(You might have already read this elsewhere. If so, apologies for cross-posting.)
When my dad died (I was 12, he was 59), I didn't really process things immediately. It was the first truly terrible thing that had ever happened to me, and I developed what I now see are pretty much the same coping strategies I still fall back on in times of extreme stress: push the feelings down (too scary! too confusing!), focus on the practicalities, the day to day. Keep my innermost thoughts and feelings to myself as much as possible, also because everyone else is dealing with their own shit, and the worst thing in the world is to become a burden.
(Of course, the worst thing in the world is really to isolate yourself from your own feelings and the people closest to you, especially when that becomes a habit, but I didn't realize that until much later, and I now need to learn how to stop doing it.)
My mother, my strong, saucy, independent, sometimes hot-tempered mother, just kind of... dissolved. She sat on the couch, staring into space, or wandered aimlessly around the house, stopping randomly in the middle of a room. Standing there immobile, for several minutes, doing or saying nothing. When she spoke she sounded vague and somehow far away. My sister came home from college for a few days, but she was also wrecked with grief and spent most of her time crying.
I didn't cry.
Instead, as I've written a little about elsewhere, our next-door neighbor took me grocery shopping to buy ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner. I felt all the weight of responsibility of holding our family together, so I knew I had to be strong. Maybe, if I chose just the right turkey and cranberry sauce and potatoes, everything would be okay.
Three years later, when I was in young teen love and my boyfriend was the most important person in the world to me, the person I felt completely safe around, I went through a seemingly-out-of-nowhere phase of talking and crying about my father's death for, basically, the first time. The combination of distance and emotional intimacy made a perfect little space for letting out some of what I didn't even realize I'd been holding in. I was not--am not--the kind of girl who cried easily, not about big things. (Just commercials and sappy movies and weddings.) He handled it very well, especially for a 17-year-old boy, and the sharing brought us even closer together.He knew me in ways no one else did, because I wouldn't let them.
My dad and I were very close when I was growing up. I wasn't a tomboy, exactly--I was never very good at sports, at least not the kind the kids on my street (all boys) liked to play, and I liked dresses and pretty hair and went through a brief phase when pink was my favorite color. But I also liked to play with my Tonka trucks and cars and chemistry set, I loved hanging out with my dad in the garage (he bought me my own set of tools), or driving out with him on a Sunday to look at cars or boats or campers or whatever his fancy was at the time. He taught me to fish and to always keep my tools clean and that you can do just about anything if you keep a knife and an adjustable wrench handy at all times. I thought dolls were boring and ended up dismembering most of my Barbies because I was more interested in how they'd made Malibu Robin's legs so bendy than dressing her in brightly patterned 70s outfits.
Starting when I was in about fourth or fifth grade, my dad switched to working third shift. That meant he had to be at work at midnight, and came home around 8 am, just as I was getting ready for school. Since my mother was working full time again by then, he was the one waiting for me when I got home. He had it rough in the summers, since I was home all day and although I would try to be quiet and entertain myself in the mornings (I was a very self-directed kid), he never really got enough sleep. He'd make us lunch, but not being much of a cook that usually meant sardines (he liked his in mustard, but I preferred plain), or Chunky Soup, or a very basic sandwich, maybe a frozen pot pie. We'd sit at the kitchen table and talk about books or my latest adventures in chemistry or play word games. Other times, we'd eat on TV trays in the living room, watching old Charlie Chan or Bowery Boys movies in black and white. If I was lucky, we might spend some time in the garage working on some project together.
When I was ten, Santa brought a present that was specifically designated for me and my father, which was a first (and even though I didn't really believe in Santa anymore by then, I still believed in Santa-ness, and loved that even Santa-ness recognized that my dad and I were special enough to deserve our own gift). It was a Yamaha Chappy, bright yellow, my first two-wheeled motor vehicle.
I guess you could say I was a daddy's girl.
