Sunday, November 4, 2018

Dear Dad - Six Months Later

Hi everyone - today is six months since my Dad passed away and I wanted to share some of my thoughts on what life has been like without him. It was easiest for me to do this in the form of an open letter directed towards him.
Dear Dad –
We are at six months since you and I last got to talk, six months since I kissed you good night
and walked out the door around ten at night and went home to cry in my husband’s arms.
Six months later and I still have days where I cry. Most of the time I can think about you
and miss you without tears, but not always. Sometimes they come unexpectedly. In the last
months, as you were prepping for your memorial, you said that your life had three
parts – family, APL and church. So in that same vein, I’m going to divide this letter
into those three categories and tell you how I’ve been dealing with your absence in each of those areas.
So first, the family. About a month before you died, we had a really serious conversation
about family. Mom was out getting you something and you sat me down and talked me
through all your plans to provide for her after you’d died, and you told me you were talking
me through all the details so she’d have someone to consult with about spending. What I think
you didn’t realize is that’s not the kind of relationship Mom and I have. I don’t really
know any more about money than she does (in fact I likely know less) so I feel like I have
nothing to offer as she makes these decisions. We had another conversation about Stephanie –
you were worried about her changing her direction in college. While it was clearly the right move
for her, I think you were distressed that the plan you had laid out needed to be re-done and you
weren’t around to do it. You asked me to try to offer her advice since her new path in data science
is closer to what I did as a CS major. I don’t know how well I’ve done with that. One of the last real
conversations we had privately was about Nathaniel. You said that you felt like you could have been
a better father for him, which brought (and still brings) tears to my eyes. You asked me to make sure
he knows, for the rest of his life, how proud you were to have him as your son. We talked about how
you had worked to make sure Isabel held memories with you in her heart, despite being only
nine years old. You told me how glad you were that I had married Ryan, who was looking out for me
and my needs while I tried (and failed) to look out for my siblings, and how important it was to you
that he know you valued him as a son-in-law. You charged me to be honest with Abigail as she
explored her relationship with Andrew. So many conversations that I reflect on now as if they
were a will you left only for me. The problem is that they weren’t really a will. They were
just us talking, like we did so many times before. I have to be careful not to attach too much
importance to these conversations we had, and to realize that the further we get from the days
those conversations happened, the less likely I am to be remembering them accurately. I’m still
working to free myself from the “What did Dad want me to do” weight that I feel like I’m carrying,
because whatever you may have wanted from me, you aren’t around to tell me anymore. My
relationships with everyone in our family will continue to evolve, while yours are frozen in time. I have
been reading a lot of books about coping with father loss (books I would have discussed with you, as
you were frequently reading and highlighting and processing books). They all talk about this
period of recognizing how your relationship with your mother changes in light of the loss of your
father. In these past six months I feel like I have seen that fairly clearly, not just with Mom.
Now for life circle number two, APL – your lifetime career there is a path I was excited to follow.
Now, I miss you most on the drive home from work, the time that for the past three or so years
has been dedicated to my calling you to tell you about my work day and inevitability get your
insight and advice on work. I feel the loss of your 27 years of APL experience, your insight into
the inner workings of the organization combined with my certainty that I mattered more to you
than anyone at APL. You were always giving me the advice that was right for me, not right for
the lab – which is different from any other mentors I might have, who have loyalty to the
lab first. So many things have happened for me in the last six months at work – and I feel
certain I’ve made mistakes as those things have happened – that I wish I could tell you about.
I want to hear you tell me how to respond to decisions I don’t agree with, to have you help temper
my always emotional reactions to things with professional behavior. I want your counsel on how
to recover from the mistakes, I want to hear you tell me you’re proud of me, and I want more
than anything to hear more of your stories from your time at APL. I’ve heard many stories from
people who used to work with you – even more in the last six months than in the three years prior
to that time. It was hardest for me the first few weeks after your memorial service. I walked
around the halls, supposed to be going about my work, remembering walking those same halls
with you when I first started my internship there. I walked by what used to be your office and would
be struck by a feeling of loss. My sisters keep telling me “that’s what you get for choosing to work
at APL. No one made you make that choice”, and in those days when I was looking to escape the
feeling of loss, it was hard. Now the halls don’t make me miss you anymore – instead it’s my
interactions with people that make me miss you. Recently, my boss told me he appreciated
my open, frank responses to his decisions and how attuned I am to how various decisions
will be reacted to on an emotional level. This made me smile because that, in a different
