My father died when I was 10.
It’s not something I speak to often because I am discouraged by the way people feel obliged to change their faces into a sorry-looking grimace and whisper their regrets at me. It reminds me how uncomfortable people are with the topic of death. How our society classifies it as something other than life, something separate and not part of the whole when I simply see it as the exit just as birth is the entry. I wish, when I tell people, they would smile with a warm twinkle in their eye like we are sharing a mysterious secret, and not say anything.
I remember playing outside on a warm sunny day on the Sunshine Coast in Australia where my mother lived. A row of marching ants was making their way up a wooden pillar. I am trying to intercept them with a leaf to see if I could confuse them. I remember wondering how they know where to go and why they always seem to walk in a perfect line.
My mother comes outside with a blank look on her face. Even back then I never knew what mood she might be in. It was always hit and miss. This time she didn’t seem to know either. She tells me she was just on the phone with my Nonna. Her mouth makes big motions but I can hardly hear the next bit. “Your Papa is dead. He was in a car accident in the town he lives in, in Italy.”
Everything freezes for a moment. I don’t react. I just blink. I know I’m supposed to feel some emotion right now, but I don’t feel anything. I feel empty and cold and dry. I walk over to a corner of the house and slide my back down the wall and squat down.
The next bit is a blur. Maybe she says something else to me. Maybe I ask her to leave. I can’t remember. All I remember is that I’m alone. Outside. By myself. Searching for some kind of meaning or understanding of what has happened. Looking for a response or some deep, cutting emotion. Wishing I could cry.
Then slowly I thaw and start to feel things. First devastation. Then the crumbling of all the dreams I had of all the things I wanted to do with my father one day in the future. One day when I bigger and older. Then anger. Then confusion. But still, the tears don’t come. All I know is that, in one tiny moment, my life is completely changed.
I don’t remember crying about him until I became a teenager. Late at night when I felt the pain of not having a father to guide or protect me, I would bury my face in the pillows and weep until I was empty. I stopped crying about him when I was 19. Something changed within me as I began to understand the fragility of life and the closeness of death.
I started to have an indisputable reverence for life.
When I was 10 years old
my father died
and since that day
I have sat in the
warm embrace of death.
Because I know
that at any moment
I could go
and you could too.
His death gave me
the greatest gift:
a reverence for life
so deep as to
a single moment of it.
I tell you that
I love you,
I squeeze you
when I say goodbye.
I ask myself each night:
If I left this earth tomorrow
what is it that I want
to leave behind?
The answer is always:
little pieces of my heart and soul.
So I love and I write
I share and I give
everything I’ve got
so I might die empty.
In retrospect, he wasn’t the greatest father who ever lived. He smoked too much weed and was generally emotionally unavailable which was reflected in my choices of men through my 20’s. But he was my handsome Italian hero and the first man I ever loved.
Dying is the greatest gift he could have ever given me. In doing so he taught me that there is no time you feel more alive than when you look death in the face. He taught me to live every moment as if it’s your last and not leave things unsaid or undone. He taught me that what is most important in life is to spend your days doing the sweetest, happiest things. The things that make your heart feel full. Because in the end, nothing else matters.
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