I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. In a month, I will be 38 years old. That’s how old my Dad was the first time he died. A massive heart attack completely stopped his heart. Mere seconds had passed before a coworker had realized what was happening and began CPR. But, those mere seconds were enough to stop the flow of oxygen to his brain. He was defibrillated back into life and in a coma for weeks with no one knowing whether he’d survive from day to day. And, if he did survive, no one knew what “surviving” would mean. That day in 1990, the day that my Dad first died, I was nine (almost ten) years old.
As we move through life, there are things we let go of and things we keep. But, in moments of trauma, everything that matters and doesn’t matter is whirlpooling around you so so fast and yet so so slow. Memories are speeding by, but you see each one so perfectly vivid and you’re desperately trying to snag and hold onto each and everyone of them, but you can’t. You’re hemorrhaging memories and you can’t stop them from pouring out. You’re left feeling absolutely empty.
I think a lot about memory – the idea of memory. It’s such a strange and abstract thing, but we’re made of them. We can trace them back to who and why we are. And, often, we focus on the good ones. It’s happy there. And we hear other people’s tragic stories and think they’ve had it much worse than we had so we need to be grateful for the good we had. But, the pain in our hearts isn’t graded on a scale against all the world’s pain. It only truly knows our own pain. As far as I can tell, the manual on how to use a human heart is only a sentence long: feel what you feel. And, contrary to popular belief, focusing on your good memories is not how we heal. That’s like saying the best way to heal a broken arm is to remember how great your other arm is doing.
My Dad passed away the second and final time in 2006. He was 55. I was 26. 26 is older than 9 almost 10, so I’m grateful for the time he was here. But, 26 is not old enough to know how to say goodbye to your father. I don’t know if we’re ever really ready, if we ever really know how to say goodbye to someone we love. When the time comes, you know you have to say goodbye, but you don’t know how. I could have memorized and recited my goodbye a million times in the mirror and it wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t know how to do it until I did it. And, when I did say that goodbye, that was the first letting go. Up until then, it was all about holding on. But, it wouldn’t be the last letting go. Not by a long shot.
I took my time to grieve my Dad’s death. I wasn’t ashamed to cry, I wasn’t ashamed to feel the pain. And, after a year or so, I felt like I had done a pretty good job of working through it. I could talk about my Dad and look at pictures of him and not immediately cry. It took me years later (and really only up until the last few years) to understand how deeply I still needed to heal – not from my Dad’s 2nd death, but from his 1st one. The one when I was 9 almost 10.
There are gaps in my memory in 1990. Much of it is a wash. My Mom, my siblings and I can piece it all together by whatever bits of memory we each held onto, but we were all forced into whatever shell of a defense mechanism our bodies and souls could conjure up based on our ages, our experiences and our own individual personalities to get through that trauma. We each hold little pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of our family’s trauma. And the pieces we each hold are deeply visceral memories.
I remember clearly that first day when Kip, Ellie and I got off the bus and were met by our neighbors at the bus stop and how they took us back to their house where Sadie already was and tried so hard to keep us happy and content until my Mom called with further news. We had no idea anything had happened to our Dad, but we knew our Mom wasn’t there. I remember that my heart had known that everything had changed long before my eyes got the cue to cry when my Mom called later that evening. I can hear and feel the crack in My Mom’s voice as clearly as I can hear and feel the crack in my brother’s voice 16 years later when he called to tell me Dad had passed away. I don’t remember the drive to the hospital, but I can clearly hear the beeping and the breathing machines in my Dad’s room. I can smell the strange smells and see how my Dad looked like some strange bed-ridden robot. Those smells and sounds and visuals were so lasting and strong that it was a long time before I could walk into a hospital without my body feeling like it was going to say goodbye to a piece of me.
