I had a great dad. He was the dad who nailed a wooden basketball hoop to our backyard shed for my eighth birthday and didn't worry that I was the only girl on our block whose birthday wish list did not include Strawberry Shortcake or a My Little Pony. Dad would sneak me out of the house to run errands or go to ball games with him before my other brothers and sisters could be jealous, because he knew I needed a break from being the oldest. One year, he stayed up past midnight helping me finish the Christmas presents I was making for my friends.
He did the funniest impression of my junior year English teacher, Ms. Kullbom, where he slid his glasses down his nose, squinted his eyes really tight and scowled like an old bird. One year, for Halloween, he dressed up as a nerd and went into his office wearing broken glasses, a pocket protector and taped toilet paper to the bottom of his shoes. He was the owner and president of the company.
Aloe-scented after shave, warm wool sweaters, Simon and Garfunkel, eggnog french toast, NBA games on lazy Sunday afternoons, magical summers on the beaches of Maui....these things will forever represent the life I had with my dad.
A tragic fall from a roof, sleepless nights and jigsaw puzzles in the ICU waiting room, my brother's tearful goodbye...his fingers caressing my father's cheek, my mother's house bathed in flowers and casseroles, and a very large and public funeral with no time or space for mourning....these things will always represent his death.
My sophomore year at BYU, Dad surprised me with a trip to Washington, D.C. for my birthday. He had a conference to attend, but we managed to do a fair amount of sightseeing together. While we were walking near the US Capitol, we watched a fleet of limousines pull up to the Capitol building. I remember him saying we should wait and see if anyone important comes out....and I replied, "I am already looking at someone important." Such a cheesy line, for sure, but I really meant it.
Dad had always loomed large in my eyes. And understandably so, he had accomplished a great deal in his career, in his public life, in his home. I spent a lot of time during high school and college trying to live up to what I perceived to be his impossibly high standards. No GPA was high enough, no career choice perfect enough, no boyfriend good enough to bring home to him. These weren't things he ever said to me, but expectations I placed on myself. The year before his death I felt particularly lost. I was finished with my undergraduate degree but felt adrift. I felt beaten down by my college boyfriends and wondered if I would ever find true love (ridiculous to think about now considering I was 23 at the time).
And then one day I went to work and got the call that changed everything forever, my dad was in a coma and he wasn't coming back.
The days following his death are still a haze of grief and shock and anger and exhaustion. Walking down the street left me winded, catching a ball felt shaky...even though a week before I had been in nearly the best shape of my life. I never realized how physical grief could feel. Have someone kick you square in the stomach and live that feeling for an entire year...that was my grief.
And then eventually, between the waves of grief, a new, unexpected emotion emerged....Relief. Not relief in the variety of "thank goodness he is dead." Even eight years later, I crave him. I want so badly to share the life I have built with him. I want him to play with his grandsons and to sleep in our guest bed and talk sports with Ed. Instead, the relief I felt was a kind of freedom. Freedom of expectations removed. Freedom to start living the life I wanted for myself.
And that I did. Over the next two and a half years, I got married, graduated from MBA school, moved across the country and had a baby. Talk about putting your life on fast forward. Initially, a lot of guilt accompanied these feelings of freedom. Since then, I have read that this is actually a pretty common reaction to losing a parent. I've read stories about adult children making huge life changes soon after a parent dies, everything from quitting a smoking habit, to changing careers, to moving abroad, all resulting from the relief of expectations removed.
I fully anticipate I will feel free of another set of expectations when my mother passes away. And I will also miss her terribly.
And I hope that when I am dead, my own children derive some peace and happiness from their own newly found freedom.
But not too much.