Losing Daddy

Eric Milner Landscape Design

Eric Milner Landscape Design
My father’s garden drawing

The man who inspired my love of gardening died when I was a little girl. I remember the heat of the day, not unlike this one. When I flip the calendar to August, it may as well be 1969.

I hate August. I hate the smells in the air, the oppressive heat, and that burdening longing that ricochets around in my chest. I’m 52 years old and I miss Daddy.

As a girl, my grief went on forever. I performed a ritual each night before I went to bed: I would kiss his framed picture on the desk in our tiny two-bedroom apartment, and then I would touch his cane and the memory book from the funeral home. Only then could I fall asleep. I’m not sure why the artifacts from the end of his life had special meaning. Perhaps my young mind was trying to reconcile the impossible; that the man in the picture was gone.

Eventually I could tell people he died without falling apart, but then follow-up questions like “how did he die” would trip me up. At some point I crafted the self-contained sentence, “My dad died of lung cancer when I was 9,” incorporating the most oft-asked questions with hopes of putting all of them to an end.

When my at-home ritual and obsession became too much for my Mom, she got angry and threw away the funeral home book. I understand now that she was suffering from her own grief and profound loss, but her anger and frustration stung me. Perhaps it did help me move forward. I only remember the shame when she said, “you have to get over it!”

Grief isn’t linear. It’s impossible to chart its course. Who, more than me, wanted to get over it and move on?

My father’s death and burial were shrouded in mystery. I don’t know why no one took me aside to explain what was happening. One of the most poignant things my therapist asked me was “where were the adults?” One morning I woke to find that our frail father was taken to Peninsula Hospital in the middle of the night. I went with my mother for a “visit” but was not allowed into his room. I sat imagining all sorts of horrible things. Later I learned on the play ground from my older sister’s friend that Dad was in a coma. Finally Mom sat us down and said “your dad isn’t going to make it.” I made her say the words “your dad is going to die,” because I needed to know exactly what was going to happen. I went to sleep each night, telling myself that I wouldn’t cry when I learned he was gone. Ironically, when the news came it was true. A loss like that cuts you to the core. Tears eventually came, but on that early, hot and oppressive August day when I walked in on my mom destroying some of his papers, I simply called out “no.”

We didn’t attend our father’s funeral. I recall that either we were afraid to go, or my mother decided we were too young. She had been traumatized seeing her own father buried and wanted to protect us from the same. Whatever the reason, they are now part of family legend, with no surviving parties to corroborate.

In reality, trauma was piling on all around us. No one explained that he had cancer or what that meant. I didn’t understand that he was dying. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, alive and weak in the hospital or graveside after he died. I thought I saw him walking down the street one day while riding the school bus home. I broke out in a cold sweat. I desperately needed to get home and tell my mother.

Unfinished business is exhausting. It follows you like your own shadow, lurking and ready to pounce when you least expect it. I’ve spent years in a therapist’s chair, on a yoga mat and in creative writing classes sorting this out. In the late eighties, with the help of a friend, I was able to locate my father’s grave. I went alone and wandered in the shade of the trees and took comfort in the tranquility. After that visit, I never felt the need to go back.

Yet here I am all these years later, continuing to write about Daddy.

34 thoughts on “Losing Daddy

  1. The way your mother mishandled this profound event makes me angry. I just can not stand it when people take it upon themselves to “protect” other people (usually their children or their husband) by keeping information away from them. This is a pretty and well-written memoir, but I am surprised by the strong reaction in evoked from me..

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    • Thanks for commenting, Bob. I like to think we all do the best we can, but our actions are not without consequences. I didn’t get the support I needed at a vulnerable time in my life and I’ve had to deal with that all my life. You’ve had your own personal tragedies, so I’m not surprised this evoked such powerful emotions. I’m trying to take out those feelings and deal with them when I can, as opposed to stuffing them. I hope you find the emotional energy to do the same. ♥

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  2. Alys, wow. This is very powerful and poignant to me. Thank you for sharing yourself so openly. I can feel the vulnerability moving through the words, yet concluding with such sweet strength… you are loved. Sending you a big hug.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Annie, so nice of you to read and comment. I know you’ve been struggling with your own family vulnerabilities. I’ve been holding you in my thoughts.

