13 years ago - July 7th, 2003- seems like a whole lifetime ago. I was just a teenager spending the summer at sleepaway camp. I knew my dad was sick, but I also believed my parents to be superhuman. They were parents, not real people! Dad was getting prepped for a liver transplant, so I figured it was an easy fix. I hadn't seen him for weeks, but he wrote me letters at camp, and things seemed okay. I will never forget hearing my name on the loudspeaker that day. Mom was on the phone in the camp office saying she was on her way up to camp to pick me up because Dad wasn't doing well. I still didn't understand, but I was scared. My friends brought me sandwiches and made a "we <3 you" sign as I waited in the unknown.
A few hours later when Mom finally got there. I tried to be happy, and told my mom how pretty and tan she looked. She sat me down and told me "Daddy didn't make it. He died at 3:42." Dad was already gone and it was too late for me to get to the hospital. Word had spread instantly around camp and everyone stood frozen silent in place in the rain while mom held me in her arms walking to the bunk. I remember packing some of my things and being in that car ride home, but I actually don't remember much from the rest of that entire YEAR. Only bits and pieces. I think I just blocked it out.
There's no one right or wrong way to cope with loss and grief. There's no one way to ignore the regret, confusion and shock that accompany it. I've never been the type to openly communicate my feelings and this experience was no exception. I channeled my grief into activities that my dad had encouraged - running, writing, and art.
Running, writing, and art-ing are all "mind over matter" activities for me, releases for all of the anger and questioning I had. Being on the track team meant I had people to work with towards faster and stronger goals. It gave me a place to belong and the thought of my dad traveled with me in every race. He made me try out for the team in the first place so I knew he would be disappointed if I gave up on them.
Nights were often the worst because nothing separates you from your thoughts at night. That's where writing came in. I've been journaling since I was 7 years old and it acts as my way of communicating and even meditating. I furiously wrote poems and letters to my dad for years, and felt like it was a direct channel to him in the universe somewhere. It even felt like he wrote back sometimes. One night (in my adult life not too many years ago) I put those frustrated and defeated feelings out into the universe and the next morning on my way to work I got what seemed like a response. I was on the subway feeling sorry for myself and my stop was coming up. I got up from my seat to stand at the pole and right in my vision line was this little note stuck on the wall advertisement that read something like, "Don't give up, you are here for a purpose, and things happen for a reason." I don't know who put it there, but it gave me chills and a head start to the rest of the day. Things like this have happened to me at least 4 times on the subway.
And finally there is art.
My parents have always encouraged my obsession with art. When I was 12, Dad took me on our first and only big trip, just the two of us. We went to Rome, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Milan and Paris with a few other stops in between. Dad lived in Italy when he served in the US Army, and I was impressed by his Italian speaking and cultural understanding. Dad brought his famous 35mm Canon film camera as he did on every other occasion. It was the first time I saw all of the super important paintings and artists I eventually learned about in art history. We went to art havens like the Uffizi Gallery, Pitti Palace, The Accademia, The Sistine Chapel, The Louvre, saw inlaid woodwork in Sorrento and much much more. Of course I wrote daily in my journal about this trip, and it truly reinforced my interest in art and solidified it as my future career. It also connected my artistic channel to my dad - like any other type of mindful prayer on his behalf. I've since been back to most of those places, some of them 3 or 4 times including my study abroad in Florence and chaperoning as an art teacher. As a college art student in Florence, being back there for the first time felt like Dad was in every church, every painting and every photograph.
The first photo is one that Dad took of me in front of Notre Dame in 2000, the next one is of me in 2009, the first time returning to those places.
Anyway, 13 years is a long long time and during that time span I've gone through many phases - good, bad, and ugly. At one point I had to choose - Am I going to let this destroy me and be a victim forever or is this going to BUILD ME. The experience has taught me about myself. It's taught me how to cope, how to appreciate, how to love and how to communicate a little better. It's connected me to the universe and inspired my creative channels. It has motivated me in deep, unearthly ways to be better, stronger and to pursue my dreams.
I'm going to keep running (sometimes haha), writing and art-ing. And I will never take anything for granted.