My dad died in December 2019, and six months later, the pain of his unexpected passing is still fresh in my mind and in my heart. His death left a giant fracture in my chest where my heart used to be, and I doubt it’ll ever be fully healed again.
It’s safe to say that as long as I continue living there will be many milestones and meaningful dates that pop-up on the calendar that will make the pain of losing him feel excruciatingly fresh again. My birthday and Christmas last year were the first two – compounded by the fact that we were supposed to spend them together – instead I sat alone in his apartment in shock. Today is another one of those meaningful days because it’s Fathers Day, June 21, 2020. A date on the calendar where the anguish and emptiness I feel within my heart feels that much more obvious.
Honestly, I’m scared about thinking of his passing too much for fear that at some point I’ll never be able to pull myself out of those darkest of voids.
Fathers Day aside, it’s hard for me everyday because no matter where I was in the world, I called my dad every day. We were the only family that each other had, so we were extremely close. Not having any other siblings or a significant other in his life is perhaps why I called him so frequently. Perhaps it was partly out of obligation and partly because I felt like it was the least that I could do. But I did it mostly because I wanted to say hello, see how his day was and just to hear his voice to make sure he was still with me.
I worried about my dad a lot. For the last fifteen years of his life, he suffered through a variety of health problems and complications. Unfortunately his failing health caused him to be confined to the boundaries of his apartment. By all accounts, he didn’t really have much of a life anymore, which broke my heart.
But as long as I would call him and I’d hear his voice on the other end of the line, my world felt like it would be okay. No pun intended, but I felt that I would survive another day, knowing he was still here with me – maybe not in the best of health – but at least here.
And that’s where the revelation I had after his passing comes in, that has made his death slightly easier to accept.
To first give some background, my dad died a few weeks before I was scheduled to fly from California to New York to spend my birthday and Christmas with him. Like usual, I had talked to him the day before he passed, which felt like a fleeting few minutes.
He had mentioned he felt physically ill from a stomach bug, but he didn’t feel that it was anything too serious. I told him to get some rest, and that I’d call him the next day. I ended the call like I ended every call, telling him that I loved him. I made sure that I said that every time we talked. I knew that one day, it would be the last that I ever got to talk to him again. I wanted to make sure he knew he meant the world to me. He was my rock, my hero, always there for me my entire life.
Like usual, I called the next day. At least twenty times, in fact. There was no answer. With each failed attempt to reach him I became more and more worried. My phone’s recent outgoing call log seemed like an endless scroll of outgoing attempts. I was just hoping that he was just sleeping and catching up on rest, as nothing he said the day before indicated that he was in immediate danger.
But I knew that moment would come. It was the day I was preparing myself for since he was getting older and his health was failing. What complicated it even further was my decision – one that I regret to this day – to leave him behind in New York while I attempted to make a new life for myself in Los Angeles.
I’m not entirely sure why I decided to leave New York, and more importantly, to leave him behind. Partially I didn’t want to regret not seizing the opportunity that my then job had given me to transfer to the West Coast. I didn’t want to suffer through another winter in the Northeast. I wanted sunshine, palm trees, and a “better” quality of life. Ironically, a better quality of life also came with an increased anxiety about the decision I had made. More worry that I was putting more distance between us. But surprisingly, as much as it broke my dad’s heart to see me move 3,000 miles away, he encouraged me to take the plunge and do it.
To this day I’m still a little surprised that he was so brave and supportive about me moving. Sure, he expressed his sadness that he would miss me, but I think deep down inside he didn’t ever want to be the reason why I never fulfilled something that I wanted to do. He didn’t want to get in the way. Perhaps he had a unique perspective on my decision.
When he was younger, he was honorably discharged from the US Navy after serving in Vietnam aboard the USS Ticonderoga. He lived in Southern California and would frequently drive back & forth to New York to visit his parents who had lived in Brooklyn. I still remember all the stories he would tell me about his cross-country road trips. I think it was some of his happiest memories.
Perhaps with this in mind, was why he was so supportive of my move. When I was on the fence of whether or not I should go, his encouragement actually pushed me over that edge and I made the decision to take the plunge and do it, no matter how much he knew it would break his heart.
What kind of son am I, to willingly leave him behind at the worst possible time?
I distinctly remember driving across the country and thinking “dear god what have I done”? Moving to a new state where I didn’t have an apartment secured, lease signed, or any real destination other than the city of Los Angeles, I was miserable. For the first time in the longest time I felt like I made the worst decision. I realized in that moment how much New York, and being close to my dad, truly felt like home to me. And what compounded that empty feeling was the fact that I chose to leave him behind.
What kind of son am I, to willingly leave him behind at the worst possible time, as he was getting older and would need to rely on me more? I should have stepped up, I should have made the more responsible decision to stay close and to take care of him. Because I didn’t, I feel like I failed him. It’s a regret that I’ll live with for the rest of my life. But I know that my dad never wanted to be a burden. Not that caring for someone you love to deeply and unconditionally could ever be a burden.
During my trip I remember stopping for the evening somewhere in Indiana, but it could have been anywhere other than New York – the entire trip now feels like a blur. I called him and like usual, he picked up the phone. Hearing his voice was always a relief to me. He was my rock, always there for me no matter what. Until the day he couldn’t be, for no fault of his own.
