I was lucky to grow up spending part of every summer vacation in Fire Island, NY. A ferry ride away from New York City, this special island is one of those magical places that never changes. In Fire Island it could be 1950 as easily as it is 2015. There are no cars, bare feet are encouraged, and riding bikes is the only way to get around. If you need to transport luggage or supplies, you move them around in rusty bright red wagons. Outdoor showers are a necessity of each ramshackled house. Kids compete to sell painted seashells and string bracelets on the dock. If you show up to the local grocery store for morning coffee in anything other than your PJs ... you're clearly a first timer there.
For close to ten years, we spent two weeks each August in that family happy place. We would fly from Chicago, drive to Bay Shore, ferry across, and haul our luggage down the narrow wood walkways that led to either the ocean or the bay. As we got older and summers got busier, filled with summer camp, high school, social life, and obligations, Fire Island became a fond memory instead of an annual tradition.
In the summer of 2011, my Dad declared that we had to rekindle our beach connection.
To Fire Island we went! Everything was exactly the same. Sand everywhere, sun shining, card games, bike rides, beach toys, and a nonstop string of meals together with cherished family friends. We ended that summer in the same contented state we had in summers past.
Two weeks later, my Dad suddenly, terribly, randomly had a brain aneurysm. He was in a coma for 4 days that seemed like years; a dazed time filled with tears, breakdowns, prayer, and panic. We had to say goodbye. We would spend the rest of our lives without him.
I realize as I write, that this is quite possibly a love letter to my Dad. I am writing it from the beach in Fire Island where we have returned for the first time without him. It has taken us four years to be able to come back here, and I realize it's taken me that long to really begin to face my grief... and his absence.
The back story has drama, like every family. But real beauty. My little brother grew up with a variety of disabilities, from dyspraxia, to dyslexia, anxiety, sensory motor planning and integration issues, ADHD and more. He is a terrific kid in so many ways, but he comes with a lot of needs and requires special patience and support. Our Dad was the parent who put his career on hold to be the constant support my Brother needed. He was the only "art Dad" in my 5th grade class. His were the smiling eyes that met mine when I walked in the door every day after school, from 3rd grade through my senior year of high school. My Mom, who has the warmest and strongest heart, works harder than anyone I've ever met, is excellent at most things, and expects that same excellence from those around her. She was never your average PTA Mother... so you can imagine the whirlwind of changes that came about in our family when our Dad was taken from us.
Being a "stay at home Dad" wasn't the only way our Father was unique. He didn't just write me daily letters while I was away at overnight camp; he colored each envelope, included jokes, pictures and themed letters for holidays, special days, and even average days. He didn't just make me listen to the songs he grew up on; he made an entire binder filled with detailed descriptions of why he liked each song and what memories that song evoked. 12 CDs, over 200 songs, each personally "curated" by my Dad.
He didn't just read me bedtime stories to help me fall asleep, he wrote a book for me called "Cloud Hoppers" and made up a special land in the sky ...just for the two of us. He used his imagination to spark mine, and let it run free.
I think of all of these incredible qualities my Dad had as I walk barefoot along the familiar Fire Island paths we once walked down together. I feel him everywhere, so much that I expect to hear him calling my name from the beach.
Last week when we first arrived back in Fire Island we were re-establishing the family account at the tiny island grocery store. The woman behind the register asked why we hadn't been back in four summers. My impulse was to say something like "life got busy" and laugh it off, which is what I would have done if my Mom wasn't there. She however proceeded to tell the truth, and inform this stranger that we experienced a tragic death, and hadn't been strong enough to return to our happy family place until this year.
I ran out of the grocery store embarrassed and angry. Why did my Mom voluntarily tell this woman about the toughest challenge we had been through? Why did she bring up this fact about our lives and choose to open up the deep wound that we'd all worked so hard to heal? I demanded answers. Her response was simple. "Because it happened."
I'm realizing now that the strangest thing about grieving for me has been this need to make others feel comfortable when I'm uncomfortable. I find myself automatically responding to "how are you?" by saying "I'm fine" when I'm so clearly not. I leave out details from the sad parts of my day. I change stories and respond to questions with made up answers, because I'm afraid if I said my truth I'd scare people away.
I'm beginning to understand that when I choose to open up and tell people this detail of my life, I only do it in situations where I know I will be supported. Where I know the truest, best, most understanding people are surrounding me, and I wont regret reminding myself of the heartbreak we've endured. I wont regret opening those wounds, and risk opening up my heart.
I'm learning that it's not that I'm worried about making people feel uncomfortable by acknowledging what happened to my Dad, but more that I don't want to acknowledge it at all. I always want to remain my happy self, who sees the glass half full, is excited about everything, and fixes everyone else's problems. But that doesn't make missing my Dad go away.
Even writing this made me nervous. Am I being cynical? Is it depressing? If to you it is, then I'm sorry. Well actually I guess I'm not. I think this blog post/ public journal entry/ love letter to my Dad is my first admission of what I need to do no matter how difficult that may be... to finally learn how to heal.
If you have lost a person in your life, a friend, friend of a friend, a Grandparent, a sibling, a Mom or a Dad, perhaps you can relate to what I'm saying. You can understand the isolation I feel, the sense that no other human can fully understand exactly what I've lost, except for my Dad, and he's gone. On so many occasions I think to myself, if I could talk to him about all of this, he would have the perfect words to give me comfort and wisdom.
So I guess I wrote this to you, Dad... and maybe in honor of our family too. There are generic steps of grieving, I'm told, but I don't think there is any right way. I for sure don't know how. But I think you'd be proud Dad, that we've managed to somehow live, grow, and change without you for four whole years.
I want to tell you that everything I do is for you. You're with me everyday. I hope you know that I miss you every day as much as I missed you the day you left us. Even though four years have gone by, I still am in shock every day my life is going on when yours is not. I wanted to let you know that we're okay, even on the days that really suck, because we know you'd want us to be.
I want to say thank you Dad, on the 4th anniversary of losing you. I love you.