Once Upon a Father
It will happen sooner or later to each of us, to greater or lesser degrees. And when it does, you can either let it suffocate you in a perceptual state of self-pity, bitterness and sorrow – or you can learn from it, pick up the pieces and fight like hell to move on.
I’ve spent time in both realms, as I’ve clawed my way back from a tragedy that ripped through my life more than 30 years ago.
The Death of a Daddy
It happened on a typical Saturday morning in 1981, as I sat eating pancakes and watching cartoons on TV.
The phone rang and moments later, I heard the deafening sound of my mother’s scream.
Dad had collapsed on the golf course and was being rushed to the nearest hospital. On arrival, they pronounced him dead.
A Fatherless Child
My mom delivered the devastating news to me later that day. She sat me down on the sofa in our family room and told me as delicately as she could that my father had gone to heaven.
And just like that, my world shifted to an odd shade of gray.
Life seemed scarier now and strangely out-of-place. In fact, I felt out-of-place, walking into third grade on the first day of school as a fatherless child, feeling the stares of my classmates who still enjoyed the security of two living and breathing parents.
A mother and a father. A duo of support. The links in my chain. My peanut butter and jelly.
Gone was my comfort zone in a single morning.
In a single breath.
In one fatal beating of a terribly tattered heart.
Watching The Girl
At the funeral home, I peered on tiptoe over the casket to find my father lying unresponsive, stiff and cold on a bed of satin pillows.
People murmured and shuffled around me, waiting on the edge of their seats to see how a girl of my tender age would react in the presence of her dead father.
I touched him and held my breath, for I didn’t want his death moving into me.
I wanted to cry, like on the day my mother told me he died, but strangely, no tears filled my eyes.
A Fragile State of Being
After the funeral, my mother, brother and I were left to pick up the jagged pieces of our lives before they cut us deeper still.
The people who had flocked to our side, left the same way they came, in a torrential uproar of sympathies, condolences and tears.
And suddenly, all was too quiet.
My brother went back to college hundreds of miles away.
Our relatives turned back to their faraway places.
And our friends back to their everyday lives.
And just like that, my mother and I went from living in a bustling family of four to surviving in a scant unit of two, with no idea of how to move forward in our new fragile state of being.
But this was far from the end of my story.
Instead, it marked the beginning.
As I moved from childhood to adolescence, and adolescence to adulthood, the transformation began.
I went from feeling sorry for myself to being grateful for the strength I had gained. I traded bitterness for determination and grief for acceptance.
And then slowly, and rather painfully, I began to understand how losing my father had shaped my life and made me the person I had become.
It explains, perhaps, why I’m a bit more intense than most.
It helps me know that the dramatic side of my personality isn’t all in vain.
And when I overreact or panic prematurely, I recognize this as lingering aftershocks from enduring some pretty heavy stuff at such a young age.
I’m naturally a perfectionist, though having learned a few years ago that going to the extreme can kill a person. I appreciate everything I have and try not to take anything for granted. I’ve gotten better at focusing on the things I can control and letting go of the things I can’t, although I’m still working on understanding the difference between the two.
It also probably explains why, as a writer, I’m drawn to stories that are dark and psychologically bent. Or why my stories can be morally questionable or even downright disturbing. In fact, some publishers found my debut novel, Little 15: A dark tale of first love, too controversial for their taste—a label that actually makes me smile.
A Source Of Great Strength
Ironically, the death of my father has equipped me with a sense of striking courage and fierce determination—qualities that I might not have had otherwise.
What was once a great tragedy in my life has evolved into a source of great inspiration.
If I got through all that at eight years old, then I can get through anything, do anything, and still be OK at the end of the day.
It doesn’t matter as much anymore what people think of me, as long as I know in my heart that I’m doing the right thing.
Every day is blessing. Every moment, a gift. And every breath an opportunity to make my father proud.
Stephanie Saye began her journey as a writer at sixteen when an Ursuline nun discovered her talent. Her Catholic upbringing, coupled with an eye for controversy and an affinity for dark, psychological drama, inspires much of her research and storytelling. A seasoned corporate communicator, Stephanie lives in Texas with her husband and two sons. Her debut novel – LITTLE 15 – is available where books are sold.