A rose for Dad.
So if and when we do meet again, heÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½ll tell me, like always, "I'm proud of you, kiddo. Good job!"
When people see my tattoo, they ask what it’s for, and I tell them. The stone-like cross and yellow rose are in memoriam to my best friend, my biggest supporter, my dad. Oct. 23, 1948 to March 7, 2007.
But I don’t need to be reminded about my dad. I’m constantly surrounded with objects, letters, photos that jog my memory. Even though I live in an apartment he’ll never see and I’ve written and done things he never got to hear me talk about, I think about him every day.
I might have thought about him every day before, but I couldn’t really say because I just took it for granted he would always be there, no matter what I was going through. He supported every decision—my life plan to be a journalist, my decision to move across the country without a job or guarantee of a lease.
He even drove me to Chicago for two significant interviews. One for Northwestern University’s graduate magazine program, the other for a job with a company that employed one of my friends.
I got into Northwestern, but I didn’t get that job.
Looking back, I know I wasn’t meant to be anywhere but Indianapolis with my family after graduation in mid-2005 through at least early 2008 if only to be closer to my dad in his final months, and to hopefully have been there to support my mom after the inevitable.
But I know that ever since I got the news he had suspicious growths on his lungs, later confirmed to be cancer, I just couldn’t handle the reality of things.
Up until the bombshell, delivered to me on a family vacation, it was almost like I was waiting most of my life for this. I wasn’t really prepared—I hoped he would outlive the odds, including a family with a strong cancer history and his decades of heavy smoking.
My dad appeared as healthy as ever on the outside. He kept up his yard work and other activities as much as ever, even when he needed oxygen to get around, but seemed to get weaker and weaker. He also had a kind of sadness around him. Either it wasn’t there before or I hadn’t noticed it before.
Over the next few months, he made a few trips to the hospital for bouts of pneumonia. I would try to see him as often as I could, even while working two jobs. After every visit, he made it home and things seemed like they were going to be OK again.
During his final hospital visit, just days after the Indianapolis Colts won their first Super Bowl, around the time he and my mother officially retired, we got the news: hope was lost, he was recommended for hospice.
I remember being stunned by this news, and even typing this I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish without needing a break—or a stiff drink.
He tried to keep up his hopes, but all I remember is crying. I cried while trying to eat a hospital pizza and breadsticks. I cried in church that evening during the songs. I cried when I was alone in my apartment. I cried myself to sleep. I even cried at work. Both jobs.
My sister came home from California to help my parents in my dad’s final weeks with us. I continued to work my two jobs, but with fewer hours at the part-time bookstore job.
I remember being distracted—that never really went away. I remember trying to talk to dad. Even the days where he barely talked and slept most hours, my mom and cat sleeping on the couch just inches from his hospital bed in our living room. The visits with the hospice counselors. The fights with my mom. The awkward moments of weakness, which included helping my dad take out his false teeth.
In my childhood home, in the bedroom, under a blanket, in the fetal position. That’s the only place you could find me after 4 a.m. on March 7, 2007, and for about the next 12 hours. I heard the priest come over and talk to my mom but I couldn’t make it down the stairs to thank him for his help.
While my mom and sister ran around town making funeral arrangements, all I could do was lay there.
If I sat up or left my bed, my safe zone, I’d throw up.
If I drank water, I’d throw up.
I appreciated all the phone calls and text messages I got from my friends that day, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t.
How do you put into words: "My dad died. My world ended. Life will never be the same again."
Visits to a cemetery have been a very regular part of my life ever since. I was 27 when he died, and at 29, almost two years later, it hasn’t gotten much better.
The only difference is now when I cry, I know it’s OK, but I also need less time to compose myself when I'm done. Especially if I’m driving and a song reminds me of him and I really need to pay attention to the road. Or if I'm working and need to focus on what I'm doing.
That’s not to say I don’t have happy moments. I recently learned my blood tests for what I feared would be an ulcer (or worse) came back as normal. I like my job. I’ve won a few awards. I have great friends. I think I have finally found someone worth sharing my life with.
Back to March 7, 2007, I don’t remember how I made it through, other than the pain I felt and feel every day. I compare it to crossing a bridge. A horrible, over-used cliché, I’m sure. But after losing a parent, I could finally understand what it was like for friends also in their late 20s and early 30s who had lost their dear ones before their times.
And suddenly I noticed all around me – a source who was a year older than me who swam near Alcatraz to honor her father’s passing; my best friend’s mother-in-law who died of cancer a year-and-a-half before my dad; other orphans I’d known in my life; even those whose fathers were estranged from them.
I vaguely remember the funeral. I know I was wearing a cheaply made little black dress I bought from Forever 21 the week he died, the only funeral-appropriate dress I could find. I kept it, but hope I never have to wear it again. I also remember crying uncontrollably as the casket was taken to the front of the church, again at the cemetery, and again on the day we took my sister to the airport to fly back home after spending an entire month with her near.
I decided to honor my dad with a tattoo after he died. It’s a cross—black outline with shades of gray that are almost stone-like—with a yellow rose wrapped around it because that was one of the types of flowers at his funeral. But the physical pain of getting the tattoo, only my second but possibly not my last, was nothing compared to the emotional loss. I plan to add to it the Hungarian phrase for "my dear father," and possibly more flowers as time passes.
I still talk to my mom and sister and friends about the loss, especially on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and any other common days we might share the sadness more than other times. On those days, there’s the whole swell of emotions—anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness. On other days, the feelings remain in hiding, waiting just beneath the surface until something triggers it all over again.
What ultimately gets me through are the days I evaluate my life. I hope and pray 1) that this never happens to anyone else I love, at least not before his or her time; and 2) that somehow I’m living up to his expectations. So if and when we do meet again, he’ll tell me, like always, “I’m proud of you, kiddo. Good job!”