My father died almost ten months ago, and my life hasn’t been the same. It’s funny, in a way: I never realized how much I leaned on him, valued his support and his advice, until it was gone. This is a cliche, but in my case it is true: I didn’t appreciate how large a role my dad played in my life until he was dead.
He is dead, by the way. Not “passed on” or “passed away.” He isn’t “laid to rest.” He’s dead. Perished. An ex-father. He wouldn’t have appreciated the euphemisms, and I don’t either: we look life squarely in the face. Looked, in his case. My mother related a story to me from when he was battling with cancer, and the treatments hadn’t seemed to work. They were packing some of his old clothes in bags to give to charity, and my dad started dumping his nice work shirts in. “Why are you doing that?”, my mother asks. “Well I’m never wearing them again.”
That thought haunts me. My father knew he was dying, long before he was a shrunken thing in a hospital bed. He knew what was coming, and he packed his work shirts into that bag to give to someone else. I don’t know what to do with that second-hand memory – it brings tears to my eyes as I type. I think it’s brave, and honest, and incredibly sad.
When I got to see him, the day before he died, after rushing straight from the airport to get to his hospital bedside, he spoke to me a little when everyone else was outside the room. “I didn’t think I’d be here so soon,” he wheezed, his voice forced out of fragile lungs. “I thought I’d have months.” Me too, dad. I thought we’d have years. Decades, even. I had plans for us! And now those plans will never be.
I have anxiety now. Not just worries, which I’ve always had – I’ve long been a worrier. Proper anxiety. Sometimes I’ll be living my life when The Spike will pierce my innards, a shock of something running right to my heart to set it racing. Then the fears crowd in: am I doing the right thing in my career? Do I have enough money to pay the bills? Is my relationship doing OK? It’s a strange thing: the physical fear precedes the worries, as if they rush into the wound The Spike creates. It’s not pleasant. It makes me question things I’m usually confident about. It’s made me insecure.
My father had anxiety too, I think. He used to say he had a racing heart, say how much he worried. We all used to think he was being a little dramatic, just playing it up a bit. Now I understand: he got The Spike too, sometimes. He lived like that for a long time, battling with the fear he carried around. And now, ironically, he’s passed it on to me – and he’s not here anymore for me to even tell him: I get it now! I know what you’re going through! Life’s full of cruel ironies like that.
But that’s not all my father gave me. He gave me a love of learning and a passion for discovering new things. He gave me a disdain for pretension and a great bullshit detector. He gave me a wacky, self-deprecating sense of humor and the strength to be the butt of a joke. He gave me erudition with a light touch. He gave me countless rambling stories. He gave me a non-judgmental attitude toward other people. He gave me acceptance when I came out as gay. He gave me endless, self-sacrificing love, a willingness to give everything of oneself to benefit another.
I miss you, dad. Some days I don’t know what I’m going to do without you. I want to make you proud. Most of all I want you to come back. But since that’s not an option, the most I can do is take the best parts of you and embody them myself and, when it’s my time, pass them on to someone else. That’s life, I guess: a relay race with our values for a baton. I’ll keep running, and pass it on.