Father’s Day fell two days before my dad woke up suffocating. In his sermon that Sunday, my pastor focused on fatherhood, on how this relationship (or lack thereof) impacts a child’s life, and how he didn’t realize how deeply he’d been affected by his dad’s absence from his upbringing until he had children himself. Another pastor had told him, “Growing up without a father is like having your arm chopped off. You’ll learn how to function without it, but you’re never going to grow a new arm.”
In the month since my father died, “how are you?” has become a complicated question. I’m okay, if by “okay” I mean that I’m getting out of bed at a decent hour, going to work, eating, running, praying, pushing the days along. But every action, large or small, is different now. So even if I tell you I’m “okay,” understand what part of your question I’m answering. I am relearning how to function, but I am doing so with the understanding that, from now on, I will only ever have one arm.
Over the course of my young life, I’ve lost a lot of who and what I’ve loved. So unfortunately—or perhaps, fortunately, depending on how you look at it—I am no stranger to grieving. When a cliff slides off the mountain and crashes into the sea, I know what I need to survive the waves that come roaring my way. I sense the balance of time alone versus time with friends as if the two rested on scales beneath my ribs. I’m attentive to when I need to talk and when I need to be quiet. I understand there is a vast and vital difference between running from something and running through it.
All that said, losing a father to death cannot be compared to losing a job, an artistic habit, an identity, or even a lover. Losing a father blows every other thing and person I’ve grieved out of the water. It’s as though someone walked into the room and kicked everything fifteen degrees to the left. It’s all there, but it’s all wrong. As though the world stopped spinning, but only a few of us noticed, and so we have to go on living like it’s still turning on its axis.
Fourteen months ago, when I moved into my apartment, there was a tree stump in the yard with a cement circle stacked on top of it, presumably to prevent the tree from attempting to grow back. All year long, it sat like that, through snow and rain and wind. The first morning I returned to Portland after my father’s death, I saw the stump and cement had toppled. I found this oddly comforting. At least something else had felt the shift.
I’ve heard people say, after they’ve lost someone, there would be days when they’d wake up and, for a brief moment, believe that person was still with them. I’ve never had that. For me, each morning breaks with a reminder that, whoever or whatever I had before, I no longer do. This is no different now. When I dream about my father, I don’t wake expecting to find him. When I have a question I know he could’ve answered, I make no attempt to dial his number. But I want to. With all that is still breathing and beating within me, I want to.
My father drove me nuts. Our opinions differed greatly on almost every topic. I was very much his daughter, but at the same time, I was very much not. Natasha Trethewey has a poem called “A Daughter is a Colony,” and in it, she lists everything a daughter is, particularly to a father: “a namesake, a wishbone—/ loyalist and traitor—/ a native, an other / […] a continent dark and strange.” If my father were still here, I’d bet that he would tell you, to him, I was exactly that.
In the days since his death, I’ve been thinking about all of my relationships: past and present, good and bad. How even the not-so-great ones hold something to be thankful for because they have, in part, made me who I am. Who knows what I’ve achieved or which character traits I’ve acquired because my father was so set in his ways, because our relationship was so often divisive, or because when I told him, at fourteen, I would move across the country to attend college in Boston, he did not tell me no?
“A namesake, a wishbone—/ loyalist and traitor.” So much of who I am can only be categorized in relation to him, just as so much of it also depends on my mother. But I am no longer the child of two living parents, no longer, “Is this your daughter? I knew it. She looks just like you.” And yet, I am. I can’t count the number of strangers who approached me at his funeral and, through a smile strained by tears, said, “You must be Greg’s daughter. You look just like him.”
I have lost an arm. I will not grow it back. But I remain who I was before this happened, and while most everything will and must be different now, the core of who I am will not change. Except, it will. I can already feel the ways I’ve bent since his passing, how I’ve stooped to become accustomed to a new center of balance, what parts of me must now grow stronger to make up for what I lack. And I think, maybe that’s the blessing to be found here.
Who knows what I’ll achieve or what character traits I’ll acquire because I’ve lost my father suddenly and unexpectedly at such a young age? There’s a lot of room for the bad to enter in, if I let it, but there’s also a lot of room for the good. If I have to suffer through this, I may as well look for the blessings God can birth from it. I may as well cling to the line of Augustine’s that sprung to mind every day my father lay in his coma: “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil at all.”