My parents mortality is something I’d been aware of as long as I’ve been aware of my own. As soon as I realized my parents were going to die one day, this (inevitable) occurrence became my biggest fear, surpassing lightning, Jason Voorhees, and even the fear of my own death. I thought about it incessantly, worrying my stomach into knots if my dad got home from a work a little later than usual and whenever my mom caught a cold.
I eventually learned to temper this fear — not allowing it to paralyze me — but it never quite went always. Even into adulthood, although my parents were no longer the center of my universe, the idea of losing them remained a phantasm, haunting me in dreams and forcing me to confront and consider how I’d react when it eventually happened.
Interestingly enough, whenever I’d think about my parents’ dying — and what would happen as a result — I always envisioned my dad passing first. Part of this is due to him being six years older than my mom, so I naturally assumed he’d pass first. But even more than that is that consoling and supporting my mom as she adjusted to life without my dad just felt like more of a natural thing. Of course I’d never be able to replace him, but I’d help out more around her house and do the things — mow the lawn, take out the trash, take her to the store, etc — my dad wouldn’t be around to do. Also, as a man it was just, for lack of a better term, “easier” envisioning giving my mom a shoulder to cry on and being her support than thinking about doing those things for my dad. My dad and I have always had a great relationship, but being there for him was just something I never had to do. He was the one always there for everyone else.
This month marks a year since my mom’s funeral. And a year and a week since my mom’s death has forced me to be there for my dad, a position we’re both still getting used to.
There are days like last week — the anniversary of my mom’s death — where being there literally meant just being there. I spent the afternoon and evening with my dad that day. I was prepared to talk about my mom, to put an arm around his shoulder while he shed a tear, and maybe even visit her plot at the cemetery together. Instead, we watched some college football for a half hour, and then he slept for four hours on a chair in the living room while I sat on the couch and watched Django Unchained. When he woke up, he made dinner (pancakes and bacon), and we watched the first quarter of the Florida State/Notre Dame game before I left. No mention of my mom, no tears.
I assumed my presence didn’t really do much, that being there might not have mattered as much as I thought it did, but later that week he expressed that the Saturday nap was the first time he’d been able to get an extended period of sleep in a week. The anniversary week of my mother’s passing had been particularly hard for him, and apparently I relaxed him enough that he was able to get some rest.
Then there are those random Wednesdays and Sundays when I’ll visit him and a song or a movie or a picture will remind him about my mom, and his eyes will glaze, and I won’t know what to do. Sometimes my eyes will glaze too. Sometimes I’ll just put my arm around him. And sometimes I’ll just stand there, unsure if he wants me to address his bout of sadness — because addressing it somehow makes it even more real — or ignore it until it goes away. The modus operandi of this year of being there for my dad is that there’s no modus operandi. I wasn’t prepared for it, but nothing could have prepared me for it.
Earlier this year, I accompanied my dad to Best Buy to help him choose a new laptop. While there, he ran into a friend. After a few minutes of pleasantries, the friend asked how my dad was holding up, and I heard him say that one of the hardest things about losing my mom was that he always assumed he’d be the first to go, and he just wasn’t prepared for this.
His friend said he understood. And I, standing 15 feet away and inspecting a Macbook, silently nodded my head because I did too.