After you lose someone, there are a lot of tough moments that you are prepared for – birthdays, holidays, cleaning out closets. But the moments that trip you up are the unexpected ones. Like watching a video of your first day of college and seeing your dad on the screen.
Despite being momentarily amused watching a younger version of myself sitting on the floor with a ridiculous scrunchie in my hair cataloging my CDs (yes, I am old enough to have had actual CDs and scrunchies), my heart and my stomach contracted in unison when I saw him amble across the screen.
It’s not the same as looking at a photograph or finding his hat in a closet. Because he’s there – living and breathing and talking to you. And for just a second you forget that he hasn’t done any of those things in 10 months. For just a second, he is real.
I replayed the clip over and over, listening to his voice and watching his movements. Twenty years later, I saw him not through the eyes of that 18 year old girl, but through the eyes of a mother. I know that his tight-lipped smile was partially because he hated being on camera, but mostly because he was petrified to leave me in that place and even more petrified that it would lead me even farther away.
I remember that day, and all the trepidation, fear, and anxiety that surrounded it. More specifically, I remember the days that had led up to it. The specter of saying goodbye had been weighing on all of us for months. One night in February, my dad came into my room and found me sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed crying. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but he did: I was homesick before I had even left home. He knew that I was bored with what I was doing but afraid of what lay before me – as a college student, as an adult, as a girl living without her family. He cried with me as we talked about all that would change and he reassured me of all that would not.
Later that night, he went back into his office and started writing a letter to me. For 178 nights, he sat at the computer, writing through his own fear and anxiety as he tried to quell mine. He wrote the story of my grandparents, my parents, and me. Woven into our family’s history were larger stories of World War II, the Civil Rights movement, religion, and women’s liberation. Stories about how books and music can change the world, about the different ways people fall in love, about the opportunities we are given and the choices we make. But to me, it has always been a love letter from a father to his daughter.
He finished it the night before we left for New Haven and gave it to me as he reluctantly walked out of my dorm room for the last time. I read it that night and I have read it a hundred times since then. When I needed a pep talk. When my heart was broken. When I wondered if I was making the right choices. When I needed to remember who I was. When I wondered what I would become. It is my bible, my touchstone, my everything.
And when I miss him, I read all of it just so I can hear his voice in my head. So I can remember another time when my world was changing without my permission, leaving me scared, uncertain, and crying on the floor of my room. So I can remember everything I was and everything I am.
I will take this letter and I will add to it my own story.
And one August day, ten years from now, I will give it to Jack as I reluctantly walk out of his dorm room for the last time. I will hug him tightly and tell him that his story is just beginning…
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