A few months ago, when a very close friend of mine unexpectedly lost a parent, I reminded her multiple times that there was no right or wrong way to grieve. That she owed absolutely no one an explanation or any apologies for the way she chose to deal with her loss. I never imagined that later on in the year, I’d be giving myself the same speech.
Writing has always been therapeutic for me, from the time I was a little girl hand writing my thoughts into paper journals. Of course back then I never imagined there would come a time when I would write some of my most vulnerable, personal thoughts and then proceed to share them with friends, family, and complete strangers. This blog is the complete antithesis of hiding my diary between my mattress and box spring so my sister wouldn’t find it. I imagine some find the fact I constantly put myself out there very off-putting.
But there is something about the vulnerability of sharing that makes it so healing; not knowing who may read my words is almost akin to writing those thoughts on paper and setting it on fire. It’s a release to the universe, it’s a type of surrender, it’s a form of letting go. Besides, like I told my friend 6 months ago, I don’t owe anyone any explanations.
So, here goes.
Saturday night a group of my favorite runners as well as my family were excitedly getting ready for the first ever Revenge of Steed Bonnet trail race in Monks Corner, SC. There was a 5 mile option, a 15 mile option, and a ten hour option around the 5 mile loop. I chose the ten hours, because suffering for long periods of time is sadistically what I consider fun.
Ten minutes before the race was supposed to start, I saw my friend Raquel walking towards me with a strange look on her face. I thought maybe something was wrong with her race registration, but as she got closer she leaned in and said “hey, I’m sorry, I just talked to Chelsey and you need to call your mom or sister right now.”
My dad was undergoing chemotherapy for stage 3 lung cancer. He was 72 hours away from what was supposed to be his last treatment, and so far…so good. Sure he lost his hair and he was in a bit of pain, but he was up and moving, had a positive outlook about the future, and hadn’t even lost his taste for chocolate snack cakes, his favorite. Still, as soon as the words “call your mom” came out of my friend’s mouth, I knew it was something to do with dad.
I quickly walked away from the crowd and simultaneously shooed my kids away while trying to dial my little sister’s number. Gut instincts never lie, and though I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, deep down I knew I didn’t want my kids to hear anything they didn’t need to hear just yet.
The phone only rang once or twice before my mom answered, crying.
It’s your dad, she said. He had a heart attack.
Is he OK? I asked, desperately.
Then the words I never wanted to say, but knew I had to say, came pouring out of my mouth.
Did Daddy die?
In movies you always see people collapse to the ground when receiving this kind of news. I always assumed it was overused Hollywood theatrics. Except it’s not. It’s really what actually happens. It’s almost as if your body immediately goes into self preservation mode and assumes the safest place for you to be in a moment of soul crushing news is on the ground. Because when processing that sort of information, it’s almost as if you forget how to use anything else. Your legs. Your arms. Hell, you almost forget how to breathe.
I hit the ground.
I felt myself crying. I heard the words of shock coming out of my mouth without even processing what I was saying. I felt my husband holding me while he also cried. But like the aforementioned Hollywood theatrics – it didn’t feel real. This wasn’t happening, and it certainly wasn’t happening to me, to my family.
To my dad.
Yet despite the numbness, my body reacted to the news. It was the closest to an out of body experience I’ve ever had.
I instinctively started apologizing to my mother between sobs. I don’t know why. All I could think of was how she and my father have been together nearly 50 years now, since they were teenagers. I cannot fathom what it must be like to lose the person you have essentially experienced everything with, and in that moment while my heart hurt for a million reasons, it mostly hurt for my mother.
She handed the phone to my sister, who instinctively started apologizing to me. I apologize back. I apologize for having my phone on airplane mode and missing her calls and texts. I have this incessant fear that whenever I’m unreachable, that’s when shit is going to hit the fan. Last week my phone was on airplane mode and my friend landed in the ER with atrial fibrillation. Now it’s my Dad. I apologize that I’m at a race. I apologize that she’s there alone and my sister and I are halfway across the country in opposite directions. I’m numb and I don’t know what else to do or say other than sorry.
As I sat crumpled on the ground crying into my phone just a few hundred feet from the starting line, I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do – or what I even could do at that point. It was nearly 7 pm, and I’m a thousand miles away from my family. My younger sister said confidently, through tears, “We’ll figure out the details in the morning. Run your race. It’s what Dad would want you to do.”
And so I did the only thing I know how to do when my world is suddenly crumbling around me: I ran.
The five mile loop of single track mountain bike trail was far more technical than I anticipated: full of sharp turns, rocks and roots underfoot, and quick, steep climbs and descents. I ran the first loop much harder than one should at the start of a ten hour race, but I desperately needed the physical pain to match the heartache I was experiencing.
