"How's your dad doing?" my friend Julie asked, with combination of nervousness and hopefulness in her voice. I was spending the night at her house because my mom and grandparents would be at the hospital late into the evening as they sat by my father's bedside. He'd been fighting lung cancer for two years, his body weak and thin and his spirit faltering despite his ever-present sense of humor.
And yet, I told my friend with confidence, "He's doing really well. He'll probably be able to come home soon." I honestly believed these words as I spoke them, but I can't remember whether it was because an adult told they were was true or simply because I so desperately wanted them to be.
My father died that night, just a few hours past Father's Day. It was 1995, and I was just 10 years old.
At that time, I was the only person I knew with the dead parent. I didn't even know anyone whose parents were divorced, much less deceased. Losing my father, especially in such a heartbreaking and drawn-out way, set me apart from my classmates – and when you're about to start middle school, the last thing you want is to stand out.
I insisted on being treated the same as everyone else. I didn't want sympathy or sad eyes from my friends, or special attention from teachers who offered me leeway in class in case because I was crippled with grief. When my mom sent me to a therapy group with other kids whose parents had died of cancer, I refused to speak in the sessions. I wasn't like them, I told her angrily. These kids were damaged, sad, broken – and I wasn't. I was stronger than they were. I was OK.
And for the most part, I was. I grew into a remarkably normal and well-adjusted teenager, and an even more normal and well-adjusted adult, despite the fact that, I now admit, I never really dealt with the trauma of losing my father at such a young age.
But there were signs throughout the years that I still struggled with a deep sense of sadness and loss. Once, while watching a movie scene in which an emaciated cancer patient undergoes homeopathic treatment before finally succumbing to his disease, I fled from the theater and collapsed in tears in the lobby. At weddings, I always escaped to the restroom during the father/daughter dance. And I felt an unspeakable anger toward anyone and everyone who smoked cigarettes, wondering how they could so carelessly squander their future health by risking the cancer that stole my father from me.
I felt an unspeakable anger toward anyone who smoked cigarettes, wondering how they could so carelessly risk getting the cancer that stole my father from me.
The most telling sign of my still-unresolved feelings about losing my dad was my overwhelming fear of death in general. As a teenager, I felt confident my life would be cut short in some way, whether by cancer or car accident. I struggled with depression that was grounded, in part, by my unshakable belief that death was coming for me and everyone I loved – and soon. Why embrace and celebrate life if it's all going to end the same terrible way?
But eventually I realized that my father, as little as I knew of him, certainly wouldn't want me to live a life stunted by fear. My dad was a charismatic, funny, outgoing guy who loved antique cars, corny jokes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with too much grape jelly. He was a successful salesman with close friendships and a deep love for his family, especially his only child. Even at his sickest, he showed up to nearly all my childhood performances and competitions, once even rolling up in a wheelchair. He didn't let a fear of death – even when death was nearly a reality – prevent him from living with joy and carefreeness. Even two decades later, his friends speak fondly of him and of the vibrant life he led.
And in that way, I want to be like my dad.
Losing a parent to cancer is a terrifying and deeply traumatic experience, but the lessons I carry with me from the hand my family was dealt continue to motivate me, even through lasting grief, to live a life worth my time on this earth.
I still struggle with my fear of death, exacerbated a few years ago when a friend died of leukemia – but instead of being crippled by fear, I try to use it as a catalyst for living well. For me, that means traveling, doing work I enjoy, cultivating meaningful relationships, and just generally trying to stay happy.
Whenever death does finally come for me, I want my family and friends to say, "What a great life!" In death, my father taught me how to live.