He was right.
When you put one foot in front of the other, after your husband died, it may have taken awhile, but did you – at any point – begin to run? Or just jog, maybe, but still clearly forging forward? Maybe some days slowly and other days faster? And you might have thought, “OK, I can do this…I can do life…and I can carry his memory and love him and find my own way. That’s what he would have wanted and that’s what I can do, am doing.” And then after feeling more sure-footed than ever in your own journey to the other side of the darkest days, you look back at your young adult child and realize that she may have needed him here more than you did?
My husband kept a journal when he found out he was going to die. He didn’t write in it very long – just a few months, really. And he never got to finish it either. His journal, like his life, ended slowly and then abruptly. He was never a journal person, so when he came home with a pair of black leather bound books to begin writing down his thoughts, fears, and experiences, I figured – knowing what writing is to me – that it was a great idea for him too. He hoped that it would have been something good to leave behind for us, a small morsel of his legacy. His handwriting alone is priceless to me, so the more of that, the better.
He told me that I had his permission to read his journal at any point, if I wanted to. Because he had such difficulty articulating emotions and feelings, I was grateful for this peak into his soul during such an unimaginable time in our marriage. He didn’t talk about his pain, fear, and regrets that much, although he did a bit in the beginning, but he cried a lot at night in bed and wore his frustration with his impossible circumstance in the creases that had developed on his face. There was no hiding his pain and misery. There were days he wanted everything to be over with, and there were other days when he wanted to find a way to live a little longer, to make it to his next birthday. He was truly the definition of tortured soul, and it made me think about all the people who are living out their last days like that and doing it alone.
Initially, he started writing about what was going on, what had happened, how he felt cheated by God or whomever, and after all he had done and how hard he had worked…it was all just a big waste. He was honest. He wrote about what he would miss, a page about his life-long best friend, his visits to the doctor. At some point, his oncologist made an appointment for him to see a psychiatrist who specialized in terminal patients. After going to a few sessions, he admitted that she was helping him figure out how to wade through his overwhelming emotions, which had paralyzed him from knowing what to do with the time he had left. When I read those entries, I noticed that he talked with the psychiatrist about me and our oldest daughter a bit, but he spent most of his time talking to her about his fears for our youngest daughter. He was confident that she would be the one who would suffer the most from him not being here.
He was right.
Sure, there were times when it looked like our daughter was going to be ok. She saw a counselor in her college town, a support group, and had a wonderful tribe of girlfriends who looked out for each other. One had lost her dad a couple years before, so she knew what it was like. The two girls were very close. After her dad died, our daughter started to do well in college, got good grades for the first time since the third grade, made Dean’s List, found direction and purpose, wanted to get into international service, and then did so. She went to Nepal to help install a water filtration project in a remote village. Then she went into Peace Corps after graduation. I was so proud of her and how she grew from her tragedy and embraced these newfound interests. She took up yoga and meditation and consumed lots of books, opening her mind and hearing from other perspectives. She learned to speak an island language and make her way in a completely different culture and world. This is what you’re supposed to do in your college years. This is what you’re supposed to do even when your dad is alive and well and in your life.
After 15 months, she was plucked from Peace Corps unexpectedly and sent home, only to find herself on my couch with no plan. She got a waitressing job and an hourly job, moved into her friends’ shared house in the next town over throughout the first several months of the pandemic, and then later, wanted to move out of there too. Some of her college friendships – the foundation of those years – for reasons unknown, had broken.
He was right.
She moved back to her hometown, rekindled old friendships from high school, explored many forms healing, changed her mind again and again about what she wanted to do or be. She started spitting in the face of all things convention, devoured book after book, pushed her family away – pushed me away – and suffered through existential crisis after existential crisis. The unyielding search for meaning, for purpose, for absolutes, for concrete answers to the questions that remain unanswered throughout the span of time…simply reflect the daily agony of what it is like to be stuck in time as a nineteen year old girl who lost her beloved dad.
He was right.
As helpless as I felt when my husband got his diagnosis, I feel even more helpless than I did back then. It makes me feel like an absolute failure as a mother, as if it would have been so much better for her if it had been me who died – and not him. She needed him more than she has ever needed me. I can’t kiss this boo-boo or put a Band-Aid on this wound. She didn’t fall off her bike and scrape her knee. Just like the cancer that eviscerated my husband’s liver and the very life we had built together for so many years, the assault of his absence upon our youngest daughter has been the worst part of all this for me. She is the only one who can carry her pain and find her way through it. I have to believe, as he said in his journal, that even though it would be hardest for her, she would figure it out someday.
He was right.
As much as you know you have suffered, how have your children done without their dads?