I could feel the heat of tears dripping off my nose before I had even begun to write.
“Dear Dad,” I began, and my hands started to tremble. The feeling had been gnawing at me for a while, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. Emptiness. Longing. Or something else? The realization finally landed in my stomach like I had swallowed a stone.
As of this Father’s Day, I had been fatherless for 14 months. My Dad, Walter C. Russell, passed away from colon cancer on April 17th, 2016. The day before Father’s Day this year, I sat down to write my late father a letter. All at once, the months of pain slapped into my chest and I poured my heart onto the paper, swiping words onto the page like balm over a wound.
The first thing no one told me: How much it hurts.
People have sympathy, of course, but there’s this pervasive and thoroughly incorrect notion that “It gets better.” Well, define “better.” I was no longer crying every few minutes. I was functional. I could keep a job. But the feeling of loss, the instinct to make a quick phone call and share exciting news…? It never goes away. It’s just as shockingly difficult as the first day, over a year later.
When my Dad died, my life was plunged into a darkness that seeped into me, like parchment dipped into a pot of ink. Dark, heavy, and permanent.
There’s so much I miss about him. I miss the feeling of his scratchy beard when he kissed my cheek. I miss how he would laugh so hard at his own terrible jokes that you couldn’t help but laugh along. I miss how his eyes would light up when I understood something he explained. I miss knowing he was there for me.
It’s been too long. I’ve been waiting for the feelings to go away. For the hollowness in my chest to fill again, but it hasn’t. You haven’t come back. This isn’t the world’s worst hoax.”
I stopped. The feeling of disbelief was overwhelming. There’s no way this is my reality. Part of me sat dumbly, dragging my mind through the memories of my Dad’s passing, just to make sure it was real, and not some long nightmare. Another part of me was furious. Grow up, it said. It’s been over a year, why aren’t you ok by now? I let my mind argue with itself until I felt sick and wanted to smash my head through a wall.
Another thing no one told me: Grief changes. I not only cried over little things, like never hearing his laugh again, never seeing him smile… but also dreaded new experiences because I wanted so desperately to share them with him and I knew I couldn’t.
“So much has changed, Dad. I hardly recognize myself anymore, and yet, I’ve never felt more like myself. I suppose that’s called growing. I suppose that’s “maturity.” The problem is, the more I learn, the more I realize how much there is to learn. I want to talk to you. I want your advice. It isn’t fair… I still need you, and I can’t help but wonder where my life would be if you were still here. Has losing you made me into who I am today? Or would I be even better if you were here? It’s terrifying to think about.”
There are no rules to how this is supposed to work. No guide book, no tutorial. I find myself wanting to talk to Dad about his own death as much as I want to ask him how to clarify chicken broth. If I believed in that sort of thing, I would probably try to contact him somewhere in the afterlife, just so I could say, “Now why’d you have to go and die? Why would you do such a thing?!”
I found myself shying away from new things so I could still have more memories with Dad than without him… but it’s impossible. Life goes on, and it dragged me behind, kicking and screaming. I don’t want anyone but him to walk me down the aisle, but I still fell in love. It was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I began to learn how to feel happy again, despite the pain. Good things can happen, I reminded myself, and I don’t have to feel guilty about it.
I talked nonstop about Dad and wished with everything in me that he could get to know the person I loved. I was used to chatting with Dad excitedly about dates, but I kept those memories strong in my mind, and referenced them often as I went on new dates. I think Dad would’ve approved.
But then, what happens when he would not approve?
“It might hurt you to know, but I haven’t been doing well with my faith lately. I can hardly claim to have one anymore. God left me when he took you, and I promise I fought to keep any remains of my faith alive. I gripped so tightly that it hurt. But every day without you and every disappointment since has only ripped the fraying cord farther away until all I have left are threads and bleeding palms. I know it was important to you, and I can’t express how sorry I am that I can’t share that with you anymore. I hope you can forgive me.”
I stopped writing again to reflect for a moment, and clarify my thoughts. My dad was a scholar. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic just so he could understand the Bible more fully. He loved God and loved learning the patterns and history behind the scriptures. It was one of the things I admired the most about him. But I rode his coattails as far as I could, and when he was gone, I hit the ground hard.
Without Dad, I didn’t have a leg to stand on. I tried, truly, at first… stumbling through explanations behind my faith only to end in a frustrated, “I wish Dad were here to explain.”
Letting go of my faith felt like betraying the only thing I’d ever known. I knew I had to let go of Dad’s faith if I could ever find my own, but I got lost somewhere on the journey, and I’m wandering now, not sure of much of anything. Another thing no one tells you: I don’t have to BE Dad to love him.
Following in his footsteps was suddenly impossible, but I have a feeling he would be just as proud for me to leave my own legacy as to continue his.
I could feel the letter coming to an end. I had wrung out my heart as much as I could stand, and I felt the slightest hint of relief begin to mist over me like a sprinkler on a hot summer day. I smiled, through tears, and sniffed a long, wet breath through my nose.
“I hope tomorrow brings some peace. I wish I didn’t have to feel anything, but I’ll try to be happy for those who still have and can celebrate their fathers. It’s what you would’ve wanted. You would never ask me to take away someone else’s joy because I couldn’t share it. It’s not always about me, and I’ll try to remember that tomorrow.”
I did feel happy, then. For a moment, I was filled with gratitude that so many of my friends got to spend that day with their dads. It’s such a special thing, and I hoped none of them took it for granted. I liked as many Facebook and Instagram posts as I could, and sent an encouraging message to my sisters reminding them that we’re going to be ok. We’re gonna make it.
“I love you, Dad. I miss you. I promise I’ll keep trying to make you proud. Love, your Jojo.”