      Thank you for your kind words and for the hug, which I send in return.

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  3. To lose a parent you love so young is profoundly painful. It’s hard enough as an adult. There is no time limit on grief. I still don’t like Halloween or the 4th of July. Parents didn’t know better in those times. Thank goodness that is changing but the pain remains. Keep writing. I think it was Carolyn Myss who said that yes, a lot of people have hurt us but we’ve put our share into therapy as well. My kids could sure use some from the messes their parents made. :)) You have become who you are from that pain. A very moving writer. You moved my heart.

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    • Insearchofitall, I agree. It was a different time. Parents made many choices that we would not make today, choices that color our world. I’m sorry for your own losses around holidays. It tends to rob you of the happy experiences associated with those days going forward, doesn’t it. Sending tender thoughts your way, along with appreciation for your comments. Thank you so much.

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  4. This made me think of my own experiences around losing daddy. I don’t think we will ever get over having lost him at such an early age. When your 8 and 9 death is not that easy to understand, especially when you’re losing one of the most important people in your life.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal, poignant account of your experience, both as a child and as an adult. Your writing is exquisite, and I’m sure touches a chord in all who read it. My heart is with you, and I only wish my arms could be around you. Sending you love and wishes for peace and comfort. I know you know where to look for it….

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    • CC I’ve missed you and your blog!

      Thanks for popping in to comment. I know you are extraordinarily busy giving so much love and attention to animals and your advocacy work.

      Here is a little story about my dad that I know you will appreciate. On his walk home as a young teen, he found some boys mistreating a pair of mice. He intervened, pocketed the little critters and took them home. Before he could take them out of his pocket, his prying mother went through his coat and got the (shrieking) surprise of her life to find live mice there.

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      • I do love the story about your dad as a teenager rescuing the mice from mistreatment! What a kind soul, and it’s no wonder he instilled in you such a reverence for life. I hope his mom was as impressed by his good deed!

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  6. Alys, that was a surprising and bittersweet post. I have no similar experience but I feel for you and for the vulnerable you as a child losing your dad. You obviously have a happy life, a loving family and of course a beautiful garden so you have made a success of your life and any parent would be proud! I think such a loss is not something we forget but rather remember every so often as you have done and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. With best wishes, Emma

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    • Emma, thank you so much for writing. I really appreciate your thoughtful words. I have a very good life, with a loving husband, two great boys, a sister and wonderful friends. I count my blessings every day. I know I’m luckier than most. And yes…that beautiful garden. My father taught me well!

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    • What a lovely thing to say. I’m so happy to have some of his work. My parents sold most of my dad’s art when they moved from Canada to the US. They just assumed he would paint more once we got here. Within three years he died from lung cancer. He was my age now.

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  7. Alsy, words fail me…

    I am so glad to know these expressions of your experience are going out to the world now. We need them to help make sense of what we feel. {{{{Alsy}}}}

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  8. You must treasure the garden picture and as the last commenter says – his talent lives on in you. What a sad loss for you all these years I had tears in my eyes as I read your story. My dad died in 2006 at the grand old age of 84 – we had a longer time together than you had with your father but for me it was still not long enough and I miss him so much it really does hurt. My dad was a gardener – his garden and his family were his life and we would often stroll around his garden together chatting about the plants. Like him I am very content to potter around in the garden and I often find myself asking him for his advice and I am sure he is listening. I hope you find the peace and comfort you are searching for.

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    • I love that your dad was a gardener and that he passed his love and appreciation on to you.

      Puttering in the garden, even pulling weeds, brings me joy. In a sense I’ve always sensed a closeness to him when I’m with the plants.

      I really appreciate your kind words. Thank you for that.

