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I wrote this story roughly six years ago, and a new friend encouraged me to put it out there. Fair warning, this is a story about losing my dad and reckoning with those emotions many years after the fact. It’s a longer piece, and not a light read. But this story is also about honesty, freedom, and longing. I hope something in it resonates with you.
I love getting lost in a good piece of literature, but there is one genre that I have absolutely no appetite for: self-help. Glossy covers of men and women in slick suites and Crest-whitening-strip smiles promising quick cures to all of life’s ailments. Lonely? Try my five step relationship program and find your soul mate! Unhealthy? Lose ten pounds in seven days! Sad? You shouldn’t be, and for 17 bucks I can tell you why! Forgive my cynicism. I suppose what really makes my skin crawl is that these books barely scrape the surface of the issues they attempt to sell solutions for. They acknowledge a problem with a chapter title, and quickly tell you how to get over it. There is no room for pain. No acknowledgement of the beautiful and often ugly struggle we must experience this side of heaven. I’m tired of the triteness. Then again, I’ve never been the kind of gal who saw the world through rose-colored glasses.
Six years ago my father’s heart failed him in the middle of the night.
I am seven and Dad is trying to speed through a yellow light. “Hold on,” he shouts with a smile. So I hold on dramatically, mostly to make him laugh. We did play a lot. I squeeze my eyes tight, clutch my seatbelt to my chest, and suck in a giant breath. BANG. Eyes ripped open, hands fly from the belt, everything spins. My first and only car accident. I don’t remember too many details, mostly disjointed impressions. Shock. Chaos. Stillness. Safety. My father’s arms. As he held me, I watched curious faces stare out from the windows of passing cars. Nothing like a wreck to draw attention.
Now I’m the wreck, except this time no one wants to look. I’m twenty years old, walking back to my college dorm room after a creative writing class. Tears are free-falling as I hold a hand to my silent, open mouth. Crying isn’t the right term here. More like pain-induced-dry-heaving.
I can’t even make a proper crying sound. The grief came so quickly, without warning. Overwhelmed and nearly senseless – I haven’t lost control like this in a long, long time. No one knows what to do with me. I receive a few looks of pity, but most ignore me with brilliant skill. I feel strangely out of time as students rush by me to get to their next class.
There is no room in this place for grief. Yes, please go on your way, don’t let me dump this awkward burden on you, just dealing with six years of repressed feelings, don’t mind me. He died six years ago. God, get over it! I can’t believe I had to walk out of my class. I’m in college for crying out loud! What the hell is this? Group therapy?
I went through group therapy when I was 15.
“Does everyone have a glass?”
Steve, our fearless leader, looks kindly at everyone around the table. Clear plastic glasses half-filled with water sit in front of us, paired with tubes of food coloring. Mine is blue. Steve continues.
“This glass, and the water are representations of yourself. Your heart, your soul, your emotional condition.”
Nods of understanding.
“The food coloring is your grief.”
“I want you to color the water with as much grief as you feel. The more color, the stronger the sense of grief. Ready everyone?”
We all reach for our respective bottles of food coloring. My mother sits on the opposite side of the table, and I watch as she adds drops of dye to her glass. Green tendrils curl and reach to the bottom. She stirs, the water turns a dark, vibrant forest green. In fact, most of the glasses around the table were strongly colored except –
“Awa, your glass isn’t very dark.”
“Is that how you feel?”
“I miss him. But I believe he’s in heaven, so I’ll see him again.”
“Hmm. That’s great Awa. But remember, we’re all here for you.”
I smile and that familiar hardness takes over. I am fine, I am healing, and I don’t need this group anymore. They’re great people. But I’m above this. Mom flashes me that concerned smile and cups her glass with both hands. I smile back, confident in my pale-blue water. I am fine.
I’m sure at that point I really thought I was okay. Maybe I was stronger then than I am now. Maybe I’m finally dealing with the pain. I stumble into my room and crumple into the carpet. I let out a long wail, which morphs into a shout of frustration. Why am I still like this? It’s been six…freaking…years. God, where the hell are you? I laugh abruptly, overwhelmed. Wow, this carpet is absolutely filthy. Is that a giant clump of hair? I laugh weakly, then sob again. Why does this still ruin me? I pick up the ball of hair, and let it float down into the trash bin. Disgusting. Now what? I reach into my bag and grab my cell phone. “Mom?”
