Several days before, Tara and her family pulled into the shell and gravel driveway of the small, white cape cod beach house adorned with royal blue shutters and a lime green door.
Before the news found her in that sandy shore town on the Atlantic.
The night before, sleep eluded her. When I spoke to her the next day, After, she explained that she tossed. She searched for sleep but it hid in sandy corners and disheveled suitcases. She tossed; her husband slept. Her daughters slept. At 1:45 am, she finally wandered the slumbering beach cottage while randomly swiping sand from her feet.
She returned to bed and, after wrestling with the sheets and her thoughts, she and sleep finally met.
Four short hours later, the honey-hued east coast sun tapped on her window and proceeded into the shuttered bedroom. Tara stretched, her bones and muscles mimicking the creaky coils in the beach rental mattress. She craved the soft, downy comfort of her own bed.
She checked her phone. It blinked, indicating the message awaiting her.
She saw her a text message from her twin sister. It arrived at 2:10 am, five minutes after she’d finally met back up with sleep again.
She read it.
A numbness descended. As if she was just learning to read, she slowly strung the letters to form primitive sounds and then, words. The words began to connect and click into something stronger, with meaning. And significance.
Dead. Her father is dead.
What did it mean? How did she feel?
Numb. Relieved. Confused.
She called her mom.
She called her sister.
She called her brother.
She called me.
She hadn’t talked to him in a year. In their last conversation, Tara told her father that he was no longer welcome in her family’s life. She told him to stop calling her and her daughters. She did not talk to him, she did not call him. She did not miss him. Anger usurped missing. Now, his actual death sat in the bedroom with her. She sat in this unchartered territory–the one where a girl loses a father from whom she was estranged and, she recalled, whose very death she’d imagined and dreamed over and over again. She felt thwarted and pissed, his death piercing her vacation sanctuary.
Her husband still slept next to her. Her children slept down the hall. She turned onto her side and pulled the covers around her.
Some people lose a father and mourn who he was. Other people lose a father and mourn who he never was. Tara’s father was never loving, never supportive and never positive. But he made up for those deficiencies with the many things he was: an angry, belittling, narcissistic alcoholic.
Inviting him out of her life was an act of strength and self-preservation. She’d suffered 40 years of him. His manipulation and anger had forged as constants in her life. She owned her decision, yet his death penned many questions, haunting ghost-like in her conscience.
Was it the right choice? Do I grieve the father-I-never-had again? Or did I forego my right to mourn him when I ended our relationship?
The questions spun in an endless loop, tugging on her spirit. She found herself in an ending without congruence, a sentence with an ellipses. She longed for the heavy, blunt certainty of a closed door–an understandable grief, the one that most experienced when their father died.
Her father’s death collided into previously locked emotion and darkest corners. She now searched for closure in a previously locked room with low visibility and heavy fog.
As the beach cottage began to awake, she got out of bed. Her tumbled emotions swirled in a kaleidoscope of grey confusion and piercing blacks of her unique grief. She was surprised to feel brief spikes of scarlet guilt. These shades of grief belied her nautical surroundings of the royal blue Atlantic, crisp, robin’s egg blue sky, crashing white caps and almond sugar sand.
She stood in the kitchen, awaiting the whistle of the tea kettle. She looked forward to its comfortable familiarity. As her children joined her in the kitchen, she fielded breakfast requests with reflexive monotony. Food distributed, she found herself at the table, steeping her tea bag in the steaming mug of water. His death rippled, wave-like.
How do I grieve the death of someone already gone?
I still hate him. I hate him so much.
Perhaps, she reflected, this was another iteration. Like the spot on an injured knee, where the hardened scab falls away and a new, tender, pink awareness takes its place. As the news swallowed her (and her it), she reflected upon this new tenderness, punctuated by her tumultuous relationship with him and underscored by his death.
Her memory took her hand and lead her to evenings in her childhood home. She and her siblings would be playing, doing homework, snacking and inhabiting the familial space. But, when they heard the approach of their father’s tires crunching on their impossibly long driveway, they dispersed. The group spaces became quiet and motionless. They made themselves quiet, small and insignificant hoping that by doing so, they’d create a safe haven that his piercing anger couldn’t permeate.
They were never successful. Yet, somehow, he always was. His powerful anger trumped all else; he always reached them. His abusive assaults were powerful and persistent, able to shatter foundations in a single word, slicing through protective armor and self. She shrank in the shadow of his vitriol and anger as he loomed large and foreboding.
She remembered his attacks well.
After her father died, her brother and her mother went to clean out his home. They found the space of a mentally and physically sick man who lived in squalor. He’d become a hoarder, saving the unnecessary and the grotesque (evidenced by his collection of clipped finger nails housed in a jar). Despite their anger and disgust, they found brief blurbs of compassion hiding among the ruins of this man’s life. Compassion for him, despite his perpetual bullying and angst. Compassion for another.
Despite their relief (yes, relief) at his death, they still mourned. Mourned a dream never realized and an ideal never actualized. They all mourned a father who never was.
Her relationship with her father straddled a vast dichotomy of loss. Loss of confidence, loss of grace, loss of a haven that she always hoped would be safe. Hate. Disrespect. Continual disappointment. Void. What she thought a father should be he never was–nor was capable of being. He never loved her the way in which she, or any child, needed to be loved. Isn’t this the job of a parent, to love? The loss, whether through a traditional convention, like death, or by choice, yielded crushing pain and suffering.
He was gone. Dead.
She’d lost her father. Twice.
Closure an elusive desire, fading from her grasp like the fog that hung heavy in her head.
She stared absent-mindedly at her now empty tea cup. Gone.
I wrote this piece in honor of a dear friend who deals with the complex loss of a father to whom she’d already said goodbye. I share her story in hopes that in doing so, it normalizes the complexities in all of our lives.