Death seems so distant, abstract, removed. Then someone close to you dies.
And everything changes.
My dad died when I was eight years old.
He was the strongest person that I knew. He worked hard. But, he also knew how to have a great time. It was rare when friends didn’t surround him. He became successful by many standards even though he was an uneducated immigrant who spoke broken English. And, I could feel that he loved me. I was proud to be my father’s son. I felt like he could do anything.
Then he started to feel terrible and would lie on the couch complaining about abdominal pain. He hated hospitals and avoided them until the pain was too much. Eventually, he went. The diagnosis and prognosis weren’t good. He had late stage liver cancer
My mom spent many days at the hospital taking care of him. She sent us to my cousins’ house for weeks. My sister and I just played and enjoyed the time. It was like camp. We didn’t understand what was going on. We didn’t know that the ground was shifting underneath our feet as we played. An earthquake was forming that would break the life we knew—forever.
One cold winter day, we went with my mom to the hospital. It was the first time we saw him in several weeks. I was so excited. It felt like we were walking through the cold corridors for an eternity. The clicking of shoes echoed, and the fluorescent lights stung my eyes. Finally, my mom turned into a room, and she showed us in. I was stunned. My dad was sitting in a chair, and he looked like he had aged at least ten years. His skin looked gray; he seemed small and withered. He tried to smile, but it came out more like a wince because he was in so much pain. I said goodbye to him, but I didn’t know that it would be the last time.
One day after school let out, I got on the bus to go home. When it was my stop, I hopped off the bus. The sun was shining, and my face was smiling. As I walked home, I threw my blue backpack in the air and caught it as it twirled back down to earth; then, I threw it back in the air. When I got to my house and opened up the door, sadness washed over me. Weeping and wailing flooded the whole house. I didn’t see anyone, but I heard them. That’s when I knew it—My dad died.
I thought that the world should stop, take notice, show respect. But, it didn’t. The most important person in my life ceased to live. I loved this person. He was central to my existence. But, the world just marched on. It had other things to do. It was too busy. The traffic hummed, crickets chirped, birds sang, people laughed. I realized that the world doesn’t stop for anyone, not even for my father. Life moved on even if mine was torn apart.
I was alone.
The funeral was full. Family and friends were all around. Aside from all of the black clothes, some weeping and the weird smell of the funeral home, it looked like any large family gathering. People talked, laughed, smoked. But, my father was lying in a shiny casket, motionless. When I saw him for the first time since our last goodbye, I felt like he should have sat up and spoken to me. I felt like he should have embraced me. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He was my father, but he wasn’t. It was absurd.
I’ve heard it said that death is natural, that it’s a part of the cycle of life. But, my experience of death is that it’s the most unnatural event I’ve ever experienced. Yes, death happens. It’s true. Yet, when I looked at my dead parent lying in a casket, I got the sense that they should be able to talk, eat, walk. There was a cosmic dissonance inside of me. It’s at that moment when I felt so strongly that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. That death is an enemy, a foreign invader that’s taken over this world. This invader has taken over, but it doesn’t take away the fact that it doesn’t belong here. Death is still a foreigner.
I don’t remember crying at the funeral. But, I was in pain. When we got home, I felt the void. I would wait for him to come in through the door. But, he never did. As each day passed, I had to make peace with the fact that I would never hear his laugh, feel his rough skin, see his face. He wouldn’t be able to comfort me when I cried or surprise me with a toy and candies that I shouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have him anymore.
My aunts and uncles would tell me, “You’re the man of the house, now.” Technically they were right. My sister and mom were female, and I was the only male. But, I was eight. I did take their words to heart. My young ears did not miss their meaning. I was in the house, but I was no man. I was only a boy. But, the words rang in my ears. They do still.
Death changed my family forever. That’s what happens when someone close to you dies. Our patterns of relating to one another, the way we feel, the way we move in the world, the way we see ourselves, all change. Death not only takes the person, but it also takes something from everyone around the deceased. My mother was married but became a widow and cried for years. My sister and I lost our father. Overnight, we became fatherless children. We were a complete family. Then, we weren’t.
After years, even decades, the pain dulls; but it never disappears. It’s a scar on your mind and heart, especially when you lose a parent. I’m reminded of the loss on Father’s Days, my birthdays, graduations, my wedding, the birth of my son, or just one of those random days when I want the advice only a father can give. I will never escape the pain.
But, I don’t want the pain to disappear. In pain, there is the remembering. The memories give an ache, but there is a great joy in venturing into my mind’s eye to see my dad again. I never want to forget him. He may have died, but my love for him hasn’t. It still lives inside of me.
Seeing my dad die has always given me the understanding that I will meet the same end. And, no matter how healthy, strong, or rich I am, I will die, too. I haven’t heard of anyone buying their way out of death (yet). Seeing my father fail to escape it only awakened a deep sense of my mortality. Death is coming. And, I can’t stop it.
Most of my friends didn’t lose a parent when they were young. And, I don’t often talk about it. It’s not the best dinner conversation. It’s almost like talking about having an STD or something. People freeze, and you can feel the discomfort shoot up in the room. So, I’ve learned not to talk about it much. I summarize that part of my story in a sentence or two, “Oh, my dad died when I was young…” That’s pretty much where the conversation ends. And, I move on.
But, I go more in-depth about this part of my story because it is a part of me; and it’s a part of all of us. It is something we will all experience. Death and dying is a part of life. Death has invaded. So, we must look at it. Ponder it. Learn from it. Grow from it.
These days I am the man of the house, even though I don’t live in my mom’s house anymore (No one wants to hear about a forty-year-old living at their parent’s house). But, it is my responsibility to make sure my mom and sister are ok. It is a burden I cheerfully bear because I love them. We have been through a lot together. We’ve seen dark days and have survived them.
We live. We continue. And, as much as I hate death and the pain and havoc it caused my family, I really don’t know who I would be if it never touched us the way it did. My entire identity and being have been affected by that event. I trust that God had a plan. I don’t know why it happened, but I continue to believe.
Today, I see that I was never alone. I may have felt that way, but it wasn’t true. My mom and sister have been there. God also has given me friends, a wife, a son.
Over three decades after my dad’s death, I see that death has invaded.
But, life still overcomes.