My relationship with my mother has come a long way. When I was young, I was definitely a daddy’s girl. I looked like his daughter; taking on his dark skin, hair, and eyes. My mother is blonde, with green/amber eyes, and pale skin. When we would walk places, mom would march ahead, determined, on a mission. My dad would walk slowly behind her – partly due to gout, and the fact that he never rushed anywhere. His pace matched the rhythm of island life: slow, steady, ambling. I chose to walk with him, often mad at my mother and her lack of patience. In church I would always lean on his shoulder for warmth. I would choose to watch Walker Texas Ranger over Martha Stewart. In pre-school, I threw a tantrum for an hour because dad forgot to kiss me goodbye. I stopped only after he drove all the way back and gave me a peck on the cheek. I don’t remember ever throwing a fit for my mom.
After dad died I began my wall building. I thought that things could only get worse. I truly believed that my mom would soon be ripped from my life as well, and I tried to prepare myself. I expected the worst at every turn. This paranoia lasted for about four months, until it became too much to deal with. Then the numbness set in. I refused to talk about my loss with anyone, I refused to see a therapist, I refused anti-depressants. I absolutely refused to like mom’s boyfriend. Poor Bob. Bob never stood a chance. First of all, his name was Bob. Second, he entered the picture five months after we put dad in the ground.
Like I said, he really didn’t stand a chance.
I was also enraged with my mother. She was supposed to be mourning. I thought of all the movies in which children schemed to ruin the relationships of their single parent. While that was a mildly entertaining train of thought, I went for the more passive aggressive-approach. I stuck to a less-than-civil attitude and random sarcastic remarks. A typical conversation would have been as follows:
Bob: Hi Awa! How was school today?
Bob: What did you do?
Mom (begging me to engage with her eyes): Anything exciting going on?
Me (big fake smile): Nope.
Mom: Well, we’re going to a movie tonight, want to come along?
Bob: Okay, we’ll see you later.
Me: Make good choices. Be home by 10.
I would lie awake until 1am, fighting sleep with anger so I could glare at her when she walked in the door. In retrospect, I was an unrelenting judge, refusing to see the loss from her perspective, failing to understand the horrible depths of her loneliness. But at fourteen, I was just doing my best to get by.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment the tide changed in our relationship, but I do remember an e-mail that snapped my eyes wide open. It arrived in my inbox sophomore year at Stanford, after I had failed to mail a flight voucher to my mom. I can still see the crux of the e-mail:
I needed that voucher. I feel like you don’t respect my financial situation. You don’t call me, don’t communicate, it’s like you have no respect for our relationship or me as a person.
I read the entire e-mail once more then shut my computer. My cheeks exploded with warmth as shame and regret took over. I realized that if I cared about this relationship, there was a lot of work to be done. I realized I had a choice. I trained myself to call home more than once every two or three weeks. Our initial conversations didn’t go very deep, they rarely lasted more than ten minutes. But as the year progressed, I grew more comfortable opening up. Or, as mom would say, not being so emotionally constipated. I began to share amusing anecdotes about my roommates or let her in on my nagging insecurities. She shared from her wealth of life experiences, and I slowly learned that my mother was an actual person – an amazing woman I could possibly know as a friend.
“Hi mom, it’s me,”
“Mom I don’t know what to doo-oo-o.” I briefly lose myself and sob out the last word. Get it together.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“It’s this writing class. We were talking about grief and death, and I lost it. Why am I still hung up on this? What do I do with this? Dad died six years ago.”
“Awa, you can’t – ”
“I have no right to be upset! I don’t understand…”
“Well first you have to stop crapping on yourself.”
I laugh. She continues, taking advantage of the opening.
“Really babe. Allow yourself to feel. Your father did the same thing, he internalized. He told me he was afraid that if he truly allowed himself to feel something, it would consume him. Maybe you need to let it consume you. Go to the places you are the most afraid to go, but don’t go alone. Take someone you can trust, or go to therapy. Take God with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Maybe this will be a great opportunity to get everything out.”
“I feel like shit – I don’t even know what I’m feeling.”
“Write about it. Go there. I’ll pray for you.”
I thought I had already dealt with the worst of it.
