Today and yesterday, I've been trying to write down everything I remember about the days surrounding my father's death. The things I remember surprise me. Equally surprising are the things I am fuzzy about and the total blank spots. There are about 15 pages written and it's all far too raw to share yet.
Memory is an interesting thing. Who knows why we remember some things and completely forget others? Moments that stay with us from childhood are mundane and quotidian but they shape who we become. It worries me as a parent. One word from me could be the main memory Ellie will have of me thirty years from now. I have to forgive myself in advance. We all must forgive ourselves that.
When my father died, I learned that adults are really children. They are scared, lonely, insecure, and lost most of the time. They don't know what to say to a child normally, let alone to one who lost a parent. None of them should feel badly about my recollections years later. It just was.
Most adults are full of shit. Children don't say it that way, but they learn it. They see adults re-neg on promises, compromise values, and wallow in ineptitude. It starts when someone lies to you. For me, the lie was that my father would get better. I was seven and I knew. I don't know how I knew, I just did. They were thirty-seven and they didn't. Or, so I thought at the time. At the time, I thought they were naive or even dumb. A few years later, I thought they were liars. Now, I realize that they weren't lying to me, they were lying to themselves. The lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous. So that's it, adults were either dumb or liars - not a great place to start.
What about other children? That's a topic for another day, but I always felt the need to protect them from this knowledge. It made for some lonely moments.
My mother lost her mother when she was eight. Years later she told me that the day her mother died, no one told the children right away. "But I knew," She said. That's when I knew why my mother never lied to me. Ever. Even when Daddy was in a coma, she never gave me false hope, or worse, a reason not to trust her.
Maybe that's the sad part about his death for me now. It just happened and the world kept turning. I grew up, but the world should have stopped, even for just a moment. That is the time I am taking now - letting my world stop to better understand something that happened so long ago.
I want to talk to the child I was at the time because she had this knowledge of the adult world, while still very much a child. She didn’t understand that at the time. Not getting the right slice of cake could elicit a stronger emotion than someone dying. The child in her still expected people to keep their promises and to hold her as important as her mother and father did. They didn't and they couldn't. Once that’s gone, so is a huge part of childhood.
So, as a child, I took responsibility for being my own adult. That's something about children who lose parents that makes them fundamentally different people. Not only are they mentally old compared to their peers, but also they are older than most adults.
I assume that the experience is different than losing a parent as an adult. Not only have they lost one of the two people in the world who will love them unconditionally and keep them at the center of the Universe, they lose the trust that children have in adults. They are always aware that the bottom could drop out at ANY moment, because for them it already has.
When I was much older, my husband lost his grandfather. His mother and her siblings were acting in similar roles to the ones I imagine they took as children growing up. I watched this dynamic and felt so sorry for all of them. They watched their father and their life as children fall away. Mine was never there to begin with. I remember saying to my father -in-law, "You have to understand they've lost their father and they are in the house where they grew up. They are children for today. Let them behave as you would expect children to." He understood me, but gave me a look as if he was confused that I, the twenty-something, could explain this better than anyone.
After all, I’ve seen this movie before. To this day, I’m "good in tragedy." I move through it; there is no choice to fall apart. Falling to pieces is for other people.