A Year of Dad: Making Sense of the Senseless

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”

I once read this quote on a whiteboard outside of one of my professors’ offices. I’ve always admired her endless positivity, viewing it as some far-off destination I’ve circled on a map that maybe, someday, I’ll get the chance to visit. It’s hard sometimes to separate yourself from your backstory–to rise above the pages of narrative that trail behind you each day. I spent many years believing that the past was something I couldn’t escape, its poison-ivy fingers wrapping themselves around my ankles and slowly pulling me backward into the shadows. I was, for a long time, what happened to me, and I felt about as much in control of my destiny as I was of the weather.

There’s an inherent value in believing that everything happens for a reason: it allows you to believe that there’s a method to the madness that is life–a kind of stability within chaos. I tried to frame my father’s death in these terms, trying to divine a reason for tragedy. When karma is a didactic tool used to teach children to be kind and just, facing something that seems anti-karmic is a jarring experience. What had my dad done to deserve dying so young? What had I, in my short life of fourteen years, done to warrant such a harsh punishment? For years I sat writing my way through an event in an attempt to make sense of the senseless. If everything happens for a reason, what was the justification for this?

The professor to whom the whiteboard belongs met me when I was still defining myself in terms of the effect my father’s death had had on me. I spent a decent amount of time relating my backstory to her as if that were a means of introducing myself. Since her academic specialization was religion, I implored her for a reason why God would put my family through something so terrible. One day, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Those who have suffered are called to a higher purpose.”

This was the first time I was presented with the idea of choosing what I could become in the face of what I had been or what had been placed upon my shoulders. If we’re being honest, I didn’t like it. In my mind, her response did nothing to answer my question. I didn’t care what my purpose was–I cared what the purpose of my backstory was. Looking backward for years at a time had stiffened my neck to the point where it had forgotten that “backward” wasn’t the only direction in which it could turn.

It’s interesting to me how epiphanies happen so suddenly, but once they do, it’s as if no other way of thinking has ever existed. There’s “before epiphany” and “after epiphany,” but they seem miles apart from each other even though, temporally, they’re separated by a matter of minutes. Although many conversations and a lot of introspection lead to my understanding what all of these threads meant–even though it took me years to weave them together into something real–it happened as dramatically and suddenly as a bolt of lightning. One moment I was the past, and the next I was the future.

There will never be a reason for my father’s death. It happened, and it’s not my job to determine why the stars aligned the way they did or what lesson was supposed to be learned from spiderweb of cracks that radiated from the impact. That’s beyond my control, anyway.

Accepting the past for what it was was a radical enough development, but I took it one step further: I chose what to do with it. In that moment, I chose to use my experiences to help those who can’t imagine a life other than being defined by circumstances that were beyond their control. 

Psychology was always an interesting thought to me, and all of my writings throughout high school related to the amazing capacity humans have to relate to one another. Becoming a psychologist existed in the town next to my professor’s optimism on the map of places I hoped I’d end up one day, but when that lightning bolt of realization jolted through me, I picked up the map and drove.

I can’t change what happened to me, but I do, absolutely, get to choose what to do with it. Like all humans, I have the ability to create light where there’s only ever been darkness, and that’s what becoming a psychologist is for me. It’s making sense of the senseless and turning tragedy into a higher purpose, if such a thing exists. My future clients will never know this event that defined me for all of my adolescent life, but they will know I walk with them in a way no one else has. Because I have suffered and cursed God and lost my way, I know–in a way I never would have understood otherwise–how to sit with someone who no longer follows the plot to her own life. 

Throughout his life, my father gave me the gifts of patience and presence. Through his passing, he encouraged me to give those gifts to someone else.

Thank you, Dad. Always.


(I realize I didn’t post for February. This is mostly due to school work but my inability to think of something “good enough” to write definitely factored in. This project also serves as a reminder to cut myself slack when things go awry, so that’s what I’m chalking last month up to. I will make an honest attempt to double up for March.)


A Year of Dad: Driving

My dad was good at a lot of things: writing, research, being a dad, etc. One thing my dad was not good at was driving.

Being absent-minded is a quality I inherited from my dad. For me, it manifests as getting endlessly sidetracked and forgetting obligations. For my dad, it manifested as… not being the greatest behind the wheel. That’s not to say that he was a danger to himself and others per se, but he had some bad habits that would preclude him from any driving awards, if there were such things.