Obviously, all of that was a long time ago. Like I said, he died when I was twelve; I have numerous friends who weren't even born yet. A fully grownup lifetime ago. I still think about him from time to time, and I have fond memories. He was a good dad, and although I'm sad I didn't have more time with him, I'm immensely grateful for having had him as a parent. I know how lucky I was. I miss him, but in kind of an abstract way, mostly as negative space in the various moments of my life: graduating from high school and college, getting married. Getting divorced. Would I even have gone abroad in high school if he'd still been around? I have no way of knowing what shape my life would have taken if there had been an actual Allan there instead of the dad-shaped cutout holes that populate my memory album.
I assumed I was... well, maybe "over it" is a little too glib, but that I'd coped with it all, more or less--especially after my delayed-reaction emotional release--and moved on. It never occurred to me that any of my life choices or relationships or self-perceptions from early adolescence onward were influenced by his death. I had friends and boyfriends (some better than others), did well in school, participated in all kinds of extracurriculars. I went to Australia for a year, then off to college. Had jobs (some better than others). Got married, found a career (then another, then another), got divorced, went to grad school, built something resembling an adult life for myself.
It was a sad loss, but life went on, right? The young are resilient, everybody knows that, right?
I remember marveling at the time how strange it was that I was now one of those people to whom something terrible had happened, and yet... I was still the same person. I felt an odd sense of detachment at this realization, like I was seeing myself as a character in someone else's novel. An avid reader, I already had a long habit of mentally narrating my actions throughout the day ("She strolled jauntily along the sidewalk, swinging her book bag in time to the song she was humming..."), so this sense of being an observer was familiar. Except now, protagonist-me was someone I didn't entirely recognize. A girl whose father had died young, suddenly, no chance to say good-bye. A tragic figure, something I'd never seen myself as, or wanted to become. What did that mean about me, my life, my future?
Who was I, now?
I was the same person as before, it turned out. Nothing seemed to have changed about me, beyond the normal and expected changes involved in growing up.
I was the same, and yet, I've recently become aware of certain patterns that have occurred and recurred throughout my life that can be traced back to his death. There are the previously mentioned coping skills that involve shoving all that detritus of feelings deep into my internal closet, for (maybe) future examination. Meaning that, by this point, that closet is packed to overflowing with a crazily jumbled junkyard tangle of unexamined emotional reactions, some decades old, brittle and yellowing, forgotten until they're jostled loose accidentally when yet another wadded up bit of scrap gets shoved into the mix. Some from this morning or last week. As a corollary, I have erected some pretty solid barricades between myself and other people, because my internal house is far from guest-ready and it takes a lot for me to share just what an affective slob I really am. Getting to that level of trust doesn't happen often. Don't even think about the times that I haven't quite managed keep the closet door shut, and some of that mess has tumbled out against my will. For the most part, the reactions of witnesses to those moments of slovenly emotional revelation have simply reinforced the need to keep such things carefully hidden from view.
My dad really got me. My mother used to say we were just alike, which isn't quite true--at least, I don't think it is now, if it ever was. Still, we were similar in a lot of ways. We both loved analyzing things from different angles, trying to figure stuff out or just make fun new discoveries that may or may not mean anything. We both loved words and wordplay.
He understood that the best way to convince me to behave in a certain way was to appeal to my reason. I know I've told this story before, years ago, but the first time we had "sex ed" in elementary school (all the little girls in one room, all the little boys in another, to talk about The Mysteries of Puberty), I walked home ruminating on what we'd learned. Since my parents had had to sign a permission slip, my dad knew this had been the day's big event, and asked me about it as soon as I walked through the door.
"It was really interesting," I told him. "I realized that, right now, I could have all the sex I want!" (I was ten years old at the time.)
To his immense credit, my father didn't even flinch. He just nodded thoughtfully. "Well, you could," he replied after a moment, "but it'd be risky."
"What do you mean? I wouldn't have to worry about getting pregnant because I haven't got my period yet."
"Ah, but see, you're at the age where you could start any minute. If you got the timing wrong, you could get pregnant even before you knew you were about to have your first."
