At the end of January I turned 37. It was pretty unexceptional as far as birthdays go. I had dinner with some friends, renewed my driver's license and that was about it.
Today Princess Lolly kept asking me how old I was for some reason. After about the fifth time of saying "I'm 37" I realized that is how old my dad was when he died. It was 1979 and I was eight years old and my sister was eleven. My dad was a serious smoker and paid for it with lung cancer, throat cancer and a brain tumor. He died within nine months of being diagnosed.
When he got the diagnosis, my family lived in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. My parents were divorced when I was five, but I was happy. We had a beautiful house on a quaint street where my mom, sister and I lived. I saw my dad often and I always felt safe with him. He was a big man who drove a fast car, played tennis and loved water skiing and Easy Rider. He had a CB radio in his car that had a loudspeaker. One time he came to pick me up from school and some boys were throwing sticks at me. He got on the loudspeaker and said, "you throw one more stick at her and I'll kill you." They ran like the wind and I was so in love with my dad.
Once he got really ill he moved back to California to live with his mother. My mom, sister and I followed. My mom rented a condo about 30 miles from where my dad was living with his mother and spending time in and out of the hospital. Even at seven years old, I felt like this move was the end of my perfect childhood. We went from living in a big house in an idyllic neighborhood to what felt like a lonely condo. I was a shy kid and making new friends was hard for me. At my new school we were asked to do an art project where we had to make our house out of construction paper cut-outs. I didn't know how to make a condo out of construction paper cut-outs, so I made our old house in Michigan. For some reason, the teacher knew this wasn't a depiction of where I currently lived and made me do it over. I remember being so angry at her and just so sad. I turned eight shortly after we moved, and my mother asked me who I wanted to have over for a party. I hadn't made any real friends yet, so we just had a little family party. I just wanted my dad to get well so we could move back to Michigan and I could have my old life back and my old friends.
Every weekend we'd pack our Pontiac LaMans and make the drive to spend a couple days either at the hospital or my grandma's house. When my dad was in the hospital my sister and I were only allowed to be in his room for a short time. We spent most of the day in a waiting room playing with Barbies while nurses or relatives periodically came to check on us. I thank God every day that I have a sister and I can't even imagine those days without her as my playmate/confidante. The whole family did their best to shield my sister and me from how bad things really were. All I remember hearing from anyone was "when your dad gets better..." I don't blame them, they were trying to protect us. But when he did finally succumb to the cancer, six months after we had moved, I was totally taken off guard. It was the end of my innocence and the beginning of who I am today.
Even after he died, we didn't talk about him much. There were no long conversations at the dinner table remembering the good times or telling my sister and I stories about him. I wanted so desperately to know who he was that I kept his high school yearbook under my bed for several years and would look through it often re-reading the little notes his classmates left him and staring at the pictures. I needed to know that he loved me, that he was proud of me. I just needed to know who he was. I remember being angry at my sister because she had more time with him and more memories. For the longest time, I couldn't even say the words, "my father is dead." If people asked me about him I would make up elaborate lies about him being overseas or living in another state.
My mom did the best she could as a single mother with two young girls. She bought a house with the little money my dad left us. She got us a puppy and tried to make things as normal as possible. Life with my dad seemed so distant, we rarely talked about him and as time went on we saw less and less of his family. My grandma moved to Oregon and we only called her on birthdays and holidays. There were very few people in our new life who knew my dad or could tell us about him. Again, I don't blame the adults in my life, but I was in denial for many years because I had no way to talk about my feelings.
When I was a freshman in college I fell in love hard, for the first time. It scared the shit out of me. Everything was fine until we came back to my dorm room after a party one night and we were both a bit drunk. He told me he loved me and and wanted to marry me. To my 19 year old, drunk self this meant he was a man who I loved who was going to leave me. I started yelling at him not to say things like that, then I started hyperventilating. I think I had sort a mini nervous breakdown. My boyfriend was stunned and apparently everyone in the dorm could hear me screaming at him and someone called 911. After I had some oxygen and calmed down I fell asleep in my boyfriends arms. The next day the campus counselor called me asked me if I wanted to talk. I made an appointment and started "therapy." The counselor was a nice, gentle man who I ended up talking to off and on throughout my four years at school and it helped me come to terms with my feelings of loss and fear of love.
Recently I read, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Both books deal with a young child losing their parent. Both are very well written and so expertly capture the utter, painful longing I felt to know who my dad was and how he felt about me. When I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I felt like Jonathan Safran Foer read all my childhood thoughts and put them down on paper. It deals with a little boy whose father dies in the World Trade Center. In the months before September 11th, Mr. Mint and I had been trying to get pregnant. After that day we didn't try for a couple of months. I couldn't imagine bringing a child into a world where so many kids could lose a parent in one day. My heart ached for every kid whose mom or dad was suddenly gone. I knew what lay ahead for them.
I often find myself wondering how my life would be different if my father hadn't died so young. Would we have left Michigan anyway? Would I be a better water-skier? Would I have chosen the same boyfriends? I wish he were here to meet his grandkids. I wish I could ask him what he thinks of the choices I've made in life. The truth is all my experiences growing up were colored by his death. It took me a long, long time to come to terms with that. It's made me who I am today.
It feels a little strange to be 37. Hopefully I will live to see my children's children. Hopefully my kids will be able to read this when I'm gone and know they are loved immensely. I still miss my dad, but I can talk about him without crying.
p.s.don't smoke cigarettes!!!