For example, my dad picked me up from school a few days a week. At least once a week, we would be in mid-conversation, halfway home, when my dad would nonchalantly put down the parking brake. (To be fair, I would do that myself if my car didn’t yell at me for having the brake on while driving.) By the time I started driving his car, I’m pretty sure the parking brake was nothing more than decoration, its efficacy having been worn out by miles and miles of being used incorrectly.

One day, while my dad was apparently zoning out, he rear ended another car. I mean, not in a huge way–just tapped the bumper–but it was enough that the driver in front of us immediately threw on their blinker. I must have been in middle school at the time. My dad mumbled, “Shit.”

We pulled over, and before my dad got out of the car, he turned to me and said, “Just… don’t tell your mom, okay?”

Nothing came of it, so it was relatively innocent, like the rest of my dad’s driving infractions, and almost all of them happened on these after school commutes home (a drive that was probably three miles or so). My favorite driving moment, though, happened outside of this tradition. Once again, it involved Bonnie.

My dad and I were taking Bonnie home one afternoon. I was sitting in the front seat while Bonnie was nestled in the back next to a pile of empty boxes my dad had for his business. Toward the beginning of Bonnie’s road, there was a massive curve that was marked by chevrons and a huge arrow. We had navigated this road several times before without incident, but this time, we approached the curve with a decent amount of speed, went off the road into the gravel shoulder, and skidded to a stop perpendicular to the road.

Without missing a beat, my dad turned to me, and then swiveled around to Bonnie, who was lost under a mountain of boxes, and said, “Well, ladies. It looks like we ran out of road.”

What more is there to say after something like that, really? We continued on as if nothing ever happened, and we never spoke of the incident again. (Or any of the incidents, for that matter.) My dad’s driving habits were an implicit understanding.

Luckily, it seems I drive more like my mom. Mostly.

A Year of Dad: The Slip-n-Slide Incident

(This is part of a year-long series, the rest of which can be found here.)

For Christmas, I wanted to recount one of my favorite stories involving my dad. Appropriately enough, it has nothing to do with Christmas.

My dad worked from home as a bookseller and a finder of rare books. Basically, if you wanted to find a really obscure book about the military—especially T. E. Lawrence or the French Foreign Legion—you went to my dad. He was very well known in his field and was one of the founding editors of T. E. Notes, a newsletter that has archives in Oxford and Harvard.

Because he worked from home, he pulled double-duty as a kid wrangler while my mom tended her store. I was pretty easy to wrangle, as I enjoyed making stuffed animals have conversations with each other and writing stories. However, when I had friends over, it unleashed some kind of inner child demon in me, which rubbed off on my friends. We caused a gentle sort of chaos, and most of the time my dad didn’t interfere, possibly because he didn’t realize our devious ways but more likely because he was a secret lover of chaos himself.

For example, my dad didn’t ask any questions when my friends Casey, Bonnie, and I marched through the house in our bathing suits carrying every liquid soap product the house had. Obviously when three ten-year-olds are swiping things from the house, there’s no real good that can come of it, but he turned a blind eye (or maybe winked in our direction) as we started setting up what can only be described as a bad idea.

We had a slip-n-slide. Every kid had a slip-n-slide, but most people, at that point, had fancy slip-n-slides with pools at the end and arching jets of water the length of the plastic. We had the most basic, prototypical slip-n-slide that ever existed, so we needed to rely on gravity, soap, a garden hose, and desperation to have any fun.

Our 1.5-acre yard had many hills. On the left side of the house, the hill was terraced for my mom’s garden, but the right side had one sizable hill, perfect for a slip-n-slide. My dad’s office also had a window overlooking the right side of the property, so we were somewhat nervous my dad would catch on and stop us, but at the same time, a slip-n-slide is pretty innocuous, right?

Of course, it wasn’t enough to just have a slip-n-slide that was lubricated with half a bottle of Dawn—we also had to put a skateboard ramp at the bottom, because what’s life without a little mystery? We also rubbed liquid soap all over our, uh, bottoms, just to make sure the slip-n-slide offered enough slip.

The spigot to the garden hose was directly under the window to my dad’s office, so it was impossible for him not to hear the squeak squeak squeak whoosh of the valve. He didn’t care. It was summer, and the girls were outside making noise instead of inside making noise.

For a good half an hour or so, our plan was genius. The ramp was kind of a dud—it slid with us rather than allowing us to fly like we initially thought—but the water pooled at the end in a muddy, grassy mess. And when you’re ten, a muddy, grassy mess is the Best Thing Ever.

One thing about the slip-n-slide we neglected to care about was the fact that it had a giant slit in it. Halfway down its yellow runway, the slide sported a foot-wide gash that gave a glimpse of July grass underneath. Since we flew past it on our way to the makeshift ramp-pond at the bottom, it was nothing more than a flash of green on the journey.

