It’s been 40 years this past June, June 9th to be exact, since my father was killed in an accident, riding his motorcycle. I was 10 years old that summer. School was getting out that week, and I was supposed to bring the drinks for our end-of-the-year class party. I remember that I called a friend to tell her that I couldn’t bring the Kool Aid; and, that my dad was dead. I said it just like that, still not believing it was real.
I remember a lot of things from that time…I remember much more than some people might expect. However, if you’ve never lost a parent suddenly, you might not understand a lot of things. If you haven’t lost a parent when you were still young, when you still needed them, when it was hard to breath sometimes, just facing what had happened—when it was nearly impossible to imagine that your world could change so suddenly, so horribly—when you still thought your parents would always be around. If you haven’t been there, there are probably endless things you don’t understand. But I do.
My father was 32 years old when he was killed. Now that I’m much older than he ever got to be, I understand so much more clearly just how young he was. My mom was 28 and was a widow with three small children. Now that I’m a mother with three kids too, I understand so much more clearly how enormous that must have been for her. I am the oldest, my brother was 8, and my sister was 4. My parents had separated at the time, but my father was planning to visit us that summer, and I was dreaming that they would get back together. Later, my mother would tell me that she was dreaming of the same thing. At the time, we were a little lost—my siblings and I. We didn’t really understand why our parents were apart anyway. But those were “grown up things,” and we still believed Dad would come home, and we’d all be happy again.
That never happened. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t really do anything wrong. They were both just in the same place at the wrong time—the wrong time for both of them. For years, I believed the other driver must have been drunk or that he was speeding or that he was doing something wrong. He killed my father; he must have been the bad guy, right? But as I got older and asked more questions, I learned that he was a decent guy, just driving along, when they both went through an intersection and collided. He was devastated, and I learned that he came to the funeral. I’ve thought of him, many times. How that day must have changed his life, too. Not like it changed mine—ours—forever and completely…but killing another person, even if by accident, must have changed him. I feel badly for him when I think about him. I wonder where he is, and if he still remembers my father.
I remember so many things, and all these years later, I still miss my Dad. I miss him differently (and the same) as the years pass. At first, it was just the horrible, unending grief of knowing that it was really over: that we’d never go camping again, or fly a kite together, or hike, or talk. He’d never tuck me in or kiss me goodnight again. Some nights, I cried myself to sleep just wishing for that kiss goodnight. His smile—I’d never see that smile again. He’d never get mad at me again, or help me learn something, the way he taught me tie my shoes: loop, loop, over and under, pull tight. I remember that too.
As I got older, I missed so many other things that I would never have. I stopped just being a kid when my dad died. His absence changed so many things. I became my mother’s helper. She was my best friend, until I grew up and realized that that’s not really what parents should be. Friends are friends; parents are parents. They are not the same. It took me a lot of years to figure that out, and move on.
There were the questions that I had, that I had to figure out on my own. I had to look for answers. I wanted to know what he was like when he was my age. I wondered what he would think of me when I was in high school; when I graduated from college, grad school; when I got married, he wasn’t there to walk me down the aisle. I missed him so much that day. I missed him when I had my first child, knowing he would have been a grandfather. I imagined how much he would love being a grandfather, and I missed him for that. I missed being able to ask him about life, about his life and about what he believed in life. I wondered what kind of man he would have been through the years, and would we have liked each other? Strange, right? But not really. As I’ve gotten older, I know that people change in ways we can’t anticipate. Would he have been a drinker? Would he have disapproved of my life choices, and would we have not gotten along because of it? What would he look like? What would he be like? These are all things that have run through my head, for the past 40—FORTY— years since I lost my father.
When I graduated high school, I journeyed back to where we had lived when my father was killed, and I looked up his best friend. Eric had known my dad since they were young boys. They had been best friends for all of their lives; my father was buried in Eric’s suit. The minute he opened his door, we both began to cry and hugged and hugged. He had been missing my Dad almost as much as me, for all of those years. “I still think of him every day,” he told me. Me too, I thought. For several days, Eric answered so many of my questions. He told me all about my dad as a boy, as a teenager (I was 18 at the time), what he wanted in life, what he liked to do most, what he dreamed of. We both liked to pick up things with our toes; my dad could skip a stone across water, with his toes. I hadn’t known that about Dad. It was like having a piece of my father back with me. The time with Eric healed some things that I thought were broken forever. And it helped me go forward in life, and not feel so alone in missing him. Eric has been there all along since that day. He came to my wedding; he showed up after my first baby was born, and later when they had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. He helped fill the hole that my dad left. There will always be a hole, but filling it a little made a big difference.
When a parent dies, it is a loss. The biggest loss I can imagine. There is the loss of what you had, and all that you might have had. My father will forever be a young man in my mind. I can’t imagine him aging, or changing. He will always be the amazing father who did magical things with us, and loved me so much. He will always be there for me, in my mind, in my heart. I see him in my dreams, and it is like he has come back to visit me. I wake up missing him, but happy that he is still there for me. I feel him with me whenever I am among big trees, where he loved to be. I feel him when I am by the sea, where he loved to run in the sand, and fly kites with me. I feel him at unexpected times, when I need him. I am not a religious person, but I believe that something lives on, and I feel him there with me. It brings so much comfort when I still feel like the kid who lost her dad.
I have lived many years without him here, with only my memories and the sense that he is there when I need him. But my life has been good, and I have been a stronger person for all that I went through when he died, and the years after. I believe he would love who I am, and we would be close. We go on, and we survive. We thrive. We make a life that we might share with that parent, and we can be happy and whole. My memories are a blessing.