SPOILER: Losing a Parent SUCKS
Let me start by saying this: your parents are supposed to die. That's the way the world should work. The REAL tragedy is the death of a child, which I have seen happen to friends, family, and acquaintances. When you hear those stories on the news, it's just gut wrenching. There is TRULY nothing worse. But, there is also tragedy in losing a parent too soon. Before they're able to live the good life, sit back and relax and enjoy the fruit of their labor. Play with their grandchildren. Walk their daughter down the aisle. Be there for the BIG stuff, the stuff that matters... what life's all about.
My dad owned restaurants my whole life, so basically, he worked A LOT. I feel like I could rewrite that classic "I'll Love You Forever" book and replace "The little boy grew. He grew and he grew and he grew. He grew until he was two years old." with: "My dad worked. He worked and he worked and he worked. He worked until he was sixty years old." I always thought he would have the good fortune of becoming a country club snowbird and just golf to the extent his geriatric heart desired, but that wouldn't be the case. Along came cancer, and we didn't have much time.
At the time, I was 26 years old and had already moved far from home. I was living in Miami and my family was all the way up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My dad was a secretive guy, and he didn't like to burden us with his stresses. He had every intention of beating cancer and not having to tell his daughters he even had it. SERIOUSLY?! By the time I got up for a visit and was told the news, we were T-2 months from the end, but we were hopeful. Or naive. Or in denial. But, I didn't think my dad was going to die. A bump in the road, maybe, but he was SUPERMAN. Indestructible. He always told me "business owners don't have time to get sick"... And this happens to other people - not my family.
I went back to see him a month later and things had progressed, but still, I was hopeful. He was not so much, and that was so hard to understand. I know now that he knew a lot more than he was telling me, and that's why he was pessimistic, but it was difficult to see my dad acting so hopeless. COME ON! We have to try EVERYTHING! I'll never forget the look he gave me as I walked out of the rehab facility and headed for the airport. It was like he was looking at his daughter for the last time.
Just a couple days later, while at work, my phone rang: my sister. My heart dropped. When you have something like that going on in your life, you answer every call and cross your fingers it's not bad news. She told me what I feared the most: "It's spread, and there's nothing else they can do. It's over. You need to come back home now.". And just like that, my legs gave out from under me and I fell to the floor, sobbing. I left work immediately, went home and just about emptied my bank account to book the first flight out. I quietly cried as I zombied my way through the airport. I sat in silence on the plane for 3 hours. No book, no tv, just complete shock and devastation. It's such an odd feeling that half of what created you is about to be gone forever. The one who taught you how to swing a golf club, blow your nose, fly a kite, catch a fish... gone.
We had one more week with him by the time I got there. It wasn't really "him", but we knew he was in there. He told us what he was thinking with his eyes, and with little nods. We brought him home from the hospital, and we all camped out downstairs by his side on his final night. I heard him take his last labored breath early in the morning, and then he was gone.
At the funeral, I actually really enjoyed hearing from his friends. I was his daughter; I only saw the "dad" side of him. I never knew "friend" Jim, and he seemed pretty cool! One of my sisters spoke, as did I. I almost made it through the whole speech without crying; I tried to make it comical, like he was. He was always dropping one liners and making people laugh with his quick wit. Then, I got to the part about him walking my sister down the aisle, and how emotional he was on that day. Like I said, he was superman. He rarely cried, but he cried on that day. In that moment, in front of all those people, I realized he would never walk me down the aisle... and I needed a minute.
Fast forward a couple years, and I'm getting married! I've always been one to love getting ready with my girlfriends, and your wedding day is like the Super Bowl of getting ready! I pictured loud girly music, jumping on the bed with hairbrush microphones, etc., but on my day, I was quiet. I knew that if I let myself get emotional at all, I would unravel. Just. Get. Through. The. Ceremony. For anyone reading this who is facing the same thing, I put a photo of my dad in a locket and attached it to my bouquet, and my mom walked me down the aisle - It was perfect. We also skipped the father/daughter and mother/son dances. Bring on the FUN!
A couple years after that, along came Lucy James. James for my dad. I teach her that her grandpa lives in her heart. I'll teach her and her baby brother lots more about him when they get a little older. It pains me that they won't get to know him, he won't see his daughters as mothers, and he didn't get to be a grandpa to his now seven grandchildren. I know, in his final days, he wished he would have spent more time with us as kids. That's part of the reason I wanted to start this business - to have the invaluable gift of time and flexibility with my family. I continue to try to make him proud every day - his praise was the ultimate achievement, and he always stressed the importance of being independently successful. He was also voted “best dressed” in school, so I think he’d be pretty excited about a clothing business in the family ;)
Losing a parent too soon isn’t easy, but we do our best. What helps me the most is keeping him part of the conversation. I steal his jokes, I wear his old t-shirts, I buy an actual cake and light candles on his birthday. I try to live by his mottos - "Eat real food, just eat less of it", "Invest in nice things and have less stuff", "If you're able to give, always give", "When all else fails, read the instructions", "LIGHTEN UP", and most importantly: "The only things that matter in life are your family and your health".
What I'm trying to say is... They only die if YOU let them.
I still struggle with little things like when people say "Oh! You're from Cape Cod? Do your parents still live there?" ... "Umm yeah, my mom does...". I don't really like answering like this because it makes it sound like they're divorced. It's a weird question to navigate around and I haven't quite figured it out without mentioning my dad died, and then getting the awkward obligatory "Oh, I'm so sorry...". Maybe I'll figure that out by year 8.
This past Summer, my grandma turned 90. My dad’s mom. I was explaining to Lucy who she was since we don’t see her as often as we’d like, and I told her she was Grandpa’s mommy. Then, like the wise little soul she is, she said “Mommy, I don’t want Grandpa to live in my heart anymore. I want him to be in his house.” With tears in my eyes I said “I know, baby. Me too. ME. TOO.”