Until it wasn’t.

We decided to go down in a line. Casey went first, followed by me, and Bonnie came close behind. We tried to hold onto each other—clutching ankles and wrists—but it was a jumbled, soapy mess. Bonnie had been trailing her hand behind her to stay on the slide, and in doing so, her pinky got caught in the slit. She kept going, as bodies in motion tend to do, but her pinky didn’t. That damn law of inertia.

We knew it was bad. Bonnie’s face screwed up in pain and tears leaked from her round eyes as she looked at her pinky, which jutted out an an angle just odd enough to be unsettling. We ran inside and called frantically for my dad, our bathing suits dripping puddles at our feet. He appeared in the living room, took in the scene, and stopped.

Unless specifically trained in medicine, dads don’t really know how to deal with health emergencies (or at least mine didn’t). Moms kind of have an instinct for bandaids and bruises, and dads have an instinct for calling Mom. But, as misfortune would have it, Mom wasn’t around.

We explained to him what happened, and he was silent, staring at the pinky with an intense look—not one of disgust but of a man trying to solve a complex calculus equation.

It’s important to note here that my dad had a horrible sweet tooth (one that I unfortunately inherited). He was especially devoted to ice cream, but during the summer months he sometimes opted for those Pop Ice pops—the ones that come in long, plastic strips and are essentially frozen Kool Aid. As kids, we loved it because it gave us an excuse to eat things we probably shouldn’t.

On the surface this seems like an extraneous detail, but you may sense where I’m going with this.

Hit with a sudden epiphany, my dad held up one finger, said nothing, and disappeared. He returned several moments later with a strip of three Pop Ice, a rubber band, and a pair of scissors. Again, without a word, he wrapped the ice pops around Bonnie’s finger, making a little triangle, and secured them with the rubber band. He then cut the tops off of the pops and said, “It’s a splint. It’s ice. It’s also edible.”

And he smiled to himself, because it was just the kind of insane, chaotic genius my dad was known for. He laid the scissors on a table next to the couch, and from the doorway to the living room he said, “And there’s plenty more where they came from.”

He promptly left the scene, satisfied with how he handled it. I guess we weren’t too concerned, either, since Bonnie ate the ice pops and Casey and I got ourselves some, too. She ended up going to the hospital later on, and they told her the finger wasn’t broken. Months later, though, I think she went back and found out it had been broken and healed slightly crooked, but rebreaking it would have been massively painful and definitely not as fun as the initial slip-n-slide, ice-pop pinky breaking.

So that’s the story about how my dad was simultaneously the best and worst at being a parent under pressure. Bonnie still laughs about it, thank God.

A Year of Dad: The Eulogy

(This is part of a year-old series, the rest of which can be found here.)

A couple weeks ago I found myself at the funeral of my dear friend’s mother. I was surrounded by people I had never met hearing stories of a woman I had never known, yet I couldn’t have felt more love surrounding me. This was my ninth funeral, but I had only ever heard one eulogy in my life. As I listened to my friend speak of her mother’s beautiful life, I couldn’t help but realize that my father was not sent off with words from his family. For better or worse, my family doesn’t do eulogies, but, being inspired by this touching funeral mass, I’ve decided it’s time we did.

So to start my year-long series devoted to my dad (albeit a few days late owing to the election insanity), I’m writing his eulogy. It makes sense, in a way, to start here; I’ve just documented his passing, so to write something about his funeral is the next logical step. I guess I just never realized how powerful and meaningful a eulogy could be until this month.

How do you start one of these? I guess something like…

Hello, family and friends. (In my mind, the church is packed with my dad’s business associates and long-lost friends, even though in actuality the people in attendance that day all fit comfortably into two pews, and the service consisted solely of my mom’s family and my dad’s brother and wife.) You all knew my dad, Denis, in one way or another, and I’m sure you could all tell stories of his deadpan sense of humor or his dedication to his work. These are stories I will never know, but luckily I have stories of my own.

You see, there’s a lot I don’t know about my father. Fourteen years might seem like a lot of time to get to know a person, but when you’re six, you’re not interested in your dad’s rich backstory so much as smashing rocks with a hammer to see if there’s quartz inside. At the same time, I know everything I need to know about my dad through his fourteen years of supporting me and shaping me into who I am.