At mile two, the grief sucker punched me in the gut and took my breath away. The numbness had worn off, and instantly the reality of the situation hit me. I pulled over to the side of the trail to sob, and found the person who was right on my tail was Raquel, who immediately embraced me in a hug. I was so grateful she was there, but I couldn’t stop moving. It was almost as if I didn’t want the grief to catch me, and if I stopped running right then, I might not have the strength to start again. So I pulled away and took off, saying something like “I feel like such an asshole for being out here right now”
She replied “Why would you feel that way?”
I don’t know. They don’t give life lessons on how you are supposed to react when one of your parents unexpectedly dies. I imagine I’m supposed to be so overcome with grief that I can’t function, but all I know how to do is match my pain with more pain.
I finish the first loop in under an hour. The race field is small, but I finish the 5 miles even before the first 5 mile female winner finishes (she was right behind me. It was my friend). I have run far too fast considering I still have 9 hours to go, and I also completely failed to even take one sip of water, never mind any nutrition, on that first loop.
I know this is going to break me later, but in that moment, I don’t care.
On loop two I fell so hard that it knocked the wind out of me, took all the skin off my forearms, and left instant bruises on my hip bones. I hit the ground so hard it scares me, and I immediately scream in a combination of pain, being startled, grief, and anger. All of it. The sobs start. I want to lay there forever, but out of the corner of my eye I see more runners coming towards me, and I want even more to not have to talk to anyone. I pick myself up, pickup all of my belongings that fell out of my hydration pack, and I run.
I typically don’t run with music, but I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts, so I had put my headphones on before the race even started. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse. For one minute I’d be distracted with something angry and loud, like Rage Against the Machine, and the next second there would be a song that so blatantly reminded me of my dad, it felt like a knife in my gut. What was I thinking putting Gordon Lightfoot on a 24 hour ultra playlist anyway?
“Pickin’ up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream,
I wonder how the old folks are tonight…”
Incase you’ve yet to experience it, take it from me: it’s really hard to cry and run at the same time. It’s almost as if your body can’t do both at once, so instead of tears falling out of your eyes, you simply start hyperventilating, which sucks when you are trying to run. I find myself not really wanting to be out there. I’m already tired, and my legs hurt. I had trained my ass off all summer, but the last 6 weeks of hurricane evacuation, kids out of school due to flooding, traveling for my sister’s wedding had very quickly put a damper on my fitness. But I also don’t want to be anywhere else. I’m not sure what I’ll do anywhere else. At least out here, for the next 8 or so hours, I have a purpose.
I spend as little time at transition as possible, mostly because I don’t know how to handle the uncomfortable stares. I know everyone knows: my friends, the race crew, probably even some strangers standing by. I know no one knows what to say. I oddly prefer it that way, because I don’t know what to say either.
Loops three and four were spent in an endless cycle of forgetting the news, remembering it, and being overwhelmed with grief. Or, I’d remember and find myself angry, yelling “FUCK, DAD! WHY?” under my breath. 72 hours out from his very last chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer, a cancer the doctors had assured him was gone, and he’s taken down by a rogue heart attack – the same heart the same doctors had just assured us looked healthy.
HE WAS WINNING THE FIGHT.
I had let my guard down.
I find myself wishing as hard as I could that my dad would just appear on the middle of the trail, just once, in his familiar black and red checked wool jacket, jeans, and those slippers he put on at night, just so he could tell me that even though he was gone, everything was going to be alright. Just the other day I was talking with friends about how much the idea of ghosts and spirits terrify me. Now, the surreal idea that my father, the one I had hugged on Monday, was a “spirit” overwhelmed me, and I wanted the idea that he could somehow make me aware of his presence, to be real. I wanted a sign, a sound, a flash of red flannel in the woods, anything. I thought and wished and willed it so hard I could almost feel my heart exploding out of my throat.
But there was nothing.
I decide it’s myself that I want to be mad at. I spent so much of my late 20’s and early 30’s being angry. Angry at the world. Angry at my circumstances. Angry that my life wasn’t going the way it was “supposed to”, whatever that means. Angry at things my parents had said to me out of their frustration for the position and situations I had put myself in. Angry because I had felt like I let them down, so it was easier to just be angry at them instead of myself. Because it’s easiest to be angry at the ones you know will never stop loving you, even if none of it was directly their fault. And so I spent so many years away. I went months, MONTHS, between phone calls. I used social media as what I considered an acceptable form of wishing a “happy birthday” or “happy father’s day” instead of just picking up the goddamn phone. In the back of my mind that tiny voice had always whispered “one day you will regret this” but the combination of my social anxiety, even with family, and stubbornness always won.
I had gone three years without visiting my parents. But for the three years prior to that I lived thirty minutes away, and I still barely visited or picked up the phone. I was an awful, selfish daughter.
