Sunlight and warmth, trees in bloom, gentle breezes that carry the precursors of an incoming thunderstorm through the open windows of my house, and the later sunsets have begun to work their magic on me. I’m grateful for the gifts that summer has delivered to Denver. It’s harder to feel walled off and internally focused when the compulsion to be outside, enjoying the sweetness of the season, is irresistible.
It’s not that it’s become easier, exactly. Or that I’m not sad anymore. Maybe the pain isn’t as acute as often it was. I know I’m still grieving. And some triggers still strike me sideways, a pain in my heart and stomach that would bring me to my knees if I let it. If I didn’t think, “No, no, move your mind to something else.” If I didn’t force myself to keep moving forward. If I didn’t take three or four deep breaths, mutter, “Oh Dad, Dad, Dad,” and distract myself with something pressing.
But I do feel like the emotional cocoon I’d unconsciously built for myself has begun to fragment and fall away.
It’s been three months since I lost my father.
Except for during shiva, I never completely walled myself off from the social obligations and opportunities that have always fed joy and fulfillment into my life. I was always present and available to Simone, even in the times of my deepest grief. But, when I was out in the world, at an event or a house party, a singles happy hour or with a big group on the streets of New Orleans, I never felt like I was completely there; as if an invisible membrane kept me from feeling truly connected with the people around me. I felt too crushed to be joyful, too vulnerable to be open, too numb to be available.
A really good date, or a sweet goodnight kiss, would dissolve the film for an hour or a minute. A snuggle with Akiva the mighty cat would be a comfort. And adventures with Simone would remind me of the importance of living in the moment. But then the numbness would enclose me again, keeping me from feeling extremes of joy or sadness. Most of my friends didn’t pick it up, and the ones who did understood that I wasn’t going to be myself for a little while, and respected my need to disengage to a surface level of interaction.
The acute pain — set off by reminders that my father was really gone — came every single day. The thought that I should call him before remembering that I couldn’t, or fixing something around the house and realizing I couldn’t get his advice. The guilt that came from the sense of relief when I didn’t need to plan another trip to Sacramento to be there for him. Or texting a photo of Simone doing something cute to my mother and sisters, but stopping before adding my dad to the list.
It didn’t help when my 16-year-old cat was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. I’d been hoping not to hear words like “chemotherapy” and “palliative care” so soon. I barely made it through the call from the vet before I was weeping like I hadn’t in months, burying my face in the soft fur of Akiva’s neck, unable to catch my breath, heaving and sobbing, alone in the house. Of course I was sad for the little guy — the one who’d been through so much with me. But the new news was also like a tidal wave, crashing through the wall I’d so cleverly built for myself, forcing me to feel all the way down into my guts.
But then spring was here. Sunlight sneaking between the blinds of my windows were gentle invitations to engage with the world again. Akiva’s experimental medications seemed to have slowed the growth of the tumor in his mouth and throat, and he was eating, playful, and extremely affectionate. Simone and I began to plan our summer trip to Japan in earnest. My work started to make sense to me again, and I was feeling motivated and connected to it.
Evenings became softer; dates became lighter, with a sense of fun and possibility; cocktails tasted less like something I needed and more like previews of late summer nights out on the town.
And then, in the matter of 10 days, I’d put an offer on a new row home for Simone and me and sold our house.
It wasn’t planned. A close friend of mine, a Realtor who works in my neighborhood, had been trying to get me to sell my place for eight months, because it’s worth so much more than what I paid for it several years ago. But I didn’t want to leave my neighborhood, and stuff was happening with my father, so I just wasn’t motivated to do what needed to be done. It sounded exhausting to get the house ready and then start looking for something I could afford within blocks of where we live now.
But, a few weeks ago, a beautiful house came on the market across the street from ours, and I went to look at it with my friend. The way the owners had it partitioned as a rental just wasn’t going to work out for Simone and me, but my friend asked me to look at a town home a few blocks away, just for fun. I fell in love with it, so I started working on getting my own place ready (tiled the kitchen, touched things up, made some repairs), but I was pretty sure the house would be long gone by the time I was ready.
It was still on the market when I took Simone to check it out. I asked one of my best friends to join us, so I could get another adult’s opinion, and also get a reality check on the stuff I was concerned about. Simone disappeared as we walked through the door, making her way upstairs to the second bedroom, complete with balcony overlooking the city. After a walkthrough, my friend said to me, “Eric, you need to put an offer on this place. It’s perfect for you. This is your big boy house. It fits your lifestyle, your status, and your tastes. You’ll be happy here.”
So I made an offer on the place on a Thursday night, they accepted Friday, I worked my ass off to get my house on the market by the following Thursday, and it was sold by Sunday. We’ll move this summer.
That couple weeks of distraction forced me out of my bubble, and seems to have broken me free from much of the shell that had kept me reticent and emotionally withdrawn.
That said, I still have my moments.
The biggest project when getting the house ready to put on the market was to clean off all of the surfaces — counters, shelves, dressers — which meant going through papers and magazines, books, bills, receipts, owners manuals… I spent a whole day grabbing up piles of detritus and sitting in front of the TV, binging on Orphan Black, and sorting.
Recycle - Shred - File - Save - Handle
About a third of the way through a particularly annoying collection of junk mail and misplaced, overdue bills, I came across a piece of lined paper with my dad’s handwriting on it. “I love you!” it said. The world got fuzzy. I paused the TV, took some deep breaths, held my stomach, closed my eyes. I didn’t cry, but I did feel the deep ache, missing my father so much. But the note also told me that he was still there with me, and always would be.
Simone and I will spend the next few weeks packing up the house. Well, it’ll mostly be me. I know we’ll come across other keepsakes and reminders. They’ll hit me first like a freight train — he’s really, really gone. He’s not still in his house in California. I can’t visit him. Or give him one more hug. It really happened. My father died.
And I’ll have that realization all over again, almost as if it’s a new idea. But then the sweetness will emerge; the happy memory, the smell of his skin, the story I can tell Simone.
Father’s Day is in two weeks, and, honestly, I’m dreading it. The daily marketing emails cheerfully featuring “Great gifts for Dad” are like gut punches. I won’t be mailing him a card this year or ordering something he likes on Amazon Prime. I’ll be thinking about him, and missing him desperately.
Simone will want to make the most of the day, though. We’ll go for brunch, dress up as anime characters for Denver Comic Con, geek out together, and then she’ll get picked up by her mom in the late afternoon. I’ll probably take myself to the gym (it’s generally how I combat post-Simone weekend blues), and then…
Maybe I’ll make a point of finding some friends and drinking cocktails on a patio somewhere, listening to the crickets and relishing the fact that June is here in all of its beauty. We’ll toast our dads, I’ll disappear into myself for a bit, and then I’ll find my way back into the moment, appreciating the gifts my father left for me, the exhortations to appreciate and enjoy what life has to offer.
And then I'll order another drink.