Losing a Parent While Becoming One

A few days before my dad’s 58th birthday, he passed away surrounded by a room full of friends and family. My sister and I had our hands on his heart when it beat for the last time, and we both felt the last hot breath that he exhaled on our tear-streaked faces. Both my sister and I had young children and lucky for us, our mother was there to watch our boys while we stayed bedside with his three brothers, countless cousins and friends. My mom was used to picking up the parent slack for my dad after raising us mostly on her own, yet she still came, cried, and helped us manage our little families in the midst of my dad’s death. He had a few seemingly incurable illnesses, and we had known for a long time that he would die young.

However, that moment was not the end of my dad’s impact on us or our children.  

Keeping camping trips alive with our little ones.

My dad was someone that people could feel walking in and out of a room. The air around him was far thicker than his tall, muscular frame. For a living, he was a carpenter and even built the house we grew up in, with his brothers and some friends trading their varied skills for beers and food. When my parents were together, my dad loved adventures in camping, fishing, hiking and spelunking in nearby caves, but he also drank too much for my mom’s tastes and didn’t provide a stable home for us as children. He was manic-depressive and we came of age visiting only on weekends, emotionally exhausted before he even arrived to pick us up.

We lived 300 miles apart and never knew what our weekends with him would look like.

We could be sitting quietly in a dark room the whole weekend, watching him smoke an endless amount of cigarettes, rocking in a chair that he also built himself. He had cut the left side off of that chair so that he could play the guitar better, but on those days when there was no guitar playing, the chair resembled my dad: broken and sad. Those were days he pulled the 1970s style olive green metallic blinds down over huge windows that would otherwise light up our living room, showcasing the birds and flowers and fruit trees of our yard. Those weekends, we sat quietly in the dark, afraid of disturbing an already distraught man.

However, there were some weekends when we  were dancing on tables through the night, with blues and jazz and folk music blasting through the woods outside our house. We didn’t have neighbors for nearly a mile but those old school speakers still caused the police to come with noise violations quite regularly. During those weekends, we ate what we wanted, slept where we wanted and wore what we wanted. Sometimes we had bonfires and my dad would invite practically the whole town over for grilled steaks and red wine. The best bonfires were when my dad got divorced from one of his wives and would burn the things she left behind … and then a couple hours later decide he didn’t like any of his furniture anymore and toss that on top of the burning heap. While it seems crazy to most people, it was quite fun for us as kids.

There is a reason I get ecstatic when I pee my pants from laughing so hard as an adult … it was a regular occurrence as a child. Laughing in the face of adversity is something that I admire greatly in people, and I hope to share this trait with my child as I did with my dad. In my adult years, my dad was always consistent in his comedic anarchy. He came last minute to a Master’s degree graduation party held at one of my cohorts fanciful home in a wealthy suburb of DC, where everyone knew without asking that the jokesters in all leather and denim were indeed my dad and uncle. All the other parents were wearing beige. Another time, he accompanied me to Guatemala despite having a very serious condition that required several medications and equipment (no one should ever ride a chicken bus in Central America if they have a catheter in) but that didn’t stop him from tagging along — and hauling water out of our well, living with no electricity, and fending off wild dogs and scorpions. He made more friends in his two week visit than I did in the two years I lived there. There are so many stories about my dad’s ups and downs, that I could easily fill a book with them.

I remember getting the call from my dad’s fourth wife (no shortage of passionate love affairs in his life) that he had approximately 72 hours to live. I lived in Chicago and was working as an urban agriculture instructor on the south side. I took the train to and from work, but before picking up my son from daycare that day, I went into a bookstore and bought Tina Fey’s “Bossy Pants.” In a quiet corner of that very popular downtown bookstore, I sat crying and laughing my way through the entire book. So many emotions and experiences swirled around my head, and I decided right then and there that I would try to recreate the amazing parts of my dad for my offspring and leave the bad.

That, of course, is one of those goals that are completely impossible to accomplish in a few years.

I often find myself yelling angrily at my son when I’m really just mad at myself or drinking too much when I’m depressed or being judgmental about the same kind of people that my dad would have been disdainful towards. Writing down the traits I wish to pass on and those I wish to leave for dead has helped me to recognize the patterns swiftly, which is a good first step for me. There have been no literal dumpster fires at our home, and I plan on keeping it that way.

2 Responses to Losing a Parent While Becoming One

  1. Lesley Howell Kell March 18, 2017 at 2:30 pm #

    I was there and with u thru a lot Em…I love and miss all u guys terribly…. Wish we could have our childhood days back to when we was yelling at the neighbors next door lol.

  2. Graciela March 20, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    You talked a little bit about your dad when we met and when I met Oliver in Guatemala, I read a little bit about his dead on your posts on social media, pictures of him. I loved reading this, parent-child relations are so complicated, there’s so much love and happiness and resentment, all entwined; we are so much our parents and our children are so much our parents that sometimes it is really hard to be ourselves and let them (the kids) be themselves.
    But oh, the love, there is just so much love in this post (and in your life, and in Ollie’s). I really believe we are better parents because our parents aren’t perfect, and our children will be better for the same reason, they will hate us and be ashamed of us, and maybe sometimes scared of us, and eventually they will figure out we are the best parents we can be, just like we know our parents have been the best they can be for us.
    Thanks for this post.
    Lots of love for you and Oliver.

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