When I was younger, I used to love climbing trees. Being chronically short of stature, I liked seeing things from above, looking down on the world and marveling about how small everything ultimately is. I liked the challenge of hoisting myself up and testing my weight on increasingly shaky branches. I could have lived my whole life in a tree and been happy. My usual haunt was a Japanese maple tree on the edge of our property. I knew it like it was the lyrics to a favorite song, and even now, I remember the easiest path to my favorite branch.

One day, though, I decided to take on a new adventure. I left the comfort of my Japanese maple for a more complicated but exciting prospect: the enormous magnolia hanging half over the garage roof and half over a small hill in our backyard. None of its branches were particularly high, but they spread out like cracks in a windshield, reaching out in tangles across the lawn. I didn’t get particularly far in my quest to climb; although the branch I was on was more than sturdy enough, I slipped. Somehow, I managed to wrap my little arms and legs around a branch that was almost the same thickness as me.

There I was, hanging like a sloth six or seven feet above the ground. I didn’t have a good enough grip to climb back up, and if I let go with my legs, the force of their falling would pull my hands off the branch, too. I couldn’t see a way out of the situation that didn’t involve snapping my neck. With my heart in my throat, I yelled, “DAD!”

I didn’t have to yell. Somehow, the moment my fingers slipped from the bark, my dad was there to catch me. I fell softly into his arms, and he hugged me close to him. I cried.

That has been my father’s presence in my life. No matter the circumstance, my dad has been there to sweep in and catch me before I hit the ground. Even when it seemed like our relationship was based more on silence than words, he was present in a way that most others weren’t. If that were the only thing I knew about my father, it would be enough. While I cherish every restaurant visit he made better by being unruly, that one afternoon he saved me from falling gave me everything I need to know about him.

Nothing gives me more pride than the ways in which I am similar to my father, not just in trying to proverbially catch people in their most emotionally charged moments but in the little things. Every time I bring my eye up to the viewfinder of a camera, I see his eye staring back at me—green flecked with light brown, just like mine. Every time I sit down to write, I feel him leaning over my shoulder. Even struggling in geometry made me smile because I remembered my father telling me it was the only class he had ever failed.

Maybe I don’t know as much about my dad as I want to, but I only have to check in with myself to understand who he was. I share his love for learning and books, his analytical nature, his sense of humor. I share his nose and his height and his habit of eating ice cream in the dark.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my father was a good man—a man I will always remember for his dedication to me. When I was diagnosed with asthma, he quit smoking. He had tried to do this for decades (unsuccessfully), but knowing that his vice was affecting my lungs, he stopped. He bought the patches and gum, and while he ultimately succeeded in quitting, he did find himself suddenly addicted to gum (after he transitioned from Nicotine gum to Trident), which was convenient as I also had a pretty serious gum habit.

He was not perfect, and God knows I wasn’t, either. But he tried. Every day of his life he labored over choices, always trying to find the one that would best benefit his wife and daughter. Everything he did, he did for my mom and for me. So maybe I don’t know what my dad was like when he was a kid, and maybe I don’t know where he grew up or what he dreamed of being when he was in high school, but I know that he loved me with everything he had.

And that’s all anyone needs to know in the end, isn’t it?

Now if this were a real eulogy, I would have included some of my favorite stories about him—ones that involve laughter and hijinks—but that’s what the rest of the year is for. In this moment, I want to honor his life in a way that would have been fitting when I was fourteen and lost in a world I couldn’t recognize without his presence. The world still doesn’t look the same without him, but the colors get richer every time I connect with him through writing.

A Decade of Grief, Part Two

(If you missed the first part of this series, you can read it here.)

For a while after my father’s death, everyone treated me differently: spoke to me as if I were damaged, touched me as if I were made of glass, looked at me with their heads cocked to the side. It wasn’t bad, necessarily—just very different. And then, all of a sudden, they stopped. For them, life continued as it always had, and they expected the same would happen for me.

The thing about life is that it’s like a merry-go-round, except it’s going at 200 miles an hour. It doesn’t feel so bad when you’re on it and you’re strapped in; you get used to the pace because it’s all you’ve ever known. I had been tossed off of the merry-go-round, though, when my dad died. I sat on the ground, dizzy and disoriented, and watched as everyone else just continued spinning onward. It’s tempting to just sit and watch, but the longer you wait, the more you miss. Of course, the idea of leaping onto something that’s spinning at 200 MPH is terrifying, so that’s a factor.

I didn’t know how to jump back on. I faked it. I faked it so well that people believed I was okay. Even I believed I was okay, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t okay for a very long time, but faking it became so second nature for me that I convinced myself I had processed the loss and was moving forward.

