losing my dad when I was thirteen

The Tingle of Angst

Writing is a conversation and sometimes I wonder if you’re interested in the places that darken my soul.

I keep thinking of the summers when I was thirteen then fourteen and fifteen. I don’t want to write about those desolate years. I really don’t.

The year Nick turned thirteen, I was afraid. I didn’t want to die and leave him in the same space where I had once lived. I knew, intellectually, that Nick’s life would never copy my own, but my heart said that the whole thing could happen all over again if I died within that year.

I drove more carefully that year. I was afraid whenever Mike and I rode in a car together or flew in a plane without Nick. On and off, I was afraid for a whole year though I didn’t want anyone to see my neurosis so I kept it quiet. I never told Mike about it as we occasionally traveled alone together, preferring to let it tingle the back of my chest with its message: Nick is too young to go through all that pain.

And yet, I went through that pain.

At least when my father was sick, so ill with cancer that he’d lost a hundred pounds and looked like an emaciated man in his eighties… At least then, I was mostly there with my family. After school, after play practice or piano practice, I’d walk up the hill to the hospital and wait for them in the lobby. I was too young to visit my dad, so I did my homework, read, and ate dinner out of the vending machines while they visited. I will always be grateful to Snickers for having significant substance. But even as I waited, I knew my family was upstairs and when they came down, I would intercept them, my mother, brother, and sister, when they were on their way out. If I was asleep, it was usually my brother who looked past the plastic bushes where I’d set up camp and wake me. The one time I was in the bathroom when visiting hours ended, they arrived home, realized I wasn’t there, and someone came back to get me.

At least they remembered where I was when my dad was still alive and we hadn’t yet fractured. But afterward, after April 2nd, when the doctors told us that Daddy had pneumonia because his immune system was too weak and he was in a coma… It always struck me that the day before, on April Fool’s Day, they had announced that they’d finally gotten all the cancer, yet the next day, he fell into a coma and died. Afterward, my family began to move apart like negatively-charged particles.

The funeral was scheduled during spring break. My mother always said how fortuitous that was, as if my education, even then, was more important than being recognized as someone living with loss. Or maybe it was her way of keeping the family business more private.

We remained a family for another week while we sat at the funeral parlor. People sat together before and after funerals back then. People brought casseroles. That week, all my extended family visited. My dad’s coworkers, our neighbors, and all of our camping buddies showed up for my dad’s funeral. The smell of gladiolas and lilies was overwhelming.

I hate gladiolas.

But my family and I were still together.

Some of the hardest days came a couple weeks after the funeral. People went about their colorful lives while the four of us lived in black and white. Every morning, I’d wake up and feel my stomach drop as I remembered my new reality.

At least I was back in school, where I should be. Only three people mentioned that my dad had died, my lovely geometry teacher, a warmhearted friend, and a boy who fumbled with words and said his hamster had died so he knew how I felt.

But at school, I could pretend to be normal. My dad had always said he wanted me to get a good education. School helped me stay connected to people, though I lost my two best friends to your typical middle school social shifts that year. Or maybe I wasn’t fun any more and they moved away from all that angst. Either way, keeping my grades up and being surrounded by kids whose outlooks weren’t bleak kept me from sinking too deeply. At home, my mother continued to clean and make meals. My brother and sister finished up their senior years, one in college, and one in high school.

But then, they all began to make plans for their own lives. My brother signed up to be a counselor all summer at the Boy Scout camp. My sister went ahead with her plans to be an exchange student for a year in Switzerland and left in early May. And my mom studied for her GED, got it, then applied to school to become a nurse. She was gone all day.

And then middle school let out for the year.

Picture me alone in my house for the first time, eight hours at a stretch. Picture me waking up to an empty house and a bad dream and trying to figure out what happened. Picture me with a list of chores my mother had left—dust, vacuum, mop the kitchen, clean the tub. Picture the curtains drawn to keep out the heat, and me peeking out through them to see a car load of kids in bathing suits depart from next door. Picture me sitting in front of the TV watching episodes of M*A*S*H with a tub of weird chocolate pudding that was government cheese’s nearest sugary cousin. Picture me playing morose tunes on a new piano. Picture me looking into the fridge and looking again ten minutes later. Picture me heating up a can of mixed vegetables and adding butter.

Hours stretched out to millennia.

My mother didn’t take me to the library any more. We didn’t join friends to go camping. I had to beg for my mother to take me to church. Even the visits to my grandparents’ houses had changed. It was as if no one knew why we were there, but at least that didn’t end and there was love, if not despair, at my grandparents’ houses.

When my mother came home from school, I’d make her a meal and justify why I hadn’t done more of the chores she’d left for me. Honestly, I procrastinated because I was a teenager, but I was also afraid of what I’d face if I got them all finished in one day and had nothing on my list of things to do. Then, I’d watch more TV while she studied. At her bedtime, I’d take her yellow highlighter out of her hand, move her books to the bedside table, pull the covers up, and turn out the lights. Then, I’d sit in my room, reading whatever I could get my hands on, staying up most of the night.

I babysat a lot that summer. Hey, they were real people, those children, so at least I talked to more than one person the summer I was thirteen. That was the summer I began to write. That was the summer when my life took a hundred and forty degree turn.

By the end of that summer, I’d wake up, eat a snack, and walk out the back door to go for a long and rambling walk across the countryside. I crossed highways and trestles. I hiked through forests and cornfields. I faced angry dogs and even a bull once. Well, I didn’t really face the bull. I ran.

Never take a shortcut through a bull’s field.

That was the summer, through writing and walking and being so very alone, that I became the person that I am. Sometimes, I still feel the tingle of angst about that.

Thank you for listening, jules