Grief is a strange thing in itself. It’s a feeling that comes and goes as it pleases after you’ve experienced such great loss. The loss of a parent is something that you simply can not comprehend until you’ve lived it. Your body breaks into a billion pieces on the floor. One day you may be able to put those pieces back together- but you’re forever changed. The pieces will never fit just right.
There is no amount of words to read, songs to listen to, or poems to recite that will prepare you for this day. It comes and goes like a hurricane, destroying everything in its path. There is no “preparation” for when you lose a person in your life. But I can tell you five these things from my own personal experience. Not everyone’s experience is equal. Everyone deals with death differently. I never had any experience with death until my father passed- not anyone I was close to anyway. It really took me by surprise. I hope knowing that these feelings are normal, will help someone in the future, when that dreaded day comes.
My dad died in January of this year. I’ll never forget the moment. I hadn’t talked to my dad since October. He had no phone. No one knew where he was living. He had fallen off the face of the Earth. I spent days and nights crying and asking myself why he wouldn’t want to be a part of my life. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t wonder where he was or what he was doing. And then it happened. January 28th, at approximately 7:00 PM. We had just came home from a walk with the kids. We came inside and I sat on the couch, scrolling through Facebook. And my dad’s half-brother had a status posted that said- “Damn. Just lost my brother Dwight. I can’t believe this.”
I stopped scrolling immediately. My heart sunk to my stomach. I tried to ease my mind that there was no way it could be MY Dwight, not my dad. There’s just no way that his half brother that he wasn’t even close to would know, but his own daughter’s would have no idea. Trying to remain cool, I messaged my “uncle” and said “It’s crazy to even say, but you can’t possibly mean my dad right? lol Way to scare a girl Kev.” As my heart is pounding out of my chest and i’m standing in the middle of my bedroom, waiting for him to write back. It happens.
“Yes…your dad. I’m so sorry.”
I had to re-read it again.
“Yes…your dad. I’m so sorry.”
I stopped breathing. I fell to the floor. I screamed.
This wasn’t happening. Someone has their information wrong. Why has no one called, and what the hell is going on? My dad is gone? Just like that? I called my cousin/sister/my person, in hope that maybe she could get a hold of her dad who would have some answers. I heard the sadness in her voice and knew.
It’s not that we didn’t know this day was coming. We knew it was only a matter of time. I’ve rehearsed it in my head a thousand times. Nothing could have prepared me for that moment and the sorrow that came with it.
I spent years knowing, that my dad wasn’t in good health. His life style choices would only speed up the process. When he disappeared again, I tried to tell myself everyday, that my phone could ring at any moment. And it’d be the dreaded phone call. When the news finally hit me, you might as well have slapped me with a telephone book. The shock consumed me like a dark storm cloud. It was over. Just like that.
That moment. That earth shattering moment. Changed me. My heart grew cold. I wanted someone to blame. There was no one to blame and that made it worse. If you’re not careful, Grief can grow to anger, and anger grows into a bigger beast- hate.
All I could think about were all the things we did together. And the days leading up to his death. The month spent in the hospital that I got every day to spend with him. It almost felt cruel. Why did life allow him back in my life after years of not hearing from him, to have him for a split second? Just to remind me how much I needed him, just to be ripped away again with no warning. I wasn’t prepared for that feeling. Not at all.
Life was hazy for days. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I cried at everything. People would try to say nice things to me, and it just turned me into a puddle. I couldn’t be a mom. Thank God I had my husband to be both Dad and Mom that week. Because I was useless. It’s okay to take that time to grieve. You have to take that time. Give yourself the time you need to truly process the death. It’s not an easy feat and no one expects you to do it in a set timeline. Only you know what you need.
I spent most of my time sitting in parking lots. I’d try to go for a drive and end up in a parking lot, sobbing. I couldn’t make myself drive. I was frozen. All I wanted was to be alone, in silence. I needed that time to feel and let all of this emotion pour out of me.
Last Halloween, shortly after my dad left the hospital, we drove up and down my dad’s street trying to remember his house number. He wasn’t answering our calls since checking himself out of the hospital but we weren’t letting him off the hook that easily. After finally finding him, he promised my sister and I we’d go to dinner. And we did. That following Thursday, we picked him up. He was cleaned up. Wearing his silver rimmed glasses, and an olive sweater. He wanted Applebee’s. We didn’t care where we went, we just wanted to be with him. He ordered the appetizer sampler and we all shared a little bit. We sat and talked for over an hour. We laughed. We had so much fun. Then it was time to go. We hugged him tightly and kissed his cheek. I’ll never forget how warm his cheek felt, or the scruff from his beard. We Told him we loved him. And I made him promise he’d stay in contact and that if he didn’t we’d hunt him down again. I pulled out of the driveway. I sobbed the entire way home. Something in me just felt so broken and sad. I loved this man so much, and I know deep down he loved us too. But I just knew- somehow, that we didn’t have much time left with him.
