Note: This is an extremely long post, written more for me than for any reader.
I was eleven years old, and it was the last day of school. The last day of elementary school, even! I woke up with one of those Christmas-morning sort of moods, where you don't care that it's early because it's going to be a good day!
And the morning was going swimmingly. For once, the first outfit I tried on looked great, and I was ready with enough time to spare to have breakfast before the bus came. Even in fifth grade, I was rarely ready to leave early- but that day, eleven years ago today, I was. It was a good day- no, a great day- and I was so excited.
The last day of school was a blast, too. Mr. Quinn must've known that there was no way he'd get us to do much of anything that day. I remember spending the morning helping him move things to his new room downstairs and then playing games. At one point, the principal came to our room.
My brothers and I had never liked her. Mrs. Kinder could be kind of scary, stern woman and whenever we saw a "KinderCare" we made jokes. We were probably too mean, but even though I didn't like her much, I wasn't at all scared when my teacher asked me to leave with her.
I wish I could remember what his face looked like when he told me, but I was too busy brushing off the taunts of my friends. I wasn't worried- I was a "good kid" and knew I hadn't done anything to get myself in trouble- but they still "ooohed" at the fact that I was sent out with the principal.
When I got to the hallway, Mrs. Kinder told me that we'd go pick my brother up from class, but otherwise remained fairly stoic. It wasn't out of the ordinary for her, so I followed without a worry. When Bill wasn't in his classroom but instead outside, she led me out the door. We walked around the school, passing my classroom's window. I waved to my friends, grinning that I was outside in the beautiful weather while they were stuck in class. Eventually, we'd circled the school and discovered that Bill's class must have gone inside. As we came in, we realized someone else must have sent a message to his class, and Bill was walking in the hallway ahead of us towards the office.
A single student was in the hallway, getting something out of his locker, and Mrs. Kinder told him, "Go stop Bill," so he started to walk. And only then, when our strict principal told him to run in the hallway, did I realize that something might be wrong.
The boy stopped Bill, and he walked in with us. Mrs. Kinder led us to her office and opened the door. Inside sat my mother, with tears streaming down her face, and my pastor. My first thought was that my aunt or uncle had died. They were always in and out of the hospital with sudden and serious health problems. To this day I don't know why it didn't cross my mind that my dad wasn't in the room.
We were told to sit down, and we did, but we were both on edge. My mom took a deep breath, and she told us that our dad had had a heart attack that morning. I can't remember her exact words, but I know she choked on the words a little when she told us he had died at the hospital.
I burst into tears immediately, and my brother sat, rigid, without a word.
After a few minutes, I returned to my classroom. Thankfully, the class was gone and I could clear out my desk without seeing anyone. Before I left, I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote a quick note to one of my friends telling her what had happened. It had barely sunk in, and I remember struggling to put it into words.
We went home, and my little brother was waiting with my grandma. He was just finishing first grade and was excited to be home early. My family stood awkwardly by our front door, almost like visitors, as my mom told Steve. Watching him take the news was harder, I think, than being told myself. His tiny body seemed to crumple with the news, and he bawled. I wrapped him in a hug as tightly as I could. I think we all did.
My memories of the next few days are spotty. Mom and I underwent the painful task of going through photo albums to make a couple of poster boards, and she went to make arrangements. I remember going in to see my dad in the casket before the viewing. It didn’t upset me as much as I thought it would- he didn’t look like himself, really, although we did have him dressed in a shirt he wore often and the suspenders he wore almost constantly. Lots of people sent flowers, including my class at school (I still have the flowers in my room) and my dance studio.
During the viewing, I can remember my extended family trying to distract my brothers and me in a back room. At one point, they took us across the street for ice cream just so we could get away for a break. I also remember, in a very fifth-grade fashion, trying to avoid being out with my mom when boy classmates came to the viewing. Instead, hiding in the back just prompted my uncles’ teasing that a boy was there to see me. But lots of people came- our close friends, lots of people from church, and even business associates of my dad’s. The biggest surprise, for sure, was one of my dad’s teachers from when he was in school- he’d remembered him being a good kid and wanted to come.
