He died on Ash Wednesday. It wasn’t our holiday, but there was something sacred, something symbolic, about seeing ashes smeared on the foreheads of the visitors in the hospital waiting room. I had arrived too late to say good-bye, although I don't think I would have been able to even if I had been given the chance. What was left to say?
When I arrived, my uncle was wandering throughout the halls of the hospital, trying to get a hold of the doctors. When he returned a few minutes later, he pulled me aside. There was no privacy in the room — almost every chair was occupied.
"Do you want to see him?" he asked. He meant: Did I want to see the body?
Well over 6 feet tall, he had always physically towered over me, but now, for the first time, he seemed powerless, small.
"No," I said. I didn't have to think about it. He wasn't my father anymore.
My dad was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia when I was 17. He was an incredibly supportive father. He was an assistant Little League coach for my softball team and the first reader of any story, homework assignment, or essay I would write.
His support perhaps became most pronounced in the context of my relatively turbulent college experience. When I took a difficult, three-year leave of absence from Princeton after struggling through my freshman year, he always believed that I would return to school and graduate.
Losing him while I was in college, therefore, was particularly challenging. When I returned to Princeton's campus after the funeral, I was startled to see how easily classes and campus activities had continued while my life had been forever changed. I felt isolated by the huge loss I had sustained and doubted that more than a few students my age could identify with such a burden.
I somehow made it through the rest of that semester, but grappled with what still lay ahead. In fact, before my dad died, I assumed grief was a battle against the past — that grieving meant dwelling on memories and refusing to let go of old photographs and articles of clothing. But I quickly learned that grief often focuses on the future. I had to recognize that my father would not be cheering in the stands when I tossed off my graduation cap that spring. He wouldn't walk me down the aisle at my wedding and, if I ever have children, he will never get to know them or be the doting grandparent I always imagined he would be. A future without him seemed empty.
Losing a parent at 23 meant relinquishing not only a relationship I had since birth, but also the new, adult relationship we were just beginning to develop. Though we had always been close, I didn’t realize how little I knew about my dad’s young adult days until I left high school. In the short time before college, he opened up about failed romances, his college years, and his unrealized dreams of becoming a speechwriter or professor. I began to see him as an equal. He was someone I could confide in, and he was just beginning to confide in me.
This loss has been painful, but I truly believe that my grief has taught me valuable lessons, too — like what it means to be a true friend to one in need. I am forever grateful to my friends for their consistent support during that trying first year. Even now, I live for their stories about little moments they shared with my dad. I am grateful that those who never got a chance to know him have allowed me to ramble on and on about him.
In my final semester of college, a professor of mine argued that humans are not innately resilient — that we develop resilience in response to the circumstances thrust upon us. I developed resilience after my father's death. So did my twin sister, my mom, and other surviving members of the family.
I wear a chain with the Hebrew symbol "chai" around my neck. "Chai" represents life as well as my dad's Hebrew name, Chaim. A relative once asked if wearing this symbol is ironic given that he is no longer alive, but I feel the opposite is true. I wear the necklace to symbolize that my father's 65 years on this earth, full of resilience and beauty, will always have meaning.
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