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  9. Oh my dear Alys, I wish I could give you a magic pill that would take all that pain away. I then would immediately take the same pill myself. I think I recognize your pain, I too have lost my dad now 13 years ago. Just today, while lunching with my Aunty K, when the conversation reminded me of something my dear dad gave me years ago, the tears still readily flowed. I can’t imagine how you must have felt not having the opportunity to say good bye or to hold his hand at the end. I feel so lucky in that regard. I take comfort in learning as much as I can about the past from friends and family who new and loved my dad, in that way he continues to be part of my life. Sending you a big heart felt hug.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry you lost your dad too, Kelly. I know all too well how different things trigger the tears and the sorrow. I’m glad you have family and friends to help fill in pieces of the past.

      Thank you for that hug. Please accept one from me in return. ♥

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  10. Poignant and beautifully written. I feel for you – the young you and the grown up you, and I feel for your Mum too. Never easy. I’m sure your Daddy would have been very proud of his sensitive, eloquent daughter (and I don’t mean this to sound patronising…) Much love x

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Little Nikki. I don’t think you sound patronising at all. I like to believe that we all do the best we can. I know it wasn’t easy for my Mom to pick up the pieces and then continue to raise three young girls on her own. I have a lot of respect for what she did. She didn’t turn to welfare or marry the next guy to come along. She just moved us forward, found a job and made sure we stayed out of trouble and went to college. Thank you so much for your kindness.

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  11. Alys, thanks so much for sharing this story, How unthinkably heartbreaking that must have been for you. It’s so easy for people to forget how much children were kept away from things in those days. I remember anyone under 12 could not even visit people in the hospital in 1960s, so I could never visit my sister or my Granny, and I only went to one funeral during my entire childhood, that of a neighbor who was killed in a plane crash. I’m glad we as a society have changed for the better in at least some ways.

    I hate it when people say “get over it.” To me that’s like saying “I cannot handle your grief.” A couple of years after I lost a friend to suicide and was talking about how her death still affected me, someone said “you need to get over it” and I angrily declared “I will NEVER get over it!” Perhaps I was over-reacting but I felt it was not anyone else’s place to tell me to forget her or her death. I think it’s necessary to process these things as you mention, but for me, part of that healing is recognizing that there are aspects of the sorrow we will carry inside us always. “We feel this kind of loss deep within ourselves. It does heal, but it heals around the edges, leaving an open space in our heart.” — Barbara Gill

    Hugs and love to you!

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  12. My Father’s Father died when my Dad was 9. He collapsed, was taken to hospital and my Dad never saw him again. Children didn’t go to funerals back in the 1940’s and he was not mentioned again to my Dad except in disparaging comments. This was a man who was taken as a slave labourer in WW2 and finished the War in Mauthausen- he had been through so much, but my Grandmother was a bitter woman and the legacy for my Dad was a phobia about hospitals, he couldn’t give comfort when needed and thought that people were still being buried alive. I worked for years in Palliative Care and resolved to make sure my children were able to encounter death as a part of life and also see grief and acknowledge it as relevant and alright. They were very sad when my Dad died and acknowledged my grief and that of my Mum and brothers, their compassion and caring of us, especially their Grandmother has helped me know I made the right decision for them.

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    • Wow. Thank you for sharing your powerful story. We’ve come a long way in this regard.

      Your poor dad. How sad for him to go through lie cut off from his own dad, living with a bitter woman after he was gone. I’m glad he could share his own story with you, and that you, in turn could express your own grief when he died, with understanding children in the mix. Good for you.

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  13. Alys, this story is the most soul bearing of tales. It is haunting and arresting and shows an unfathomable amount of vulnerability. It is also one of the most beautiful narratives of what it is like to be small and lost. Every word is intimately felt. I feel privileged to have read this small excerpt of what is clearly still something very important and very meaningful that you carry with you always.
    You amaze me. And your writing here is unforgettable.
    ❤ ❤

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    • I’m struggling here to convey what your words mean to me. Thank you for reading and understanding and knowing what I’ve said. And as a writer I so greatly admire, thank you for your high praise. xoxox

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