My first experience with loss was profound. At age 13, I got off the school bus just as I did each day before that one, only to learn on this afternoon, an afternoon that looked strikingly similar to all those that came before it, my 41 year-old father was dead.
On the front steps of my childhood home, the very place that was supposed to be my sanctuary from the ills of the outside world, I listened to my once vibrant and beautiful mother recall through grief-stricken shock and tears how my father suffered a massive heart attack before her eyes.
The loss of a parent is always traumatic. Whether we lose a parent when we are eight or 80, suddenly or through a long protracted illness, the effect is unequivocally the same — a rattling of our foundation and an attack on our soul.
I can still recount the sensation I felt when I learned I would never see my father again, hear his voice, smell his cologne or feel the comfort of his arms around me. It was, and still is, altogether unsettling. Within a moment, my stability, my protector, was gone. And no matter how much of a source of strength my mother tried to be as she raised my younger brother and me alone, my father’s absence created a void in my life that beckoned to be filled.
At 15, nearly two years after my father’s death, I met the person I would one day marry. Not yet a man, and I not a woman, we had both already lived a life well beyond our years. He, too, had lost a parent at 13; his mother struck down by pancreatic cancer in her early forties. Our loss drew us together almost instantaneously. And as time went on, we developed a connection I believed could never be severed.
Engaged at 20, married at 22, our life together was in many ways founded on our satisfying that which we each longed for from our absent parents. I became a maternal presence for him as a nurturer, homemaker, and braggart of his many academic and professional accomplishments, and he my advisor, provider, and most trusted confidante.
The deterioration of our marriage unfolded surreptitiously like a slow moving cancer, gaining momentum through a conduit of harsh words, resentment and, ultimately, unfaithfulness on his part until it vengefully sucked the last bits of life out of our 24-year relationship.
When our marriage finally died, when I conceded to him and to myself that it was over, I marked the date just as I would the death of a loved one or friend. On that day, not only did I lose my husband, I lost my father all over again as well. There I was — that same young adolescent girl standing on the front steps of my childhood home — naïve, weak, abandoned, and alone.
Just a few days ago marked the 28th anniversary of my father’s passing. At 41 years-old I am no longer a child but now the caretaker and protector of my own three children. Having spent the majority of my life looking to someone else for the fatherly sustenance I lacked, the realities of being a single parent coupled with the challenges of finding a life partner and special friend for my children dictate that I find and cultivate the strength I sought from others within myself.
These days I choose to see my father’s death not as having created an absence in my life but rather as having created a fueling presence. It is my father’s life and death that reminds me each day I can and will survive on my own.