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How Losing My Father at 12 Shaped the Mother I Am Today

Image Source: Kim Zapata
Image Source: Kim Zapata

The morning of November 13, 1996 started like any other, with the incessant buzz of my alarm clock and the sound of my mother’s voice snaking through the house. After tossing and turning and trying to hide from the rising sun, I crawled out of bed headed toward the bathroom — where I was met with a wall of smoke and hairspray. Where I was met with the smell of my youth, i.e. nicotine and Old Spice, White Shoulders and Chock Full O’ Nuts. You see, growing up, much of our house smelled like coffee and cigarettes, but in that particular room, the fumes were especially potent. Because it was in that room which everyone congregated. After all, with a family of four, the bathroom was rarely empty.

My mother spent that cold November morning racing around the house. She ran to the microwave to warm her coffee and then back to the bathroom to curl her lashes. She went to her bedroom to grab her perfume, to the kitchen to strike a match, and then back to the bathroom to slap on some blush. And her Isotoner-clad feet were always in motion thanks to her job, her husband, and her two young kids.

My brother and I got ready in a far less eventful manner. We each grabbed a shirt and pair of pants from the heap of clothing on our closet floor, and then headed to the living room where we sat and ate breakfast. Where we sat and watched Pokemon.

And while I do not remember if my brother and I walked to school that morning, or if my mother drove us, I do know my father said he would pick us up.

I do know we headed out the door with something of an “I love you” and an “I’ll see you after school.”

But when the bell rang that day, when the doors opened and we were “let out,” I couldn’t find my father, or my father’s car — because he wasn’t there.

We waited and waited, but my father never came.

Because shortly after lunch, my father collapsed. Shortly after lunch, my father’s heart stopped. Shortly after lunch, my father suffered from a ruptured aneurysm.

There was bleeding on his brain and his body was shutting down.

And while he would linger in the ICU for eight more days, I never spoke to him again. He never held me again, and he never regained conscious.

He was gone, and I would never be the same, even if I didn’t realize it then.

***

Today I am 32. I am a wife and a mother — i.e. I have a spouse of my own, and a child of my own — and while my father died two decades ago, only now do I truly understand the weight of his death. Only now do I understand the ramifications of his death. And only now do I comprehend how much my father’s death has impacted me: as his child, as a woman, and as a parent.

You see, my father’s death has affected me in all of the “obvious” ways; or at least in the ways one would expect. I think about him frequently and often, especially during times of joy, times of suffering, and times of hardship. I yearned for his advice the first time a boy broke my heart. I wished I could have spoken to him on my graduation day or shared a drink with him on my 21st birthday. My heart ached on my wedding day, when he wasn’t there to give me away or walk me down the aisle.

And I needed him the day my daughter was born.

I wanted him to see her and hold her. I wished he could be there place a kiss on my forehead, and then on hers. And while my daughter is now three, I still long for him when I look into her eyes. I the lament the wrestling matches she’ll never have, the “pull my finger” games she’ll never play, and the grandfather she’ll never know.

But my father’s death has also made me hyper aware of the fact that time is fleeting.

I am more conscious — and worried — about death than most 32-year-olds I know because my father died in his 30s. Because I don’t want my own daughter to know that pain in seven years, or less. Because I don’t want my daughter to have these “missing memories.”

So I overcompensate.

I take photos of everything and anything because I want to give her something to hold onto. I take photos of every holiday, every family vacation, and every “lazy” day — days spent in the house or out by the pool — because I want to give her something to remember. I spoil her with presents. I take her out almost every day, to the park or playground, to the mall or into the city. We eat dessert almost every night, and I’ll let her get away with watching an extra episode of Sofia the First because I just want to sit with her. Because I want to snuggle her. Because I want to hold her little body and bury my nose in her curly hair. And because I want to give her something to remember.

But I often wonder: Does my obsession with capturing each moment actually hurt me? Does my desire to “make memories” keep me from living them? Am I’m so obsessed with being “in the moment” that I am not actually present?
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God forbid I die young, I want to make sure she knows how loved she was.

But I often wonder: Does my obsession with capturing each moment — with taking candids and selfies every five minutes — actually hurt me? Does my desire to “make memories” keep me from living them? Am I’m so obsessed with being “in the moment” that I am not actually present?

Am I so afraid of death that I cannot live my life?

Maybe. Because I constantly worry I am not good enough. I worry I am not loving enough. And I worry that “my legacy” may not be enough, if she is just left with memories. When she is just left with the stories in her mind.

But even with all of the cons — the obsessiveness and protectiveness and the irrational fears — my father’s death has helped me to let go of the little things. It has helped me to curb my tongue when I want to scream. It has reminded me a glass of spilled milk isn’t the end of the world, nor is an oven full of burnt bacon. It has enabled me to see opportunity in every situation. (That burnt bacon? Yeah, that just means we are going out for breakfast.) And it has truly put the value of every minute, and every moment, in perspective.

Because if tomorrow was “my last day” I wouldn’t want her to remember the angry woman. The mother with a short temper, or the mother who always says no. I would want her to remember the mother who holds her when she is sick. The mother who makes her Cheerios every morning and some sort of sandwich every evening. And the mother who dances with her, colors with her, listens to her, and who runs like a dinosaur beside her.

The mother who loves her more than life itself.

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