Roller Coasters, Peter Cottontail, Dashboard Elephants and Whiskey: A Story of Resilience

You know that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when you’re on a roller coaster, careening over the crest of a hill and suddenly gravity pulls you down? There’s that moment where, frozen in time, you draw in your breath and prepare for an onslaught of turbulence ?

That’s how it feels when you learn that the person you love most in the entire world has died.

This blog post has nothing to do with positivity, weight loss, or good feelings for at least the whole first half so let me just take a Lemony Snickett moment to tell you that if you don’t want to read something depressing and completely awful, turn back now.

I woke up on Easter Sunday to missed calls from my closest family members, no voicemails, and timestamps reading ungodly hours of the night. I remember that fitful night of sleep, aggravated at our neighbors who were drunk and arguing — again. Thinking back now, I am almost positive that I was awake and aware of a premonition that something bad was happening somewhere else in the world the very moment that my dad took his last breath. I immediately called my little sister, somehow already knowing that the conversation I was about to have would not be a good one.

My dad had been an alcoholic for as long as I remember knowing the word and even before that. I spent most of my life before I was 10 visiting him in halfway houses or at my grandparents’ house during supervised visitations, but I never once stopped seeing him as the most gentle, loving, generous, resilient man I’d ever known. I couldn’t be angry when he was in prison, when he was far away, when he asked me to keep secrets, or when he took me along for drunken joyrides and got caught. I spent a hell of a lot of time in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a kid, breathing in the cloudy, smoky air and reciting the Lord’s Prayer with the many hopeful and newly sober alcoholics and narcotic addicts, holding hands in a circle of acceptance and forgiving.

When I was about 10 years old, my dad got sober for good. I remember so many beautiful things. I remember “Peter Cottontail” on the acoustic guitar, The Eagles, being saved from yellow scorpions near the pool, the way that the cracks in the windshield of his old, orange, beat up truck formed an elephant in my imagination. I remember a lot of really boring fishing trips that I’d take again in a heartbeat. I remember fish fry dinners with hush puppies and how even when I was losing weight I never turned down my dad’s fish. I remember a lot of truly good people with truly horrific pasts. I remember love, warmth, and his endless gratitude for me. At every AA meeting, at least during the ones at which he spoke, my dad always mentioned me as his saving grace, his only reason for coming back and repeatedly accepting that heavy, gold 24 hour chip from his sponsor. “Keep coming back, it works if you work it.”

It worked. I spent 12 blissful years supported by my dad, my biggest cheerleader. He always praised me for a job well done. He encouraged me to sing and to play instruments. He accepted every coloring page and drawing with admiration and awe. He looked at me with bright eyes, reflecting my own smile, our appearances so much alike, and say, “That’s MY daughter.” He used to marvel at how a guy like him, presumably meaning an alcoholic who never went to college or left his hometown, could have a daughter like me. He was always so impressed at my intelligence, wit, and talents. He loved me completely unconditionally, and I loved him the same. I still do.

I never really blamed him for relapsing. Sometimes I think he just struggled with some demons that couldn’t be conquered.

When my sister told me that my dad had hit another car head-on and died instantaneously, the floor fell from beneath my feet, time stood completely still. I crouched in the floor of my kitchen, not really sure how I got on the floor. I agreed to come out to the house later, where family would be waiting, and I went back to my bed. I woke James, who, through groggy-eyed sleep, grabbed me up and cradled me as I rocked and cried, “My daddy, my daddy…”

My mom and step dad came over and took us to Village Inn for breakfast. I could tell you what I ate, where we sat, but I can’t describe to you the overwhelming feeling of injustice and grief I felt, sitting there in a restaurant where the entire world was unaware that anything had changed at all while my entire life had been turned upside down.

The worst part was reading the comments. I know, they always say you should never read the comments. Under a news story about a drunk-driving crash that killed two women (I can’t begin to explain how upset I was that they hadn’t even gotten his gender correct) overnight on our local news’ Facebook page, people posted malicious comments intended to chide a dead man for making a mistake that cost him his own life and the life of a young mother of twins. People assume that the families might be too busy grieving or dealing with the pieces left over to really read those comments, but I saw them all. People should really think before speaking, but they’re so brave behind a keyboard.

We planned the funeral over the next few days, and it really was beautiful. We made a slide show of all the photographs my grandmother kept for each of her children and grandchildren with songs that my dad would have loved to hear playing behind the images. I even sang at his graveside service, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and tried to make it as beautiful as I could over my wavering chin and tears. Over the next few weeks, my little sister and I struggled to find closure by trying to remember him, getting a memorial tattoo, making a wreath for his grave on Memorial Day, using his t-shirts to make a quilt, but it’s not really ever enough.

Even though I had lost such an impressive amount of weight in the past few years, I began a self-destructive mission to eat anything that I could get my hands on as a form of control. Any anxiety or depression that I have ever felt in my life cannot compare to how I felt the couple of months after all of these events. I ate like I wanted to kill myself with food. I cried most nights. I gained about 30-35 pounds of the weight I had worked so hard to lose right back onto my body. My will to keep myself healthy and keep losing weight completely disappeared because my biggest hero and cheerleader was no longer there to help me continue by supporting and encouraging me.

Time has made it easier, but I know that nothing is ever going to fill the spaces left behind by his presence. Over the past 6 months, I’ve been able to put my life back together slowly, and I am trying to remember him in a positive way. Every day is a struggle to continue to be the happy, healthy, and vibrant person I used to be. I’m getting closer all the time.

Recently, I joined a boot camp class that I really enjoy and haven’t lost much weight but have gained a lot of confidence and have definitely done some body re-composition. I’m happy to report that in the past month and a half I’ve lost about 2 inches all over, 4% body fat, and a pant size. I’m applying for admission into a degree program to get my Masters over the next couple of years, and I’m celebrating a year at my big-kid job in just a couple weeks.

Even though I’m doing fine, sometimes I’m just not doing well. Man, how I wish I could pick up the phone and let him know how everything I do every day is in an effort to make him proud. I’m not a particularly religious or spiritual person, but I like to pretend that when I’m near water, he can see me and know that I think of him in the serenity of the ripples and waves. Water was the only thing that could calm his tortured spirit, and I see him there on the banks, smiling and squinting into the sun, reeling in a giant crappie.

One day, I hope we can be reunited on the shore of some giant, blue lake in the low valley of some beautiful snow-crested mountains and just talk about nothing in particular, with the sun on our backs and our loved-ones around us. I hope that the end isn’t a goodbye and that it’s just a see-ya-later. Whenever we ended our phone conversations, my dad always said, “Glad you got to talk to me, talk to me again.”

I really hope it’s that simple. Until then, I’ll keep studying, sweating, singing, working hard, learning, hoping, smiling, remembering, and loving to the deepest and fullest parts of my heart. Until then, I’ll be seeing you.


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