2,174 days: A letter to Dad

Dear Dad,

Today is six years.

Two thousand, one hundred and seventy-four days.

You’ve missed 20% of my life, just like that. One day, you’ll have been gone from it longer than you were part of it. I can’t even bear the thought.

Time has a way of playing tricks with our mind: some days, it feels like it was just yesterday I was walking hopelessly through the halls of Sunnybrook’s ICU, the sweet smell of hand sanitizer wafting through the air. I remember the hissing and clicking of your ventilator as it pushed oxygen in and out of your lungs, its noise overshadowed only by the dozen monitors by your bedside, beeping every few moments to let us know you were still alive.

But deep down, we both know you weren’t. You left us at the side of the 401 when your car crashed and the paramedics had to revive you. I remember feeling such hope that you would recover.

1451559_547247985370227_460062791_nIn my naïve, 24-year-old mind, you were going to wake up despite what the doctors said. You would be one of those cases people talked about, the person who comes out of the devastating coma and continues on with his life. But as the days ticked on and your sedation wore off, it became clear you’d never open your eyes again. You’d never take us for dim sum. You’d never call. You’d never do anything again – except, in your last act of selflessness, become a hero to five other men. It sounds so simple, but it took me months to appreciate the impact of your gift on those other families.

The seven days in the hospital felt like an eternity – back and forth between family meetings; trying to keep all of your many friends and co-workers updated as they came by, called and emailed (you have no idea how many people were praying for you, do you?); making sure Papa and the other bees were OK; beginning to make your final arrangements; working with hospital staff to determine your eligibility for organ donation; and most importantly, spending time with you.

I remember the last time I came to see you by myself in the hospital. We were letting you go that night, because it’s what you always told us you’d want if you were ever in that terrible situation. We used to laugh about it, because the changes were so slim. “Nothing can take out your Daddy!”, you’d joke. But there was nothing funny about that horrible day in July.

You were snoozing away in your hospital bed, thanks to the help of your ventilator, and although we were inside protected from that blistering Toronto summer day, the air felt muggy. Your room was dark even with the curtains were open– I suppose that’s the benefit of having your bed in the middle of the room between two concrete walls. In any other circumstance, the plain walls and sterile bedding would have felt so cold but knowing you were lying there, completely incapacitated and without a hope of recovering made me flushed with panic. The room felt like a prison rather than a space to heal.

I stood at the foot of your bed for a moment, still in disbelief. How did a man who had little more than a cut on the side of his head have such a fatal brain injury? The patients in neighbouring beds were visibly injured – broken bones, stitches, missing limbs, bandages and monitors galore – yet their prognosis was more favourable than yours. They were going to walk out with their lives while we were about to sign the papers to end yours.

I pulled a chair up to your bedside and closed my eyes for a moment, trying to ignore the taunting beeps of your monitors. I imagined I was somewhere else, anywhere but a hospital room saying goodbye to you.

I grabbed your hand, the same hand I hung onto as a kid when we went out for walks. The same hand that high-fived me when I graduated college. The same hand that was supposed to give me away when I got married. The same hand that was supposed to one day hold grandchildren.

I squeezed it, so desperately wishing for a reaction – anything – back.

I put down your bed rail, took out my iPod and put an earbud in each of our ears. I remember you telling me you used to sing Joe Cocker’s ‘You Are So Beautiful’ to me as a little girl when you were trying to comfort me. In those final hours, it was my turn to comfort you. I turned on the song, closed my eyes and laid my head on your pillow, convincing myself you could hear it, too. I began to cry so hard my entire body shook. The realization that this would be our last time hearing this song together hit me like a freight train. When the song was over, I had covered your pillow in tears.

A few hours later, surrounded by those who loved you most and with AC/DC playing in the background, your heart flickered its final beat, perfectly in tune to the last note of Thunderstruck. That moment, for me, remains hauntingly beautiful – your final song at your AC/DC shows perfectly aligned to your final moment on Earth.

On July 14, you went from being present to a memory.

When memories are all you have, you hang onto them for dear life. In the beginning, I talked about you incessantly. I was terrified of forgetting the littlest details, the most insignificant stories. In those the first few months, I felt I was constantly chasing you – that you weren’t really gone, but just around the next corner, except I could never catch up. I found artificial comfort in the bottom of bottles and felt sheer panic from listening to the music you loved. I couldn’t take a deep breath – it’s like there was an elephant on my chest for months. A beach ball had inflated in my throat and every time someone asked me how I was, it felt like I was being strangled from the inside out. I became short tempered, withdrawn, and dependent – a far cry from the vibrant young woman you had seen just months before.

I knew losing you would be hard. I knew losing you would change everything. But I didn’t appreciate just how much. The physical impacts of grief were almost as bad as the emotional ones. Some days, I just couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed. I hurt everywhere. It was painful to breathe. My stomach ached for weeks on end. I was devastated. Then uncontrollably angry at you. I was convinced I would die from a broken heart.

