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Twenty Years

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This week will mark the 20th year since I lost my dad. I can’t wrap my mind around that concept. The days and weeks and years just continue to keep going. February 9th creeps up on us every year and suddenly one day you realize this year means two decades.

I was thirteen years old when his glioblastoma took him away from us. My friends were spending that winter of our 7th grade year excited about seeing the Titanic a dozen times or comparing Backstreet Boys to Hanson. I was making frequent trips to the rehab hospital, grateful for those afternoons after school when I could stop in and see him and we would watch a syndicated show together. We could sit in silence and know that just being together was enough, because those afternoons in that hospital room would be as close as we would get to normal.

It is incredible to me what our memory is able to retain and what it chooses to let go. I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but I can tell you everything about that cold February morning when he left. Every single thing. I can tell you what the sky looked like that morning and hear the voice of the hospice nurse say, “Time of death…” I can remember calling my best childhood friend and telling her the news in such a matter-of-fact way, because it seemed like I should tell someone. I remember writing a note for my dad as quickly as I could, because that’s what 7th grade girls do, but this one would be buried with him forever, so I had to make it count. I remember looking at the clothes my mom selected to take to the funeral home. I remember the funeral home arriving with an unmarked minivan, thinking this is not what minivans are for. On that first day, the day your life changes forever, you can’t possibly imagine all your life will consist of, this new life, and that’s a blessing. It would be too much.

I was 13 years old when he died. This means I’ve now lived far more years without him than I did with him. That being said, I realize how much love and commitment he put into my life in those short years. He went above and beyond to provide for his family. He was the guy everyone wanted to talk to when he entered a room. He was the guy who made everyone laugh. He absolutely adored my mom. He was the patient who brought the surgeons donuts on the morning of his brain surgery. He helped coach my teams and he drove us late through the night to get to horse shows. He treated everyone with respect and kindness, always offering a hand to those who could use it.

What I couldn’t have understood at age 13, is to what extent that year would change every aspect of my future. I would sit in the hospital room, fascinated by the speech-language pathologists and the way they seemed to work a magic, the way they could bring words out him even after the glioblastoma had taken his speech. Twenty years later, I became that speech pathologist. Twenty years later, I still remember what it feels like to be the family member as you hold your breath and pray your loved one could say something, anything of meaning to you. My dad had a love for Make-A-Wish. While in the university hospital, his roommate was a teenage boy also battling a glioblastoma. I sat on the floor in the hallway with tears pouring down my face as I listened to Make-A-Wish volunteers ask what he would like for a wish. Twenty years later, I have the honor of being a wish granter for this organization my dad loved so dearly.

At age 13, I couldn’t have understood what it is like to be a single mom. At age 30, I learned what it was like. Twenty years without a parent gives you a tremendous respect, the deepest appreciation for a mom who did it all – and mine absolutely did it all. After I became a mom, I had a realization that changed my life. Prior to parenthood, I had never thought about his perspective as he battled brain cancer. I thought of the memories I had yet to make with him, but I had never once thought about the memories he had yet to make with me. Twenty years ago I didn’t think about the decades of parenthood he hoped to experience, and the joys his future granddaughters would have brought him.

One of the most fascinating aspects of then and now is seeing how much his granddaughters share the traits and characteristics of a man they never met. My oldest has his frown when she’s deep in thought and his sense of humor. My youngest shares his passion for good-looking cowboy boots and a sharp suit coat. They both inherited his love for music, even the kind he loved in the 70’s. They both talk about him as if they knew him, as if they had the privilege of his pony rides and listening to his bedtime stories. They love him and they miss him, too, as if they somehow know how worthy he is of being missed.

The day a loved one leaves you, you can’t possibly prepare yourself for all of those milestones they’ll miss, the holidays that will seem so quiet. Yet, when they leave, you also have no idea how much their life is forever embedded in yours. You will one day find yourself grabbing a bag of candy he loved at the gas station or downloading a song you remember him singing to you on the way to school. You will one day realize you chose this career because of him. You will one day be volunteering for something he loved and you realize just how much you love it, too. I couldn’t change the outcome of his cancer, but I could change the outcome of my life without him. I could make sure he was remembered. I could make sure that the things he loved so much with his giving heart, would be honored. I don’t love all of these things only because he did, I love them because what was part of him innately became part of me.

This week will mark 7,300 days without him, which was over half of my life. What I have come to realize is it’s not just the day I want to think about him, honor him – it’s those minutes that have made up the 7,300 days. It’s the minutes that will make up the rest of my life and the lives of my little girls. It’s the way his life shaped every aspect of mine. When you lose a parent as a child, you have no idea how that will impact how you parent. You have a deeper understanding that these days aren’t promised.

One winter day, my parents left a doctor appointment and our plans were diverted. Life is a combination of moments and certain moments will change everything. We will live our moments with compassion and kindness. We will find humor even on the toughest days. These moments go too fast, whether we want them to or not, but we will make them count.


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