The whole processing thing was complicated by the fact that we opened a lawsuit against the hospital. The moment that happened, a gag was placed in my mouth. I was forbidden to talk about anything related to my dad with anyone other than my mom. Any time I even mentioned him to someone else, I was looking over my shoulder, waiting to get caught. I needed to talk about it in order to process it, and I couldn’t.

The few times I did tell people what had happened—the actual details—any relief I could have gained from it was replaced with crushing guilt, wondering if I had just jeopardized the entire case. At fourteen, fifteen years old, my shoulders already ached from carrying the burden.

For the first year or so, no one knew about the lawsuit. Once the local paper got wind of it, though, it became common knowledge.

The first article was the worst. The writing made the implication that our case couldn’t hold water even though all we had done at that point was file the lawsuit. The comment section of the online version of the article was worse. My family was accused of being gold diggers and of profiting off of my father’s death. We were dragged through the mud by strangers. Students at my school—ones that I even considered friends—stopped talking to me or, at worst, were openly hostile. One girl told me it “wasn’t a big deal” that I no longer had a dad and that “everyone dies.”

I wasn’t allowed to defend myself. I had to keep my mouth shut and my head up, but nothing inside of me wanted to do that. I wanted to scream at these people and remind them that I never chose this and had no control over any of it.

I still feel uncomfortable talking about the lawsuit because there are people around me who are connected to the hospital and get frosty when I make reference to it. However, this is my experience. I own it. It happened to me—not anyone else—and I’ve earned the right to talk about it.

The hospital lied. They lied from the moment the surgery happened to the final days of the trial. They changed numbers on my dad’s chart and cited “pen malfunction” as the reason the numbers didn’t match. They lied under oath and changed a narrative that had already been written and done. They said things like, “I didn’t know Denis, but I could tell he was a great man.”

I watched my mother go through hell as she listened to deposition after deposition of varying accounts of how her husband died. Every deposition happened at the hospital rather than a court house or a lawyer’s office, forcing her to essentially relive my dad’s death for years.

I, too, was deposed. It was the first time I had stepped foot in the hospital since my dad’s death, and I felt dizzy and sick the entire time I was there. They asked me endless, probing questions about my relationship with my dad, my life, that month he was in the hospital, and ended up subpoenaing all 25 journals I had written from grades 7-10. My “homework” was that I had to read each journal and mark every single reference to my dad.

In preparation for my testimony, my lawyers took it upon themselves to remind me of all the things in my life my father would miss—graduations, weddings, births of children, every career milestone—as if I didn’t already think of those things all the time. At that point I was 18 and had already felt his absence at my high school graduation, three talent shows, countless softball games, and several other accomplishments. My heart was already scarred, and in some places I was still bleeding.

Some wounds never heal.

The night before the trial started, my team of lawyers took over the entire basement of Settler’s Inn. I called it The War Room because everything about it made it seem like we were preparing for this bloody battle. There were papers and files strewn about over several tables, with boxes lining the walls. The lawyers kept asking us if we wanted anything to eat or drink, and there was an entire table laid out with snacks and bottled water.

I didn’t take any of it, even though I knew we were footing the bill for it. Oddly enough, I wasn’t very hungry.

One of our attorneys took me aside to prep me specifically. He handed me photocopied pages of my journals, marked with neon flags indicating where I was supposed to read. I looked at him blankly. “I’m reading these?”


For four years I was told to stay silent—to box up and put away everything I knew about my father—and now I was being asked to split myself open and spill my soul out to a room full of strangers, some of whom had a direct hand in my father’s death. The numbness I had experienced for so long came back full force, because if I had felt the terror of that, I would have collapsed under its weight.

I was free to go after I was prepped. I didn’t want to stay and listen to the strategies or catch snippets of what happened on that operating table. My aunt was there, and I remember her crying and hugging me and saying, “This is for Denis.”

I mean, it was. The whole point of the lawsuit was to force the hospital to take responsibility for their actions—to have some kind of justice in my dad’s name. What happened to him deserved to be brought to justice somehow, and maybe that should have made me feel better, but in that moment, knowing what I’d have to do soon, it didn’t bring me any comfort. I stood stiff as my aunt sobbed into my shoulder, and as soon as I was able, I got into my car and drove home.

On my day to testify, I had to get to the courthouse sometime in the late morning. My mom and aunt were already there, so I had to try to figure out the courthouse alone. I ended up in a sort of waiting room on the top floor. It was January, so snow was falling outside, making the whole day seem gray and dismal. I watched the school closings ticker at the bottom of a TV screen mounted to the wall, seeing if Honesdale had an early dismissal, even though at that point I was no longer in high school.