I can’t remember the first moment that I was aware that my Dad was getting better, that he was waking up. But, I remember specific snippets of time as he started to unconsciously relive his memories, clawing through his life and piecing it back together, all the pains and joys. Little by little and out of order, he filled himself back up with his memories. Eventually he opened his eyes, eventually he regained motor function. Those things happened and I was there for some of it, but I don’t have specific memories of them. But, I do remember crystal clearly celebrating my 10th birthday in an in-patient rehab facility in West Virginia. My Dad was conscious then and was starting to get a solid footing on who he was. I remember getting a Casey Jones action figure from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series and I remember my whole family singing happy birthday to me and that my Dad was singing, too. And he couldn’t remember all the words to the song, but he kept on singing loudly and lovingly anyway. And I tried so hard not to cry because I was so grateful that he was there singing to me, but so sad that he had lost the words. It was the happiest/saddest birthday I’ve ever had.
He eventually remembered all the words and recovered beyond what anyone thought possible. And, by all accounts, he was a loving and loyal father for the rest of his life and I have many happy memories of him and was grateful for the time I had with him. But, before my Dad had that first heart attack he was a Navy chief with almost 20 years in the military with a sharp mind that landed him a job in the nuclear field in Bethesda, Maryland. He was quick-witted, strong, confident and a born leader. And, when he came out of the coma, he was a man with brain damage and short term memory loss. For the rest of his life, his brain would only be able to function with the comprehension of a 17 year old. You wouldn’t have known it if you’d first met my father after the heart attack. You’d have just thought he was slow moving and speaking and a quiet man who wasn’t very comfortable in big crowds. Doctors said it was a miracle that he survived at all and it was. I remember hearing people say how grateful we should be.
But, my Mom and siblings and I had been there through the times when he was strapped down to the hospital bed because his brain was reliving his past and he would spring up and shout and rave at shadows of memories long gone. We were there for the days when he didn’t recognize who we were all through all the months of therapy up to when we could have meaningful conversations with him. We knew it was a miracle he survived. We knew he had seen his mother while he was in a coma and she told him he needed to come back for us. So, we didn’t need any reminders to be grateful. From the very beginning, we knew the gift we were given, but we were only beginning to understand what we had lost.
When you go through trauma, no matter how miraculous the recovery, you’re going to get hurt. That’s the nature of it. I imagine most trauma functions similarly, but I can only speak with true authority on my own. You do what you can to get through it with whatever tools you have available and you try to manage the damage later.
And, at the ripe old age of 10, I made a decision that I thought would get me through the trauma and save me from a future heart attack like my Dad’s. Growing up, I had a fiery short temper that was often compared to my Dad’s temper. And, when I heard that stress was a major factor in my Dad’s heart attack, I made the decision not to be angry anymore. I thought I could just let that go. I had chalked all of Dad’s stress up to him just “having a bad temper.” I didn’t understand that the stress had a lot more to do with him not being able to deal with both of his parents dying within a year of each other a year before his heart attack. And combine that with being a smoker and a work-a-holic and you’ve got a perfect recipe for cardiac arrest.
But, at 10, I made a decision to shut my temper off. At least, that’s what I thought I did. What I’ve only begun to understand over the past few years is that I actually blocked myself from feeling anger at anything. I thought it would help save me from a heart attack, but I created a shell around my most vulnerable hurt that prevented me from fully mourning the loss of the father I had known for my first decade of life.
When my Dad was well enough, we moved from Virginia to Ohio to be closer to my parents’ families. As a pigeon-toed kid with glasses, I was already self-conscious, but toss in my emotional baggage and a new school and you’ve got a whole other ballgame. Around the age of 10 is also when puberty starts to kick in. It’s one of those times a son needs their Dad the most. I could already feel that my older brother and I were growing past my Dad’s comprehension. And, because I didn’t know how to explain the new hormonal changes I was feeling and because my Mom was already dealing with so much with my Dad who was rebelling against all the sudden limitations he had in his life, I didn’t know how to bridge a conversation with her. So, although my parents were and are wonderful people, this led to a distrust of what I could tell them.
Then, within a year of that, my Mom’s father passed away and I had an emergency testicular tortion surgery. So, the hits kept coming, but I stayed true to the pact with myself. I was not angry. Uncomfortable in my own skin, in emotional shock and lost, but “not angry.”
