The grief I feel when I think about my father’s death today is almost as agonizing as it was when he died seventeen years ago. There is a raw, aching place that sometimes hurts so violently that I cannot catch my breath. I rarely dream about him, but when I do, he is always a ghost. My greatest wish as an adult is to dream of him as he once was: my father, whole and strong, who smelled of Doublemint gum, Dove soap, and a slight medicinal scent that clung to him because of his radiology practice.
I did not cry the night my father died, nor did I cry at his memorial service. I felt as though I had to protect that hurting place by hiding it away from everyone. So I became outwardly stoic—but inside I felt like I was screaming into an airless void, where there was not oxygen enough to carry the sound of my utter despair.
Death is terrible in whatever form it takes. My father’s death was slow; the cancer spread, and he gradually faded away. It was not an easy death, though. There were the bouts of uncontrollable vomiting of blood, the seizures so violent that my mom and a nurse had to hold my father down, the bedsores that never healed and the lack of bowel control. These were the ways in which the cancer slowly claimed my father; this constituted my daily reality in sixth grade.
Having seen such things, is it possible to forget? And after it is all over, how do you explain what you have seen to the people who want to comfort you? You can’t. There is no way to express such horror and fear and utter sorrow. As a sixth grader, I didn’t speak of it, and as an adult I still do not. Only once has my mother alluded to the night of my father’s death, when she told me that she would never forget the cruel sound of the zipper on the coroner’s body bag.
I do not know if it would have been possible for anyone to comfort me after my father died. More than comfort, I needed the reassurance that someone would take care of me. Of course, family friends tried to show their support by dropping off endless dishes of food—oddly enough, someone even sent us Omaha steaks. But what I needed even more than food was the support of my mom and sister, and because their heartbreak was too great for emotional unity, the three of us instead coexisted without love or joy or even real sorrow. The years following my father’s death were the loneliest in my life.
As an adult, I wish I could go back in time and give my eleven-year-old self some of the love and reassurance she so desperately needed. Paradoxically, I value the strength I gained from this experience as one of my best traits. And in a way, this experience was oddly comforting in itself: after all, if you have lived through the worst thing you can imagine, how much worse can the rest of life possibly be?