(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.