The wait seemed endless. During the trial’s lunch break, my lawyer went over my testimony with me one more time.

I don’t remember how I got into the court room or even being sworn in. Everything else is crystal clear to me, though. The jury was to my left, and behind them were long windows with ancient, yellow curtains. Directly ahead of me was my lawyer, and behind him sat my mom and my aunt. In front of me and to the right was the entire panel of defendants and their attorneys. To my direct right, almost so close I could touch her, was the court stenographer, whose clicking keys distracted me, but not nearly enough.

Being on a witness stand is like being in a small cage, which was appropriate because I felt like a sideshow act. My hands trembled as I held the xeroxed copies of my journals—fragments of my fragile soul that had been transformed into paper. My lawyer instructed me which passages to read, and I began.

At first I thought I could compartmentalize like I had for the past four years. After all, I had gotten good at pretending, and this was just the olympics of trying to pretend that I was okay. But that wasn’t the point. I was there to prove pain and suffering, and I was reading my pain and suffering. There’s no getting around that.

The emotion built up inside of me like bile, starting in the pit of my stomach and burning my chest on the way up. It burst out of me like vomit, wracking my body with tremors. The words in front of me blurred through a torrent of tears, and my voice croaked out every last private detail of those pages. I tried not to look at my family, knowing that seeing them would crack whatever stability I had left. Instead, I looked at the jury, trying to catch their eyes and make them see the pain buried inside of me that was finally gushing out—four years of festering wounds now being bled for the benefit of their judgement.

Not one juror could look me in the eye.

When I was finished, the judge asked the defense if they had anything they’d like to ask me, and all they said was, “We’d like to thank Ms. McDonnell for her honest and heartfelt testimony.”

White hot flames of anger licked my insides, but I was too drained to say or do anything other than step down from the stand and walk out the back of the courtroom. The door lead into a dark staircase carpeted in royal blue. I made it down half a flight of stairs before collapsing in the corner of the first landing and sobbing. The wall I leaned against was the only thing keeping me from slipping into the ocean of grief inside of me.

I allowed myself to be there no longer than five minutes. At that point I straightened up, caught my breath, and walked out of the courthouse, leaving it all behind.

The hospital ended up settling, which meant that my dad’s passing was ruled a wrongful death caused by the hospital’s neglect. Interestingly enough, though The Wayne Independent reported on the opening remarks of the trial, they never reported the outcome. That falls to me. Consider this to be the article they never bothered to write.

With the trial over, the gag was finally taken out of my mouth. I was free to talk about it, which meant I was finally free to “move on” and process the loss. However, I had gotten so used to being silent that I didn’t know how to talk about it or understand it. I hadn’t been allowed to grieve at the appropriate time, so grief felt very removed and foreign to me.

To be honest, it still does. I have moments when I’m able to fully understand what happened to me and my family, and those moment are immensely difficult. I have others when I can’t conceptualize that this is a real thing that happened in my life, and in those times, my dad is nothing more than a character in the story of my childhood—a childhood I have trouble believing I ever had.

I used to think that, because I never really broke down over my dad, I didn’t love him. It’s the opposite, though. When people get into car accidents and are seriously injured, they stop feeling pain. They go into shock in order to protect themselves from the trauma they’re experiencing. The same thing happened to me, but since I couldn’t physically see the wounds, I had a hard time coming to terms with my lack of emotion. The problem was that I loved my dad so much that his loss cut too deeply to be felt. I lacked the capacity to feel something that painful and profound, so my brain just shut it off.

His loss is still a daily struggle—one that I work on both actively and passively. It took me a long time to find meaning in it. It still is—and always will be—a senseless tragedy that could have been avoided. There will always be times when I’m angry at the universe for taking my dad away from me because it wasn’t necessary, and neither he nor I had done anything to deserve it.

That being said, my way of making sense of the senseless is to try to turn it into something positive. I know very intimately what it’s like to lose someone you love. I know what it’s like to fall deep into depression—to shake hands with the demons that live inside of you. I know what it means to suffer. If I can take that knowledge and use it to help other people, then my dad’s death serves a purpose. He can continue to influence me and guide my life if I use his passing as a way to help others through the same traumas. This is why I’ve decided to be become a psychologist.

I miss him. Nothing will ever change it, and no amount of insight or processing will ever make it okay that he was taken from this earth. He was 53. He had so much life ahead of him, and it’s not fair that it was stripped from him.