Then in May when my dad was given his cancer diagnosis, I took it as a giant slap in the face to stop being such a brat. I went home, with no ulterior motives other than to spend time with my family. No race plans, no visits with friends. I tagged along on their antique business runs. Went for walks with dad. Ate mid day lunch, and sat around watching America’s Funniest Home Videos at night. A month later I brought my kids, their grandkids, to spend time with my parents. A month after that, just last weekend, I went home for another 4 days to celebrate my sister’s wedding. At one point that weekend, while my dad napped in his recliner with his tiny cat named Mittens in his lap, the one my sister got him one Christmas after my dad jokingly put “I want a cat” on his Christmas wish list, I found myself thinking “if something happened to my dad now, I’m grateful I spent all of this with him this summer.”
Except here I was. Something did happen to my dad, the worst thing. And I didn’t spend enough time with him. And I do regret it. And nothing, nothing, will ever change that.
It was at that point, in the middle of the forest, with no one and nothing around, I smelled enamel model train paint. The absolute unmistakable smell of my dad’s train room, or various basements growing up.
As I traversed around an unfamiliar forest, alone and in the dark, I remembered clearly when my father decided we were going to be an “outdoorsy” family. You see, I was not born into a family that was already well versed in adventure and the outdoors. I remember the day dad took the whole family to a store when we were still living in Connecticut with the intention of buying our first tent. I had to be maybe 7 or 8 at the time. It was a giant slate blue Eureka! tent that attached to the back of our Suburban, so mom and dad could sleep in the tent and my younger sister and I could sleep in the safety of the SUV.
I remember the first few very carefully calculated, well researched camping trips. We made rookie mistakes like leaving the screened in tent with all of the food in it wide open, and a bunch of racoons helping themselves to a feast. And I smiled realizing how over the next few decades, they transformed into a garage chock full of camping supplies, and memories such as the time my mom almost blew up the campground with a leaking Coleman stove gas tank, or the time my dad caught himself with a fishing hook to the back of our station wagon. I wouldn’t even be here, confident in my sense of direction, confident in my outdoor safety skills, and yearning for a sense of adventure if it wasn’t for my dad.
My dad wasn’t a runner, but his enthusiasm for life – and not always taking it too seriously – runs through my blood. I remembered numerous conversations with him over the years about how he never wanted a funeral, but instead wanted a big party, complete with Jimmy Buffet music playing, coronas in hand, and Hawaiian shirts. I absolutely despise country music, but I remembered one of my dad’s favorite songs, and sang it over and over in my head for the next few hours.
“Well I ain’t afraid of dying it’s the thought of being dead
I want to go on being me once my eulogy’s been read
Don’t spread my ashes out to sea don’t lay me down to rest
You can put my mind at ease if you fill my last request
Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die
Lord I want to go to heaven but I don’t want to go tonight
Fill my boots up with sand put a stiff drink in my hand
Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die
Just let my headstone be a neon sign
Just let it burn in mem’ry of all of my good times
Fix me up with a mannequin just remember I like blondes
I’ll be the life of the party even when I’m dead and gone
Prop me up…”
The last few times I was home, I told dad about how Geoff and I dream of not just owning an RV, but straight up living in it. Getting rid of all of our belongings and traveling the country. The first time I told Dad of these plans, I waited with bated breath for him to lecture me on how irresponsible that was, or give me a list of reasons why that wasn’t feasible. Instead he replied “Heather Jean, I really hope you get to do that. And when you do…I’m going to be so jealous that I never got to do it.” The last time, just last week, he reminded me of how I really need to make it happen.
I know Dad wouldn’t want me to be sad. I know he wants me to take care of mom, to remember to regularly take my car in for an oil change, and to never, ever forget to vote. But most of all, I know he wants me to keep living my life by my own terms.
On loop 7, I won the race. Not just female, but overall for the entire race men AND women. Most miles in the fastest time. My prize for first place was an old fashioned looking telescope as an honor to the late pirate Stede Bonnet. Dad would have thought it was a really cool prize, and he also would have shook his head at me in that “you really have a ridiculous idea of fun, Heather Jean” sort of way. I didn’t collapse at the finish line in tears. I didn’t reach up to the heavens and exclaim “I did it for you, Dad!”. The truth is I ran solely because I didn’t know what else to do. So when it was deemed that there wasn’t enough time on the clock for another lap, I just sat in a chair and declared I was done. And I was tired.
I’m still so tired.
It seems grief comes in waves. And as I sit here at my home, still 1,000 miles away from my parents home, the physical distance seems to lend to a feeling of disconnect with what happened. It’s the same way I was able to distance myself emotionally for so many years. I fly North tomorrow to spend the week with my family, doing whatever it is you are supposed to do with your family when a huge piece of that family is suddenly gone. I’m sure over the coming days, weeks, and months I’ll have so much more to say.
But for now I hit the publish button and send these words out to the universe, in hopes that they will lighten the load on my incredibly heavy heart.
I love you dad.