way, is my boss noticing what you have always told me you did – that you were frank, and
told people what you thought, and that honesty would always get your farther than flattery.
But like the relationships with family, your knowledge of APL is also frozen in time. Many of the
things I want to tell you about now, the people who are influencing the mission, vision and
direction of my work, are new to APL and the goals have changed. After all, you stopped
working there three years ago, so even as we were talking while you were alive, it was evolving,
and I have evolved into new roles in the last six months, so here I also need to be freed from my newly
idealized vision of what you would have done. And I have to remind myself (as I’ve been told by others,
including you) that your APL career is not mine, does not have to be mine, and is separate from mine.
I can choose to do it my own way, and now, without your advice, have to choose that. You were careful to
make sure that my choices were mine and that my reputation as my own person and not just your daughter
stood strong, so I have the foundation to be OK, even as I miss your regular insight and genuine interest in
what happened for me day to day.
Alright, your last life circle – church. About six months before you died you told me my name had come up as a
potential trustee, and I decided to go ahead and say yes. I was excited about getting more involved in church
leadership with you. But then you took a downhill turn and we were only able to go to one or two meetings
together. And now you aren’t around to talk me through the meetings and listen to me talk afterwards.
Trustees meetings feel like a place I struggle to separate myself from your shadow. In the past six months
I have hosted a Thrive Summer in the Word Bible Study, volunteered to lead a Pioneer Girls group, and opened
myself up, a little at a time, to actually building a pastoral relationship with Pastor Randy. All things I think you
would have wanted me to do and would be proud of me for doing, I hope. But then I question my motivation
– why am I doing any of these things? Am I only doing them because I know you would have wanted or
expected me to, or am I really engaging with a community of faith? I can see that some of it is definitely to
impress your memory and not to engage myself. I struggle with church because it often feels like talking about
losing you at church leads to anyone I’m talking to automatically moving into praising your actions there, giving
you a sainthood that I have a hard time accepting. As your daughter, I saw your flaws and I know that the
church things you did often caused conflict for you and the rest of the family. I can’t simply appreciate the
things you did for church the same way that those others do. Church worship services make me mourn for you
as we sing and I think about what it means for your faith to be sight. I think how passionately you used to stand
and sing. Sometimes I can feel spiritual warfare raging in my soul as doubt creeps in and I wonder if it really is
a beautiful promise. I asked Pastor Randy a number of questions about heaven about a month after you died,
in a tear-filled, embarrassing lunch in the APL cafeteria. Because I was so aware of your faults, a version of you
that has been redeemed and is totally without fault is hard for me to imagine. Will I know you, without your
sin? Will you know me without mine? Will our relationship, as special and precious as I hold it in my heart, be
preserved? Or am I making an idol out of your memory? All questions I struggle with. I have struggled with
understanding the suffering you faced over the 5 years of cancer battling. I have a hard time seeing mom’s grief
and feeling that God is good in all of that. Up until you got cancer, I led a charmed, blessed life, thanks to you
and Mom providing for and caring about me. And then you got sick but even when you were sick my life was
blessed as I got married and moved into a job that fulfills me – but then you died, and I felt (and still feel) waves
of sadness. My life is mostly still charmed and still blessed, I recognize that. But I am left with these memories of
the loss, of watching you slowly slip away and doubt creeps in that maybe this isn’t all from a good God. One of
the things you told me in one of my moments of grief was to always run too God, never from him, but this has
been hard for me. I am still working to take these worries and pains to him. Recently, I found Ana Harris’ blog
about chronic illness (she’s married to Brett Harris, one of the twin brothers of the Do Hard Things book) and
Ana’s blog helped me see that the version of you at the end where your mind had slipped away was not truly
you and I need to let those painful days go, I need to be freed from those memories. She had those moments
in her illness but has come back from them, and her post about processing feelings helped me see I can mourn
for those moments, I don’t have to repress them, but I can’t hold to them as my new truth in doubt. You were
carried through the end of your life by Christ, Mom says. I work to believe that and not to let doubt harm me.
Six months, and a lot has changed. I’m still missing you. I’m evaluating myself internally more than I ever have
before, to figure out how much of me is because of you, who you raised me to be, and how I will carry those
things forward in the next six months and the rest of my life. I have evaluated the faith we share and decided
to keep walking in it, asking that God will help the unbelief I wrestle with in your loss. I hope that one day, we
will sit together and talk about these things, that heaven will allow for our relationship to continue, someday
in the future. I miss you regularly. I listen to music you loved, wear your clothes, and eat your favorite foods
to still feel close to you. I hope you’re proud of me. Love forever, Emily

Thanks for sticking with me and reading through my processing of grief.