On the tenth of every month this year, I’m going to write a blog about my dad and all of the wonderful things he was. I want to honor his memory, and the first step of that was to tell the story of how he died.

Now I get to tell the story of how he lived, and as his daughter, I’m proud to have that honor.

A Decade of Grief, Part One

On October 10, 2006, I lost my dad, and in the ten years since, I have carried the weight of his death on my back like Atlas carries the earth. I’ve grown accustomed to the heaviness that predominates my life—wear it like a cloak, like an armor. Sometimes I can’t feel it. Others it threatens to flatten me to the pavement, causing my joints to groan and ache. My life is divided into before and after, and there are moments when I can’t even remember a before. That scares me.

I was fourteen when my dad walked into my room in the middle of the night and asked me where my asthma inhaler was. He had been battling what a nurse practitioner had told him was a nasty cold, but that night his chest was constricting. It didn’t take long for him to decide to go to the hospital. My mom swept into my room and took him away, promising she wouldn’t be long.

It was 3:12 AM on September 11, 2006. I climbed into my parents bed, trying to feel the warmth in the sheets, but the house was already cold. I had never been left home alone overnight, and I didn’t realize then that being home alone was something I was going to have to grow comfortable with. That night I didn’t sleep much—it was a blur of endless tossing and turning, jumping at any noise that might be my parents coming back.

My dad would never cross that threshold again.

In the morning my mom came back to take me to school. I don’t remember anything about that day other than walking outside in gym class and feeling this vague sense of dread.

That night I think I remember visiting him and sneaking in supplies like juice and cake. His bed was next to the window. Night had already fallen and the glow of the streetlights outside served as a backdrop to the small TV that was on a mechanical arm.

It all comes back to me in fragments. The next thing I remember was visiting him in the ICU, which he got moved to when his blood oxygen levels dropped too low. I hung up a campaign poster on the ledge below his window since I was running for freshman class president—an election he’d never know the result of. My dad never got to see me serve my term. It was the first of many milestones he’s missed.

At one point he started choking on an ice cube, and every machine in his room struck up an orchestration of noises so unsettling I had to run out into the hall. Outside his room I mentally shut down, and sometimes I think I never started back up again. In that moment there was something inside me that knew he would never come home. The nurses rushing past me, the endless beeping, the palpable panic…

That wasn’t the night he died. It was much more complicated than that. That was, however, the last time I ever got to speak to him. When the beeping stopped and the nurses all filed out, I went back in to say my goodbyes. A lot of people end up putting a lot of emphasis on the last thing they say to someone they love at the end, and while I know that doesn’t make or break years of other words exchanged, I think it’s human nature to place so much stock in that final exchange. It brings me comfort to know that the last conscious interaction I had with my dad was my squeezing his bright, hospital-white socks and saying, “I love you, Daddy.”

The timeline is fuzzy after that. He went in for surgery the next day, and since my mom wanted to be there for it, I had no way to get to school. The principal came to get me in a light blue pickup truck. We had to pass the hospital on the way to school, and I’m glad I didn’t know what was going on inside its walls.

The next memory I have is of my mom sitting me down in the living room. I remember everything about that moment, from the light streaming through the window to my left to my mom crouched down in front of me and to my right, her hand on my knee. She told me that my dad was in a coma—one from which he’d never wake. Looking back, I can’t imagine how she had the strength to deliver that news. I was calm, mostly due to denial, and asked if they were sure. They were.

I’m still shaky on the particulars of what happened, and maybe it’s better that way. My dad had strep pneumonia. There was fluid accumulating around his lungs, so he had to have a surgery to insert a drainage tube. During the pre-op vitals and paperwork, my dad couldn’t manage to sign his name to the consent form. My mom joked with the nurse and asked, “What kind of drugs do you have him on?”

The nurse was confused. “He’s not on anything.”

It was the first of many warning signs. Years later I found out that my dad begged for them not to put the mask over his face for the anesthesia, but they did it anyway. Somewhere in the procedure, his heart stopped. They didn’t read his chart, so no one realized he was difficult to intubate. I imagine them ramming a plastic tube down his throat over and over. He was dead on the table for eight minutes before they got him back. Irreparable brain damage happens after five minutes of oxygen deprivation.

When my dad got back to his ICU room after the surgery, my mom went in to see him. She asked why he wasn’t awake, and the nurse told her that they had him on sedatives so he wouldn’t pull the tube out. She left to get me from school, and when she dropped me off at home and went back to see him, she asked the night staff how he was doing.

“Well, he hasn’t had a seizure in a couple of hours,” a nurse told her. That’s when she was told he was in a coma, though they told her he had flatlined in surgery for 30-45 seconds and they expected him to come out of the coma soon.