I told him how sad I was having made what was possibly the worst decision in my life and that I immediately regretted it. He listened. He consoled me. He made me feel better. He related and reminded me about his cross-country travels. He was still brave about the move because he had to be. He knew that if he expressed sadness in his voice that was leaving that I might have turned right back around and went back to New York.
To this day, I’m thankful that he was so selfless. It was something I had grown accustomed to, as he literally devoted his entire life to me. It’s a fact that was not lost on me, nor did I ever take it for granted. This, and many more reasons like it, is why he was the greatest father I could have ever asked for.
Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure where he got that selfless quality from. Maybe that’s part of being a parent. Loving your child so much that you would literally do anything for them. As someone who as I write this is still without any immediate plans of having a family, that concept still boggles my mind. Perhaps the decision not to have a family is in some ways what makes me too selfish to understand how to be selfless.
Flash forward to a little more than two years and I’m still living in the same apartment I found when I first moved to LA. It was the first Thursday in December. I still remember the anxiety building each time I had called him with no answer. Voicemail after voicemail, nothing. Then finally, a strange voice answered the phone.
It was an investigator with the sheriffs department. This strangers voice didn’t even have to say anything before my voice cracked and I knew. All I was able to muster was “I’m looking for my dad” before beginning to cry.
It was the moment I dreaded my entire life. The day that his body couldn’t continue fighting, the day that he was trying to prepare me for, but I just didn’t want to listen. I just couldn’t believe that something so tragic and heartbreaking could come so instantly. Ironically, I prepared myself for some long protracted decline of his physical health and that we would have more time together, time to say goodbye. Time to say ‘I love you dad’ and ‘thank you for everything you’ve done for me’ one last time, but not this. Not so sudden. Not when I didn’t even have a chance to be with him or hold his hand.
It’s a hard thing for a son to begin to recognize his dad as anything but superman. To be human, to be vulnerable and fragile.
With my dad’s death, my heart exploded with grief. Shattered into a thousand tiny shards that to this day, I still can’t find every piece – some are lost forever.
But amidst all of that pain and anguish, I remain grateful. Grateful that he was my father. Grateful for every little thing he had ever done for me, and had done because of me. In many ways, he sacrificed his life to ensure I had the best life possible. I am the man that I am today because of him.
And that’s where my revelation comes in.
It was Christmas Day, which was preceded by twenty-one days of constantly crying and my heart feeling utterly empty. Something clicked in between the grief and desperation to want to see him again.
I needed to stop being selfish. Stop wishing for him to still be here with me. He was in so much physical pain and discomfort he couldn’t have a “normal” life anymore. For me to wish that he was still with me, while it would temporarily bring me relief and happiness, would also be wishing that he would continue to live in pain. Even if I had some Godly power to bring him back, I couldn’t do that to him. I needed to let him go, to let him rest in peace. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t miss him dearly, with every ounce of love that I still have left in my heart.
Perhaps someday I’ll be able to listen to all the old voicemails, or the covert videos I took of him when he wasn’t looking. You see, I was preparing myself for this eventuality – my life without my dad. But I can’t quite bring myself to listen to those old remnants of him, it would break my heart too much to hear his voice again. I’m not quite ready for that. Even as I type these words to share with the world are causing tears to streak down my face.
I still hold onto other things. I still smell his shirts that I still have of his, although regretfully, the scent of him and his apartment is fading. But even the slightest aroma immediately transports me back to a time when I would walk through the door of his apartment, remembering how happy he would be to see me.
Naturally his passing has prompted me to evaluate the meaning of life and death. To wonder what becomes of us after we pass. Neither myself nor my father were particularly religious people. We were more spiritual than anything, but we were barely even that.
And that’s where this art installation by artist Robert Montgomery comes in. It perfectly sums up the notion that I’ve had of death since as long as I can remember. There is something so wonderfully haunting but simple about this quote:
Maybe that’s what a soul is. Maybe not a “ghost”, as Robert calls it, but a memory. Not some spirit that travels to heaven, or samsara, or whatever your particular belief system holds. But a memory that lives within the hearts & minds of those who loved that person. And by continuing to think about them with all of the love, joy and happiness they shared with you, that person will live on forever. Or at least until you also pass away.
So until that time when I’m ready to listen to those recordings – Happy Fathers Day, dad. I promise to keep your memory alive in my heart, forever. And as long as I’m here, your memory will live on.
He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.
-William Shakespeare , Hamlet
P.S. If you’ve visited this little blog before, you know that I fancy myself a photographer. Or at least I once did. I took pictures to share them with my dad. I knew he couldn’t travel and his life was confined to his apartment. So I wanted to share the world through my eyes and lens with him. Like always, he was incredibly supportive, and bought me my first camera and lens – in fact, several lenses over time. Ironically as much as I focused my photography on my travels, I never turned the camera towards us – to photograph, document each other. So I have very few photos of us together – another one of my life’s regrets. These are all the reasons why I have stopped shooting entirely. Because in that regard, I’ve failed as a photographer, too.