But gradually, over time, the physical pain subsided. I’ve had six years to get used to this new normal: a normal where you’re untouchable, yet the memories of you are close; a normal where I can’t see you yet I know you’re always watching; a normal where nearly everything has changed except one thing: how much I miss you.

I still talk about you often; I share your stories – your funny antics, your ‘Malcolm-isms’ and your painful moments. You weren’t perfect by a long shot, but then again, none of us are.  (And don’t worry, my boycott of your beloved music didn’t last long – I no longer see listening to it as torture and have instead embraced my inner rock star, belting out lyrics, completely out-of-tune, every now and again.)

You’ve missed so much in six years, Dad. Your boys have become hard-working, loyal men. You daughters have become strong, independent women. Remember how we always used to say I’d end up out west? I’m here. I’ve married an incredible man you’ll never meet but would have absolutely adored. I’m doing a job I know you’d find “really fucking cool”. I eat dim sum on the regular. I went back to school. I started skating again. I’m (painfully, slowly) writing a book. I’ve screwed up along the way – a lot – and I know you’d probably ask what the hell I was thinking at times, but I’ve gradually found my way.

I feel, for the first time in my life, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. If only you were here to see it.

We miss you, Dad. Your sisters miss you. Everyone misses you. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re gone.

In the beginning, I would have given away years of my own life just to have five more minutes with you. At one point, even 40 years seemed like a reasonable trade. Although losing you irrevocably changed me, your decisions and death have taught me a lot.

It’s bittersweet. By losing you, I’ve gained perspective I would have never known otherwise yet am so grateful for.

I know firsthand how short life is.

I know firsthand how strong I can be, because being strong in those weeks and months was the only choice I had.

I know firsthand how important it is to be surrounded by people you love during happy times, and especially during difficult ones.

I know firsthand that by simply making your wishes known to your family, you can dramatically change – and save – the lives of so many others.

I know firsthand how important it is to ask for help when you need it.

I know firsthand  that sometimes the best outcomes come from making really, really hard choices.

I know firsthand how important it is to listen to what your gut is telling you.

I know firsthand that I can only control my own actions, no one else’s – including yours- no matter how badly I try.

Most importantly, I know firsthand I’ll be OK.

I survived losing you, though you’re still very much alive in our memories. We carry your legacy for you and know that those five men whose lives you positively changed forever think about you every day, too. We’re continuing to move forward, because it’s the only choice we have, each of our respective milestones coming with a pang of sadness that you aren’t here to celebrate, support, laugh and cry with us.

You may have only lived 49 years, but you crammed a hell of a lot into it and gave me a lifetime of memories. Of all the Dads in the world, I’m so glad you’re mine.

Today will be a little harder than yesterday – the milestones always are. The beach ball will reappear and I’m sure at times, I’ll fight to keep my composure but I’ll still honour you just as you would have liked: by blasting some AC/DC, making a big Scottish breakfast and continuing to make the same – and different – choices you did.

You’re desperately loved and missed everyday, Daddy.

Love always,
Alyshia

 

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Revisiting the past: Missing out, missing Dad, missing normal

When my dad died almost five years ago, I was a very naïve 24-year-old. Having been shopping moments before I got the phone call of his accident, I was forced to grow up in a second. Seven days later, I was violently shoved from being a young, carefree young adult into a world where I was suddenly given the power to end my dad’s life. I signed the papers that ultimately did – we removed life support, knowing it’s what he would have wanted.

In the days and months that followed, I wrote letters to my Dad through a blog. Some days I was mad at him, others I was sorry for myself but every day, I missed him terribly.

With more than 50,000 words written through the blog, I’m revisiting the entries and using them as part of my book that I’ve started writing once again. It’s almost like a gift I’ve given to myself. I recorded so many details that were so important at the time but now are distant, if not completely absent, memories.

The entry below brought me right back to that stage. I remember feeling hopeless and devastated – I truly thought my grief would crush me. I wish I could go back and tell my 24-year-old self that it would get better… or at least just give her a hug.

Post title: Missing Dad, missing out, missing normal

Originally posted: October 8, 2010

Whether my days go by fast or slow, whether the weather is nice or awful, whether I feel productive or completely useless, one thing always seems to remain the same: dad is gone.

I almost feel like I’m stuck in a rut, and the more I try to get out of it, the deeper it gets. I’m spinning my tires and trying my best to get out of the hole I’m in, but no matter how hard I try, how much I rock to get moving, I’m stuck in one place. And it’s not a good one.

I keep thinking about how much dad is going to miss out on. After letting my thoughts wander for several hours last night, I thought about how much I was going to miss out on too. I’ll never experience the smile on his face and the big hug I would have gotten from telling him I got engaged. I won’t see him beam with pride as he walks me down the aisle. I won’t get any more teary Joe Cocker messages. I won’t see the delight on his face when I tell him he’s going to be a grandfather. No more Christmases, birthdays, Easters, Thanksgivings, dim sum outings or Mandarin trips. I have no reason to celebrate Father’s Day.

