It was just after Thanksgiving when we boarded the plane to Florida to say goodbye to my father. The doctors had decided to stop chemotherapy and put him into hospice, which for us meant a hospital bed in the middle of my mother’s living room. This didn’t come as a surprise. The cancer had been killing him slowly for years, and now it was time for us to help him die.
When someone you love so deeply is facing the end of life, you feel a duty to help them die with dignity, despite the emotional roller coaster it takes you on. For his sake, we hid our fear, anger and sadness, and we’re pretty sure he did the same. We knew why we were there, and despite the horror of what we had to see and do, we stayed true to the task and tried to ingest as much of him as we could before it was all over.
He took his last breath a few days before Christmas. As they rolled him out of the house that night, I knew they were taking me with him. Just like that, all the strength, the feelings of love, and the power I’d had to that point escaped me. All that was left was an empty shell of the person I was before.
He was gone. And so was I.
When I got back to Boston, I carried an indifference toward life everywhere I went. I resented life and everyone in it for making me go through such trauma, and I was angry that I was supposed to just pick up where I left off as if nothing had happened. In between incoherent fits or tears and rage, I walked around numb. When people would look me in the eyes, I’d look away, afraid they’d uncover all the damage I hid inside of me. People called me cold, distant, closed off, and shut down. They’d try to lend comfort. But, I didn’t want comfort. I just wanted to be left the fuck alone.
I stayed like that for about a year – in a constant state of nothingness and prickly to the touch.
One day, I was cleaning out a closet in my office and came across the bags of memorabilia from my father’s wake. They were heavy, filled with memories from his cut-way-too-short life. I started digging through it all, laying out each item one by one into a make-shift timeline on the floor around me. I studied each piece, staring through a watery wall covering my eyes, trying to remember the story behind each one. There were baby pictures, and old black-and-whites of him as a little boy, and teenage shots of him and his buddies in the army.
There were family photos of him and his brothers and sisters as adults, three of which are gone now from the same disease. There were news clippings of him being sworn into the Cambridge Police Department, and Boston Globe articles about the Boys and Girls Club he started with headlines like, “Thanks to Sgt. Ring, they have a place to go.”
By the time I got to the more recent pictures, the ones of him and me at graduation, and at Fenway for Father’s Day, and of him holding my nephew when he was just a baby, it was around midnight. I’d sat there all day, and when I finally ran out of tears, I could finally see things clearly.
Giving up on my life wasn’t going to bring his back.
As I walked through my dad’s story that day, I collected little pieces of him to carry with me as I attempted to rebuild myself. It was time to become a better me – not only for myself, but for him as well. My father was a scraper. He took a lot of punches, but always made sure to keep swinging. He faced challenges, and struggled to find his place in the world. He made mistakes, but owned them and learned from them. He was an honorable person. He believed in giving everyone second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances, because at the end of the day you never give up on anyone, especially not yourself.
He moved people, and made a difference in every life he touched. He carried his demons, but kept them hidden as best he could. He did everything in life with great courage and perseverance, despite the traumas he’d seen. He never gave up fighting, not until his last breath. Now, I owed it to him to keep fighting for my own life and let him live on through me.
These days, in his honor, I absorb life instead of hiding from it. I chase every opportunity, follow every dream, and take every chance I can. I’ve shed my fears and face my future with a new found intensity and passion for living. I’ve allowed myself to feel again, and let people get close enough to see the cracks in my armor. I stick up for myself, and try to fight for people that don’t have the strength to fight for themselves. I remember that I’m human, and that it’s okay to get knocked down by life every once in a while, as long as you get back up and keep living.
What I learned from my father, I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It makes me who I am, and for that I am forever grateful.
Dad, I love you like crazy and miss you like crazy.
Happy Father’s Day.