I didn’t know who I could even be angry at. I had a Dad who fought as hard as he could to come back from the dead for us and a Mom who fought as hard as she could to keep us all together and healthy and siblings who have always been loving and loyal. We were a family that laughed hard, said “I love you” and were encouraged to cry when we felt sad. There weren’t any bad guys in our story. Just a bunch of good people doing the best they could to get through a tragedy. So, I found the things to be grateful for.
And, as time went on, I figured I had worked through the problems. I no longer had tantrums – which was good when it came to inconsequentially tiny things. But, my pact to not be angry created a shield around me that prevented me from being truly comfortable in my own skin or truly open with another person. My shell blocked me from feeling any feelings I was ashamed of. And, because I tended to be a good listener and a sensitive person, it looked as though I had worked it all out. I even convinced myself of that.
But, there’s a reason why we don’t have 10 year olds make our laws. There are subtle nuances in life and feelings that we only begin to understand by living through them. Feelings aren’t meant to be governed.
It was only after Ruth and I had been together for a while and we found ourselves stalling in our relationship that I began to see that, among other things, I was afraid of being open with her. I only truly started to grasp this in the last few years and it’s only because Ruth pointed it out. I had abandonment issues. I would shut down if it looked like we might disagree. Depending on the situation, I was either afraid of hurting her or, if she was saying something that hurt me, I rationalized that she was a good person who meant well and I could swallow my negative feelings and that way we wouldn’t have an argument and wouldn’t break up and me and my 10 year old self would be safe.
I was able to argue and disagree with others about impersonal things. But, when it came to someone I was intimate with, I didn’t want to hurt them and I was afraid to let my own guard down and feel whatever I felt. I didn’t want to be angry. To me (and particularly the 10 year old in me), anger had become something to fear for two reasons: it led to heart attacks and it was the opposite of being grateful.
It took me over 20 years after my Dad’s first heart attack to understand that I can be grateful and angry and sad all at once for all that I lost and all that I gained. That I could mourn the loss of the father I had my first decade of life just as much as I could celebrate the miraculous rebirth of the father who lived for an extra 16 years.
But, because of Ruth and her love, I began to go to therapy. We both did. We both had trauma we needed to work through that was holding us back from being true to each other and to ourselves. We still do. Because here’s the thing. When you’ve gone through trauma, the pain of what you lost will be with you as you grow. So, you’ve got to be vigilant and you’ve got to be patient with yourself. And, if you take the time to work through it, it heals and scars over and doesn’t ache constantly. But, you’re going to find yourself viewing this wound from different angles as you grow and that new perspective often hurts deeply and feels like a whole new loss. Just recently was the first time I realized that I only really had 5 years with my pre-heart attack Dad because, for the first 5 years of my life, my father was out to sea much of the time on various naval tours. Realizing that felt like another little death. And now, at 37 almost 38 years old, I’m only beginning to understand how young my parents were when my Dad first died and can only imagine how this weighed on them. 38 seems like a lot of life at 10, but I can see clearly from my present view how young it really was. And realizing these things hurts. But, that’s not weakness. It’s feeling. It’s living. It’s growing. It’s me at 37 almost 38 years old.
Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell that 10 year old that he doesn’t have any responsibility to be grateful. He doesn’t have any responsibility beyond feeling whatever his heart is already feeling. As overwhelming as it might be, he will get through it. But, time traveling missions make so much more sense in our heads than they probably would play out in reality. I don’t know if my 10 year old self could emotionally take in all that back then. He had an awful lot on his plate and he did the best job he could to get us through that trauma. So, to thank him, I’ve been holding his hand for the past couple of years and, together, we’ve been collecting and reliving all our memories, both the hurtful and the joyful ones.
I don’t know what it will be like to be the age my Dad was when he first died. But, I do know that, as I truly address my pain, my heart is opened to understand what I need to keep and what I need to let go of to be happy with where I am. And, for that, I am grateful.
Originally posted on Facebook.
A collection of essays, blurbs and tidbits that I've written and taken a liking to.