How Did I Get Here?
I got a text from my mom on a hot, busy afternoon in July. Of course, all of your July afternoons are hot and busy when you spend so much time taking care of 7-year-olds that you almost have no time to take care of yourself. The text read, “Call Dad. It’s important.”
My Nana had been sick for years. Ovarian cancer is a relentless battle, one that she had both lost and conquered gracefully. I braced myself for the news as I dialed the number, subtly noting that there really is no such thing as “bracing yourself.”
But the news my dad broke to me over the phone, as I stood alone in the woods getting eaten by mosquitos, wasn’t the death of my grandmother. It was my dog — a victim of cancer as well. Boomer was put to sleep that same evening. I wasn’t going to make it home from camp in time to bid him a formal goodbye, so Facetime had to suffice.
I shed tears on the screen of my iPhone and felt real loss for the first time in my life.
I felt something else too, though. Something so strange I wasn’t sure I could even talk about it: relief. I was relieved that it wasn’t my grandma. Emotions are complex and hard to decipher. Sometimes we simply can’t comprehend them. Sometimes they’re too overwhelming and the dissonance is too discomforting that all we can do is push them aside and continue to live our lives.
And that’s exactly what I did. I finished the summer with an acute sense of accomplishment and tried to reflect on everything I learned: taking care of kids is 99 percent instinct, takes 100 percent commitment and energy, but is one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done. I learned that the innocence of a 7-year-old girl with so many mistakes to make and so much to learn still ahead of her is both refreshing and nostalgic. It made me wonder what I would do differently if I were in her shoes and could do it all again.
Life after camp seemed to revolve around only one thing: college. It was hard to breathe with the omnipresent weight of the future on my shoulders. It was supposed to be an exciting time for me, but the thought of leaving the people and places that watched me grow up stung a little. And the thought of everyone who had weathered the last four years with me moving on to a new life scared me most of all.
Amid of all my end-of-the-summer activities, I got a call, this time, from my mom. My response was, “You’re telling me this over the phone?”
So I got in the car and drove home in violent sobs, almost pulling over at one point to throw up on the side of Woodward Avenue.
The next day we were on a plane to New York. It was good to see my dad’s family. And it was good for my dad to see my dad’s family. I learned, that week, that everyone handles grief differently; the prescribed five stages aren’t necessarily the same for everyone.
I also learned that the anticipation of death doesn’t make it hurt any less. You can try to imagine what life will be like when someone is gone, in a morbid sort of attempt to prepare yourself. But when you get the call, when the finality sets in, it doesn’t matter how long you spent preparing, or how many times you said goodbye. It hits you hard and hurts all the same.
I spent too much time thinking about death that week, trying to figure it all out until I decided that you can’t “figure it all out.”
I came home and enjoyed what was left of my summer. I said too many goodbyes and then moved to East Lansing and tried my hardest to feel OK about everything. I set a picture of Boomer on my desk and slipped one of Nana’s rings onto my finger, and moved forward.
I fell into a routine: wake up, exercise, class, homework, sleep. On the weekends I went out. Hangover. It got old fast. I tried to construct meaning out of things that I knew meant nothing to me. I made new friends and I missed my old friends. The ex-relationship ensued. The silence was both peaceful and deafening. I kept reminding myself that it would get better. Change is hard, but it just takes time, right? It felt like I was losing at some arbitrary game. Who was I losing to, though? Myself? I looked at old pictures too often. I was homesick.
I found joy in little things, though. Like the walk down the path behind my dorm to the Starbucks in Michigan State’s College of Business, and Friday morning runs around campus with a new friend. I learned about things that interested me and had long phone calls with my parents. I became more observant of everyone and everything around me. I learned that change and fresh independence inherently comes with loss, but that’s OK.
The last time I heard from my dad was Tuesday, Nov. 8. I texted him on Wednesday. No response. And again on Thursday. I said, “What’s going on with the stock market?” I was expecting some paragraph about the economy that I didn’t totally understand, ending in “everything will be OK.” He was always like that — making me feel safe. No response. I didn’t think much of it.
My mom told me on Friday. I had just gotten home from chemistry lecture and I was sitting in my bed drinking Teavana orange tea. My grandparents were already almost at my dorm to pick me up, she told me. And I remember asking my roommate if I needed to bring home black tights for the funeral.
I remember the first week he was gone through a blurry, tear-stained lens; I was drowning in a tsunami of grief. I wasn't angry, just in shock. After the funeral, we flew back to New York and broke the earth next to Nana. I felt my heart shatter into a million pieces inside my chest and wondered if it would ever feel whole again.
It felt hard to breathe for a while after that. It still does sometimes. My dad has been dead for over a year now.
I found out later that my brother was supposed to stay at my dad’s house on Thursday night — the night before we found out. So he drove over there, but he forgot his key. He knocked and no one answered, so he left.
It’s funny how the world works like that. It’ll take away your dad, but protect you from what’s behind the locked door. Somehow it meant everything and nothing all at once; I had nothing left to learn, except everything.
When you lose someone too young, too suddenly, you also lose a future you were supposed to have. You’re left with all these things that were supposed to happen and now they won’t, they can’t. So without a choice, we adjust the plan, we accept the cards we’re dealt and we try our best.
We try to figure everything out. We grieve. We cry. We pick up the shattered pieces, slowly. And we try, desperately, to make sense of everything, even when it doesn’t make sense.
I really don’t know what I believe in anymore. I don’t know if there’s a God or afterlife or fairness. But I know it’s harder to believe in nothing at all.
Slowly, time will fill parts of what’s empty now. The thought of loving something so much and having it taken away from me again terrifies me. But the only thing that scares me more than the potential for loss is having nothing to lose.
Sometimes, I think about the person I was one year ago when my world was shaken and I questioned everything. Sometimes, I can't believe that person was me. Sometimes, I wonder how I got here: I go to a different school, my hair is less curly and blonder, I still bite my nails and question everything, my ears are studded with faux diamonds, I don’t drink orange tea anymore. I know less about sports than I used to and more about health care in Haiti and still have no idea who I am.
But here’s what I’ve learned from this:
My dad, along with so many others, wasn’t particularly deserving of what he got. My dad died because his veins stopped pumping blood to his heart. It was a side effect of his anatomy. It was an unlucky, random stroke of fate.
We don’t really have control over a lot of things that happen in this life, but we do have control over how we choose to deal with them. After you get the call, after the earthquake cracks the ground beneath you, who will you be in the aftermath? That’s when we get to choose.
Maybe the memories will always invade my dreams and I’ll always see him in crowded rooms, having to remind myself it’s not him. Maybe I’ll always search for artifacts, for something tangible to hold onto, from the life my dad lived. I’ll wipe the dust off the photograph from the abandoned box in the basement and tell myself that he’s smiling like this somewhere.
It’s crazy to me how the days come and go quietly and then suddenly it’s a new year in a new city, strangers became friends and friends became strangers and right now I am here — made of all the people that have come and gone, all the places and moments that came before this.
I learned that sometimes happiness becomes a choice you need to make; you can find it in your friends and in your family and most importantly in yourself. I think I’ll always exist with regret and heartbreak and loss, but I’ll also live with health, happiness, love and the exciting uncertainty of the future.
So finally, I ask myself what I can do to repay the people who have touched me so deeply, the people that taught me so much, even though they weren’t here nearly long enough? What can I do with my tiny part of this massive whole that can somehow make up for them not being here?
Because I am here. I’m right here.