That was the last time I saw my dad. Ever. I’d never see his face again after that night. And i’ll never forget that I didn’t hunt him down when he stopped calling. I didn’t stop by at Thanksgiving to bring him a plate of food. I didn’t swing by on Christmas, just to say hey. And January rolled around and without hearing his voice, without seeing his goofy grin. Never getting to say goodbye. Just like that. Gone.
That guilt eats away at me. I spent half my life trying to push my dad away at a “healthy” distance because everyone told me that was what’s best for me. That he didn’t “deserve” to be in my life. He was “toxic” and only caused me pain. It’s true. It’s absolutely heart wrenching that drugs consume someone so much, that they isolate themselves from their family. But what you learn from loving an addict, is that They are no longer themselves. They’re not you’re parent/child/friend when they are high, they are a stranger. But how does pushing away someone you love, help cure the pain they’re feeling inside? It may be an unpopular opinion, but I will always, always, always say to keep loving and being with that person. Because one day, you could be left with nothing but their memories.
I have a vase of dried out flowers. They’re crumbling apart on my dresser. I can’t seem to get rid of them. But nothing was more traumatic than having to go through his clothing. He didn’t have much when he left. Everything he had left fit in a duffel bag and one large box. Most of the things were just dirty socks or underwear and I had a terrible time even throwing them out. He had a very dirty, smelly pair of tennis shoes. Saving them wasn’t an option- I mean they reeked. I cried for days over throwing them out. I could just see his spirit sitting over my shoulder saying “Sissy- not my kicks!” I almost regret throwing them out. But I knew I couldn’t keep everything. I saved one flannel, the shirt I last saw him alive in, his wallet, and his hat. That’s all I have left of him.
It never really gets better. The tears come less frequent. But the pain is never lessened. So how do I get through it?
1. Relive memories.
I don’t stop listening to his favorite music. I think he’d want me to. I can almost see him now. Driving down 75 in his little red firebird. Drumming on the dashboard with his fingers- the dream catcher hanging from his rear-view mirror. In the hospital, my favorite memory- he asked me to pull up some music on my phone. He played me three songs: “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot and “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. He sang each one. Bobbin’ his head. Smiling. He was so happy in that moment. Doing what he loved. Listening to music. He told me he wanted to go on “America’s Got Talent.” and that his gig was going to be drumming- because he was so good. (And he really was. His talent was unreal.) But he wouldn’t be using drums. He’d get a kitchen sink. Trash cans. A dashboard. And he’d blow them away with the music he’d make. And I know he would. There was nothing like seeing his eyes glimmer with joy when he talked about the music he loved so much.
2. Carry on.
They won’t know a single bad memory about him. A hard part of loving someone who is an addict is that they take that title to the grave. The whispers about the death being an overdose (which it wasn’t I must add.) immediately start. Everyone likes their labels. It’s true. He was indeed an addict. It made life extremely hard. He lived a pain led life. But once my daddy passed, he left all of that here. I can tell my kids about all of the fun things we used to do, take them to all the best places. The creeks with minnows and craw dads. Rock skipping and cicada catching. Those are the memories I’ll pass on to them. My youngest won’t remember papaw Dwight. But Amelia, she knows him as the grandpa with the big cheesy grin, who climbs through tunnels, and slides down the biggest slide, and also shares his wedge fries. He was loved by so many. And we will all carry on his memory.
3. Find Joy.
Banana split blizzards from Dairy Queen.
Green Apple and blue razz-berry Kool-aid. But only in a recycled 40 ounce Kwik Stop styrofoam cup of course.
Reruns of Seinfeld and The Andy Griffith Show.
I’ll play those songs. I’ll drum on my dash.
I’ll always suggest we play Rummy- the right way.
And all the while, I’ll know he’s there over my shoulder, sharing his favorite things with me. With that grin on his face, ear to ear. Hazel green eyes, shimmering in the sun.
In memory of Dwight Ray Roberts
July 10th 1965-January 28th 2018