This made perfect sense to me. I went back to my bedroom to play and do homework, the whole issue settled in my mind. I haven't the slightest doubt that my dad immediately poured himself a very stiff drink. Just because he knew how to handle me didn't make it easy.
We were also both stubborn as hell (a trait my mother wasn't immune from, either, so I come by it honestly from both sides of the family). Once I hit prepubescence, around age 11, my father and I started butting heads on a regular basis. My mother would lose her patience (never a strong suit of hers, anyway) at our endless arguments. "You both always need to have the last word," she'd say in exasperation. We fought about everything, from house rules I was starting to chafe under, to politics, to the best way to build an underground bunker. Ridiculous, meaningless stuff, almost all of it, but every disagreement would escalate into a heated argument. Being 11, then 12, these often ended with me flinging an "I hate you!" over my shoulder as I flounced into my bedroom and slammed the door behind me.
And then, suddenly he was gone. Just like that.
In addition to stifling my emotions, I have recently realized that I have attachment issues. It's funny; i've never thought of myself as particularly clingy. If anything, I tend to skew in the opposite direction, so worried about bothering people or inconveniencing them that I come across as distant.
But that's just it, isn't it? There is a constant, underlying worry that I am going to scare them away. If I'm not nice enough, if I'm too demanding or high-maintenance. Worst of all, that I will drive them away if I let them see who I really and truly am. This goes for both friends and romantic relationships (and everything in between). I am pretty confident in my ability to make a good first impression; I know how to be a good cruise director. I can be a delightfully charming dinner companion when I'm on my game, textbook Libra. Draw the other person out, tell some funny stories of my own. I've learned to give the impression of sharing quite a lot while keeping anything too personal or scary or vulnerable-making safely hidden. I can give away just enough to seem like an open book, while my most hideous monsters stay safely under lock and key.
I have mastered the art of strategic self-revelation.
It's not fake or an act, exactly, it's just very selective in what it lets people know. But one of those lessons I keep having to learn over and over in my life is that compartmentalization is not really the healthiest way to live, and it's definitely not a self-esteem booster. Always being hyper-aware of what the other person might think, how they might react, whether you're saying too much. How big a dose of me is enough to cause an adverse reaction, or a fatal overdose? Best to stay on the conservative side and just not risk it. Even among people I consider very dear friends, there are things I don't talk about for fear of judgment.
Somehow, despite all this, I've managed to cobble together a tiny little family of people to whom I can reveal myself fully. I'm not sure how or why it happens. I should probably figure it out.
I woke to pounding at the front door, sometime in the wee hours of the night. I let it go on for a long time, waiting for my mother to get up and answer. I buried my head under my pillow, trying to muffle the banging and go back to sleep, but Mom had clearly taken her hearing aid out and wasn't going to come to my rescue. With great resentment, I finally dragged myself out of bed and stumbled into the living room in my nightgown. Through the peephole, I saw two of our neighbors, Bud and Mildred.
Confused, I unlocked the door and pulled it open, and cracked the storm door. It was November, right before Thanksgiving, so it was icy cold.
"Honey... your father..." Mildred began. She couldn't finish. "Tell her, Bud."
"Your father is dead," he said simply. "I'm sorry."
I just stared. This was all very strange and wrong, and probably a bad dream. I was too sleepy and in shock to process anything. "Okay," I said finally, after a long pause.
They seemed to expect more from me. "I'm going to go back to bed, now, Can we talk about this in the morning?" They were still shivering in the cold on the front porch, but now they pushed open the storm door and moved past me as I stepped aside.
"No, honey," Mildred explained. "You need to come to our house and stay with us. Your mother's still at the hospital, and you can't stay here alone."
I tried to insist; I just wanted to sleep. I didn't understand why I had to put on a coat and shoes over my nightgown, and pack clothes and toiletries into an overnight bag, just to walk across the street and sleep in a strange house for a few hours. It still doesn't make sense, but now I'm more sympathetic to the fact that in times of crisis, even grownups don't always make rational decisions. Bud and Mildred were just doing what felt right to them at the time.
I bundled up and walked out into the cold, black night, carrying a small bag.