My Dad died from lung cancer when I was 13 years old. That’s my “tag line” when people ask me about him. It sums up all the information they need. But for me, it carries a greater reality I felt when he died – that I will never be the same.
I will never be the same . . . as I was before. In some ways, I see life as a puzzle – every experience you have forms a piece of your unique puzzle. When combined, they form the entire picture of your life. My Dad took a piece of my puzzle with him, a piece that will never return. I am incomplete without it, without him. We shared memories that nobody else shares, which means he knew me differently than anyone else. When someone you love dies, that part of you dies as well. You can’t re-live that memory with anyone else. Your puzzle may grow, but you can never replace that missing piece. And because of that, I will never be the same again.
My view of the world also changed. Before Dad died, I was young, innocent, and naive. I saw God’s beauty in the smallest things – plants starting to bud, cocooning butterflies, the exact color blue of the sky. When I found a four-leaf clover, Dad laminated it for me to preserve that small wonder. When I had questions, Dad would answer them. He always had the answers. The world had infinite joys to discover and I had endless curiosity. Life seemed to go on forever and I never thought about death.
After the funeral, that all changed. I lost my parent, my hero, and my teacher. I thought a lot about death and dying. I still had plenty of questions, but nobody to answer them. And they certainly weren’t fun questions.
So I learned things on my own – great big things that I couldn’t have understood any other way. I learned the importance of telling people that you love them. Don’t ever let them wonder how you feel. Of all the things I regret, missing the chance to say “I love you” will never be one of them. I also learned to never pass up an opportunity to give or receive a genuine hug. When Dad was dying, I was terrified. I didn’t know how to act, what to say, so I sat in silence. He asked me, “Aren’t you going to give me a hug?” When we hugged, he started to cry. That memory has broken my heart ever since. He never should have had to ask. There are few words and fewer acts that can convey more emotion, more truth than a hug. They are the simplest, most perfect way to ease despair, to share joy, to demonstrate empathy, or to show love. Anyone who knows me knows that my hugs are free and frequent.
I will never be the same . . . as someone who hasn’t lost a parent. One of the hardest things about losing a parent is feeling that nobody understands. Even worse is feeling different and seeing those differences every day. When your friend shows you a car his dad bought for him, or you see how happy her dad looks to walk her down the aisle, or when they complain about something their dad did . . . you know you’re not the same. Your “memory playlist” is shorter. You can’t add more memories and you can’t relate to your friends with longer playlists. It hurts, it’s lonely, and there are some days you’d do almost anything to be the same . . . as you were, as they are.
But sometimes being different can be a good thing. At first with bitterness, now with acceptance, I realized that there is no promise of tomorrow. You are given such a small time, and you never know when your time will run out. Many people don’t truly appreciate this. How can they if they’ve never had to think about death? So treasure your life, make it worthwhile. Spend your life doing things that make you happy because you may not have the chance later. My life has been fuller, more beautiful, and more fun because I take chances that come to me. If my dad hadn’t died, would I always have played it safe? Would I have jumped out of that airplane? Would I have swum with dolphins or learned to scuba dive? Would I have hiked that mountain? Something tells me maybe not.
Because of my dad’s death, I will never be the same. I traded innocence and “fitting in” for understanding and appreciation. I lost my dad but gained something in return. Would I give up everything I’ve learned if I could have my dad back? I don’t have that option. The only option I have is to make those changes as valuable as possible. If Dad can see me, I want him to know that he’s still teaching me and still answering my questions.