And then there was the truth: my dad was clinically braindead.

I found this out in bits and pieces later on. At the time everything was a giant blur, and inside I was numb. Parts of me still are and probably always will be. I continued going to school, but I remember none of it. In fact, I only remember chunks of my freshman and sophomore years. The only way I can recall most of it is by reading my journals from those years (but we’ll get to that later). The one thing I remember from that period of time was watching Whose Line is it Anyway, lying on the floor of my living room with my sheepdog. My mom went to the hospital after dinner every night and sometimes wouldn’t get back until after midnight. She would read to him and talk to him, hoping that her voice would somehow bring him back. We knew what the doctors had said, but visions of hope and miracles and Hallmark movies danced in our heads. We prayed. We waited for that miracle, but it never came.

We needed time to process. TV shows joke about “pulling the plug” on a relative, but it’s not simple. My parents had made an agreement that if either one of them were on life support, they would want to be taken off, but we needed time. One of the physicians didn’t understand this and, on more than one occasion, urged my mom to pull the plug.

I try very hard not to hate the people involved in what happened to my dad because we’re all human. The surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists were all human, and as humans, we make mistakes. It’s more how you handle the mistakes that define how you should be judged, and for that, I feel I’ve earned the right to feel at least a deep contempt for the handful of people who made the series of mistakes that lead to the death of my 53-year-old father.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It wasn’t until October that I could bring myself to visit my dad. The ICU nurses buzzed us in on sight; no need for us to state our business, since they knew my mom from her being there every day for at least three weeks straight. I know that if I had never gone to see my dad I would carry that regret with me for the rest of my life. Instead, I carry the regret of actually going to see him, because that man in the hospital bed with the tube sticking out of his trachea was not my father.

Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I see him like that, with the tubes and his bloated face and his lopsided mouth. I remember the way his eyes opened when he heard my voice, like there was a glimmer of recognition, and then the unbelievable pain of watching his unfocused, roving eyes, knowing that he was already gone.

He was dead before he died, but I went back a few more times as if I needed more proof. Each time I went, it further burned that image into my brain, like when you leave an LCD TV on for too long and the image on it becomes a permanent part of its screen. Every time I try to call up his face—his real face—it’s like the image of him in the hospital is superimposed on top of it.

Late on October 8th, my mom made the decision to take him off of life support. He was given morphine and disconnected from the respirator. I continued going to school, wondering when the call would come that my dad had stopped breathing. He made it through October 9th. On October 10th, my mom left the hospital for the first time since making the decision (my aunt had been taking me to school). We went to Walmart to get food, and as we were leaving, my phone rang. I guess my mom had given the hospital my number since her phone was dead or lost.

It was The Call. We only had minutes to get from Walmart to the hospital, and my aunt, God bless her New York roots, sped and ran every red light on the way. My mom leapt out of the car as soon as we pulled in front of the hospital. My aunt found a parking spot and ran after her.

I was alone and waiting, like I had been for almost a month. I sat in the back of my aunt’s Subaru, not feeling anything. Nothing around me felt real, yet I knew it was happening. My concept of time was kind of skewed after that. At some point my aunt appeared at the window, her face red and streaked with tears, and just nodded. She hugged me, but I felt nothing.

I think I cried once for maybe thirty seconds, but it’s like my body couldn’t grasp the concept of grief. I didn’t want to be alone, but I didn’t want to be anywhere near where my dad’s dead body would be. I called Casey, who is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sibling, and she stayed on the phone with me, presumably for hours, since it was light when I called her and it was dark when the conversation was over. I only remember that she was there—not what she said. I also remember pacing on a curb over and over again, teetering like I was on a balance beam. I remember the orange glow of the lights of the parking lot. I remember Casey’s steady presence and that, at some point, she got off the phone to take a shower but called me back as soon as she was done. The rest is buried.

It’s strange to realize what I remember and what I don’t. There are so many things I can recall in shocking detail and even more things I don’t remember at all. I don’t remember going home that night. I don’t remember my mom coming back.

It was the most pivotal moment of my life. My childhood was taken from me that night and was replaced with the burden of trying to step into the shoes my father left behind. A giant chasm opened up inside of me, and it will exist in me until the day I die. I’ve tried to fill it with relationships, food, positive life experiences, writing… but that emptiness will always exist in me—and it should. It means that my dad is someone who can’t be replaced.

But a decade of emptiness is not an easy pill to swallow.

(You can find part two of this series here.)