You died 16 years ago tomorrow. I’m not sure you’d recognize my life now. I’m approaching an era in which I’ve lived more life without you than with you. After you died, I looked for you everywhere I went: in my dreams when you’d visit before I woke up to realize you’re still dead, in the professors who taught my college classes, in the men I dated, in the voice of your brother on the phone. He sounds so much like you it was almost too painful to talk to him for a long time. He wasn’t you, but it was so close and so painful.
I found ways to honor you with my children’s names, with my career. I can remember you taking me to work one day when I was 8 years old, when you visited your post-op patients, and a man with a thick bandage around his head like a turban said to me, “Your Daddy saved my life yesterday.” But when death came for you, no one could save yours.
Don’t get me wrong. You messed up. Those patients got a lot more time with you than I did most of the time, and I missed you, even when you were alive. It’s not fair that we didn’t get to spend that time together when you were here. I needed you. I never told you that because I didn’t know it. I didn’t know any experience other than the one that was mine.
I finally found you though, and in the place I least expected.
Dad, I wish you’d lived, so you could have met them. But if you’d lived, they probably wouldn’t exist. I’d have different children with different men (yes, two… I probably would have made different decisions the first time around if you’d been here). I wouldn’t have lived in Kansas City. The trajectory of my life changed an inch when you died, and I ended up miles from where I’d have been. Your death changed me.
These babies, Dad. They’re so beautiful. I think you know this. You probably knew about the first one I lost. You probably laugh, watching the antics, boogers, cuss-under-my-breath moments, dinner times, massive parent failures and bedtime whispers in my house with Sophie, Jude, and David. You probably know about David’s twin. Death taught me a pain I am grateful for and wish I were ignorant of – every moment, I feel life ticking away from me. I feel myself approaching death, and the older I get, it’s accelerating. Every year gets faster.
I looked death in the face when you died in front of me. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m afraid of death. The closer I get to seeing you again, the farther I get from these babies. It’s a horrible double-edged knife in my soul, looking at their sweet faces and knowing my time is limited. That their tiny voices will deepen, their teeth will be fairy’ed away; they will follow their own trajectories. Every time Sophie and Jude go away for a weekend at their Dad’s, I think of the moments I’m losing, that I’ll never see. Life is a sensory buffet when I think of how much of it you’ve missed. Others’ tears are louder, snow more cold and magical and white, the trees dance more lovely even with no leaves. It’s like a meal so tasty I don’t want to be satiated. It’s like a wine so delicious I don’t want to swallow.
This past Wednesday was the beginning of Lent. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You’re not in the ground. You’re in the faces of my children and in the sorrowful joy I will feel until I die and get to hear your voice again. As your child, I missed you. But as a mother, I miss you infinitely more. I miss you for my husband who’ll never know what you were like and for the kids who never get to know their grandfather. I miss you for Mom, who doesn’t get to share being a grandmother with you. I miss you for my sister because I know she’ll feel all of this when she has her first child. I miss you now because I didn’t know what questions to ask you about life when I was 17, and I didn’t understand how much you wanted to spend time with me for those last four years of your life, like a fine wine you didn’t want to swallow. I’m sorry for being a stupid teenager. I’m sorry for not giving you what I ache to have with my own babies, even though I am not dying.
I don’t know how to end a letter to someone I’ve yearned to talk to forever. Ending this letter is like trying to slowly separate silly putty. The little strings just want to hang on and get thinner and thinner, but never separate. You know, the silly putty you used to stuff in my ears when we went out on the Gulf of Mexico on 5th Girl. Remember when you took me swimming on your back and we both got stung by a bloom of jellyfish? The Kansas City Zoo has a jellyfish display in the penguin house, and every time I see it, I think of that day with you.
Anyway, I’ll see you again, I know it. I hope soon, but I hope not soon because I don’t want my babies to miss me the way I miss you. I want them to be ignorant to this sorrow, but then again, that’s probably what you said about me. And your death made my life more colorful.