It’s too much.

I miss dad so much words can’t even begin to describe it. I feel like his death and the circumstances surrounding it are a huge weight on my chest. I don’t even what it feels like to take a normal breathe that isn’t constricted by the heaviness of the grief on my chest and devastation in my heart.

I feel old. I feel achy. I don’t want to have to deal with reality, but want more than anything for things to be normal again. I know there will never be such thing. At least not the normal I was accustomed to.

Dad was supposed to live to 80 and die as an old man – not a 49-year-old. He was supposed to spend his last 30 years happy, loving us, loving himself and playing in his band. He should be fishing, going to court, meeting us for food, not floating off in some other land where he’s untouchable and never to be seen or heard from again.

I pictured him sitting in an old rocking chair on a small, square deck sitting by a river’s edge at a trailer somewhere. He would still be wearing his cut off T- shirts, ugly dollar store shoes we kidded with him for buying, and the Value Village shorts he loved to brag about scoring deals on. A small radio would be playing 95.7, and a fishing pole would be close by, if not in his hand. A cold beer would touch his lips every so often and a dog would be sleeping peacefully at his feet. He was supposed to die old, at peace and when he lived his full life.

The reality of his untimely death is disturbing, and unfair. He barely had any wrinkles and was the smallest he had ever been in the 24 years I had known him. He was battling many demons. He was miserable and trying desperately to stay afloat while attempting to shake off two of the biggest weights any human can even begin to imagine. His life wasn’t close to being over. At least not to us.

I don’t know what’s worse – him being here struggling, or us struggling with the aftermath of his passing.

 

What I really want for Christmas

Lately, I’ve been caught up in the whole commercialized Christmas, which has been a big change for me. It’s been a few years since I’ve actually felt like celebrating the holiday. It all started four years ago when my Dad passed. Since then, I’d been unable to get out of my Grinch-like funk.
 
The first year he was gone, the Christmas tree I had was taken down before December 25 even arrived. I felt so guilty celebrating when my Dad would never see another Christmas again. 
 
The following year, I convinced myself I didn’t need a tree and the year after that, I only put one up because my ex and I were hosting my family for dinner and my sister insisted we have a tree.
 
This year I allowed myself to get caught up in the magic I once believed actually existed around Christmas – the lights, the big, beautiful tree, the ornaments, the presents, the Christmas outings – I even caught myself singing that hideously addictive yet horribly annoying All I want for Christmas song. Thanks Mariah.

For the first time in a long time, it almost felt like it had growing up. Magical. Perfect.

Then today when I heard Joe Cocker died, all of the Christmas excitement and joy I felt immediately dissipated and I missed my Dad. A lot.
 
The grief I’d managed to bury for so long came back like a tsunami and I was completely overwhelmed, so much so that I actually felt like a beach ball had inflated in my throat and for a few moments, I couldn’t catch my breath. Tears spilled down my cheeks and I felt as though I were literally drowning.
 
My Dad always told me how when I was a baby and couldn’t sleep, he’d play ‘our’ song, sing it softly to me and rock me back to sleep. “Worked like a charm every time, babes.” I can almost hear him saying it.
 
My handsome Dad as a young police cadet at Christmas.

Even up until he passed when I was 24, he’d occasionally call me and leave me a voicemail when he’d heard ‘you are so beautiful’ on the radio. His voice would be cracking without fail every time, as though he had just relived a precious memory. I suppose in many ways, he had.

 
I’ve not listened to the song for years – I just couldn’t. By the time the first few piano notes were played, I’d be hysterical, frantically trying to catch my breath and all the while wishing my Dad were singing it to me. I know he never will again.
 
Foolishly, I looked the song up on YouTube after I read the news, which only made me more emotional. The song still had the same effect – it made me sad (read: I bawled my frickin’ eyes out) – I just miss my Dad terribly.

The Christmas joy I finally found has been weighted down by the fact that I know the one thing I want more than anything, I will never again have – time with my Dad.
 
That’s not to say I’m not grateful or appreciative for what’s to come this Christmas – I’m in a great relationship, I’m living in a city I’ve always dreamed of being in and I’m on the ice again. I have my health, I have my family, I have my friends. But all of that does little to comfort me today.  

It’s been four years yet it feels like yesterday in many ways – the idiotic move of playing that song reaffirmed to me I’m far from “over” losing him.
 
While I’d give anything and everything under my tree to have just a few more moments with him, I know he’d be upset with me for not appreciating what I do have, even if he can’t physically be here to share it with me.
 
So, I’ll try my best to think positively, be grateful and take comfort in the memories we did have – they’re more valuable to me than anything on my wish list. 

And, if I need to cry, I’ll give myself permission to. It’s not all bad, I suppose – my cheeks get a little rosy after a good sob fest and who couldn’t use a little extra colour this gloomy time of year?
How do you cope with grief during the holidays?