The summer after I graduated high school, I went to Nicaragua on a community service trip. I went with a Christian organization that funded schools for the Miskitu Indians, a marginalized indigenous group. I had every naïve intention of having an epic adventure before college: experiencing a new culture, a new place, and doing some good at the same time. Maik and Laura, the couple running the organization, seemed to have a different agenda.
“You look just like your dad,” Maik said.
“Yes, same smile, same eyes,” added Laura, laying her hand on my shoulder.
“Thanks,” I laugh shakily. Keep it light.
“What a good man,” Laura replied. Suddenly she began to tear and grabbed my other shoulder, trapping me in an embrace. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. I mean – it was really hard losing him. But it’s been three years…” Why are we going here? Please don’t cry.
Maik holds my gaze, “We really miss him. I really miss him.” Then Maik asked the question that defined the rest of my trip: “How did you reconcile his death you’re your faith in God?”
I broke eye contact and spoke to the floor, “Well…God is sovereign. He has a purpose for everything, He, well I mean I – ”
“Awa, I would encourage you to think about this more.”
And think about it I did. Throughout my entire stay in Nicaragua this nagging question lingered in the back of my mind. I tried to lose myself in the beautiful faces of the children I worked with, but it was my constant companion. Why did my dad have to die when he did? On an afternoon during my final week there, I shut my bible and walked outside. I was tired of reading. I stood alone and barefoot on our concrete balcony. Rain roared as it hit the tin roof overhead, a typical Nicaraguan downpour. I whispered first.
“Why did you take him from me?”
I allowed myself to feel anger for the first time in years. I allowed myself to be angry at God, honest with myself. I paced. I put God on trial, abandoning restraint.
“What the fuck are you doing up there?!”
Overwhelming emotions. I let them run wild until I doubled over in anger, in pain, in confusion. I stretched out my hands to no one, begging, pleading for an answer. Where are you? I thought you were a God of love?
What happened next is hard to explain, but I view it as one of the most pivotal moments of my life. I was consumed with anger and pain, then suddenly, peace. Chills began at the base of my neck and rippled into every corner of my body. The air was static, every hair stood on end, my mind spun in a euphoric way, I was there and not there. A presence. It was as if God came to sit with me on that balcony, and spoke in words I felt more than heard: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for your pain. He wept as I wept. There was no sense of judgment, condemnation, or impatience. Only empathy. Only peace. God wept while I wept.
After hanging up with my mom, I sit down and begin to write. She said to go where I was afraid to go, but not to go alone. I pause, hands hovering above my keyboard. God. I need you.
“Will you pray for me? I’m coming down with a cold.”
Every night when I was younger, my parents would pray for me and tuck me in. I hit middle school and became too cool for this nightly ritual. But tonight, by some miracle, dad broke the norm. He was lying in bed, lights off, his face indistinguishable in the darkness. He grabbed my hand, and we thanked God for our day. I asked God to heal him from his “cold,” not knowing it was his heart that was unhealthy, not knowing this was the last time we would pray together. I bent over and kissed his warm cheek, he pulled me in for a hug.
“I love you.”
“Love you too dad. See you in the morning.”
Sunday, October 27, 2002
Roch “Rocky” Modesto Dancil, 45, of Makawao, Maui, a victim’s witness counselor for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and counselor for child protective services with Maui Youth and Family Service, died Thursday at home. He was born in Kula, Maui. He is survived by wife Sue, daughter Awapuhi, sister Mokihana Toyama and brothers Daniel and Richard. Services: 7:30 p.m. Friday at Ballard Family Mortuary and 11 a.m. Saturday at Waipuna Chapel, 17 Omaopio Road, Kula. Call after 6 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday. Burial: 2 p.m. at Maui Memorial Park Cemetery. Aloha attire. Lei welcome.
The first time I visit his grave, I go alone. It takes me twenty minutes to remember where it is. I kick my slippers off, and sit next to the headstone, tracing the gold Hawaiian fishhook etched above his name. You have quite the view from here, don’t you? I look out at the west Maui Mountains – the sun rests easily behind them, highlighting its valleys and ridges. Everything is gold. The trade winds stir up the flowers, balloons, and other decorations that mark the neighboring graves. It’s like a party, in an odd way. I remember his broad face and large frame. Missing the XXL aloha shirts that used to hang in his closet. Tears. My lips curve upward as I remember his laugh; the kind of high-pitched giggle you would only expect from a high school girl with pigtails. Yeah. I miss you.