said “The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.” If Frost had written that same quote about daughters, I think it too would have been reversed.
My father, like many fathers of daughters, was the one who would build me up. If I scribbled a doodle on a piece of paper, he would tell me I could be a famous artist or cartoonist…. (after mom told me I should have colored within the lines.) When I read him a poem I wrote at school, he would tell me to keep it for the book I’d write one day when I’m a famous author. (Mom was sure to point out the words I misspelled.) When I swam the length of the pool for the first time without touching the bottom, he was waiting there with open arms and a dry towel, and would take me for ice cream afterwards to celebrate the beginning of my Olympic swimming career. (While mom was sure to remind me that I wasn’t the first one to reach the wall and therefore needed to practice harder and swim faster next time.) As a couple, mom and dad were probably as close as could be to the perfect balance, a yin and yang of parenting. After Dad died, however, there was a lot of “down” and not a lot of “up”.
Every anniversary, (and on just about every other day of the year) I used to think about all the ways my life may have been different if my dad had lived longer. I would have had more self-confidence. I would have accomplished more with him there to encourage me that I could be anyone or do anything. I’d have someone there to lift me up, to protect me, to guide me through situations that no one else could. He could have kept my boyfriends in line. He might have even bought me a pony! I may have gone to Harvard and been a doctor! Who knows all the wonderful things that could have happened had he not been taken so soon, in the rain, with a gasp, in 1982. The possibilities are endless! …which is exactly why I had to stop thinking about them.
It wasn’t until many many years later that I was able to realize it, but focusing on what could have been was paralyzing me, and keeping me from finding out what could be with what I did have. Sure, my life was different because my dad died, and would have been a lot better in many ways if he had lived. But my life also would have been different if I’d had childhood cancer, or if I was born into poverty, or if I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. Not all my circumstances were bad; I was still very fortunate in many ways.
“When we can no longer change our circumstances, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl
On anniversaries such as today, I now try to think about what I gained by having my dad, even if it was just for a short time. I even started thinking “for” him, and not “of” him. “What would Dad tell me to do in this situation?” He would tell me to GO FOR IT. So I did! And a lot of exciting things started to happen when I finally was able to think this way.
It’s not easy. And it’s not fun losing a parent. But it is just another (very bad) circumstance to work around and overcome. If I hadn’t lost my father, I wouldn’t be who I am today. A few years ago I thought that was a bad thing. Who would that other me be, if my dad had lived? I don’t know, and I never will, and that’s okay. But I do know she wouldn’t be nearly as strong as I am, and she may not even be any happier or better off than me. Who knows, she may even be in a worse place than me. If everything was given to her too easily, perhaps she would never have been able to be truly happy. Not having experienced real loss early in life, and surviving it, maybe she wouldn’t really appreciate the good, simple things in her life.
Whether you are dealing with the loss of one parent, or both parents, or some other tough situation, you can grow above it if you can stop asking yourself “What if?” and start asking yourself “What now!?”
“If nothing ever changed…there’d be no butterflies.” – Unknown