At the viewing, I learned that the worst thing to ask someone after they’ve lost a loved one is “How are you?” … because, really, what are you supposed to say? “I’m great, thanks!” sounds terrible, but you don’t want to make the person feel bad by replying “Absolutely awful; thanks for bringing it up.” There’s no answer that feels both honest and kind, but somehow that’s all anyone can think of to say to you.
The funeral was the next day, and before it, my family got one more chance to spend a little time alone with my dad’s body before they closed the casket. I remember this, and each taking a moment to say a goodbye of sorts, but the actual funeral is completely blocked from my memory. I know “On Eagle’s Wings” was played, mainly because both of my parents love that hymn and my mom still cries just about every single time she hears it. I don’t remember any sort of eulogy, or what happened as a part of the service. I just remember the casket being carried out at the end and our family getting into a crappy limousine to go to the cemetery.
Times like those- in between the serious times- it seems like we tried to talk about anything but my dad. It was awkward and it was hard, but joking around was easier than stewing in grief any more than we already were. So we did- we joked, and tried to mean it when we laughed.
We did laugh a little, genuinely, when my uncle pulled on a handle to get out of the limo and it broke. None of us were sure what to do with the handle, so he snuck it back into place and we all got out of the limo.
It didn’t take long for everything to hit home again, and after waiting on a string of cars to arrive, we watched my dad’s casket descend with red roses on top.
The rest of the summer is a blur. My family cancelled our vacation, and ended up scheduling one for December instead so we could avoid being home through Christmas and my dad’s birthday (the 26th). We never spent all that much time talking about things as a family. In general, I think it was easier for all of us to pretend, for awhile, that nothing was different, and after we were used to dealing with it on our own, it was even harder to bring up. In the fall, I started middle school and while my class knew what had happened, not everyone in the school did, and that helped. I didn’t want people to know, to pity me, to treat me differently. I didn’t want anyone to see me as fragile, because I wasn’t. I could take care of myself, and even if things were rough, no one else had to see it. I much preferred to control it- to keep it all inside until later, when I could deal with it alone and on my own terms.
It’s still sometimes hard to think about how sudden the whole thing was. My dad had been healthy. He wasn’t as skinny as he could have been, but he’d been to a physical two weeks before he died and the doctor saw nothing wrong. The autopsy said a heart arrhythmia- an uneven heartbeat- caused cardiac arrest. There was no clot, no clear reason for the sudden arrhythmia. I know enough about biology to realize that it probably wasn’t, but it seemed, by all accounts, an entirely random occurrence.
The memories I have of my dad are spotty and fading, which makes me feel guilty (although I know I shouldn’t). But I still get upset from time to time, especially when other things trigger it. The tiny bit of wedding planning I’ve done has been a joy- I would love to do something to honor my dad, like play Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again (a song from Phantom of the Opera, which he loved, sung by a girl about missing her dead father) or something- but I’m afraid that I’ll start crying and never stop.
I don’t think I deal with things in the healthiest way I could, but I feel like I do what tends to work for me and, at this point, what I’m used to. By now, I’ve lived as many years without my dad in my life as I have with. It’s hard to… miss him, exactly, when it’s not like I’m used to having him here. Life is just really different at this point. My memories of my dad come from when I was an elementary school student, and now I’m old enough to be an elementary teacher.
My dad’s death is without a doubt the most influential event in my life, but it’s hard to say exactly what influence it has had. I mean, I know I’d be really different if it hadn’t happened, but hell if I know how. And while things get easier as time goes on, they are never easy. (If they start to feel that way, I just feel guilty about not being more upset.) June 4th is usually rough, especially if- like today- I don’t have anything keeping me too
busy to think much.
Simply put, at this point I’m not sure I’m missing my dad as much as I’m missing the opportunity to have him in my life. I don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone else, but I feel like… I don’t even know what I’m missing, and I’m jealous of people that get the chance to have their dads around. Eleven years is long enough that it’s already hard for me to remember what that’s like.