November 4, 2006: A Year of Great Change
But first, I should probably tell the story as to why... the entire story.
My parents divorced when I was too little to know what it meant. I was about 2-years-old when they split up, so I never truly saw them together. But moving forward, my dad would pick my sister and I up from school every Friday and take us back to our mom and step dad's place to pack for the upcoming weekend.
We always had big things planned: Yum-Yum hot dogs for dinner, roller-skating lessons Saturday morning, Chick-fil-a for lunch, then stop by our favorite toy store or Target before heading to our grandparents' house (where my dad lived after the divorce).
Our road adventures were filled with playing Pokemon on our Gameboy Advances and with me constantly asking "are we almost there?" We would sing to "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" on the radio and laugh when our dad would purposely go out-of-tune. Those were memorable times. Some of my favorite memories with my dad were just in the car rides to his parents' house in Greensboro, North Carolina.
But the weekend of November 4, 2006 was where my nightmares and horrible flashbacks started haunting me.
It started like every other weekend—being picked up by our dad in the carpool lane, packing the rest of our things and taking our Gameboys off of their chargers for the hour and a half-long trip. We had dinner with our grandparents and laughed at how our week had been. Our dad would even ask how our mom was doing, which struck me as "normal."
The next day, November 4, we had our lessons promptly at 10 AM at the local roller-skating rink with our purple-haired instructor. We were stuck in beginner's lessons, because our dad couldn't afford the uniform needed to take part in the intermediate lessons. We weren't mad. We had fun teaching the newcomers and just skating together.
After lessons, we stuck around a little longer. The skating rink was small with an arcade made up of five games, two of which were claw machines. My dad usually wouldn't let me play more than a game or two, but that day I got lucky. On those two plays I ended up winning 2 prizes. They were orange scarecrows with pumpkins for heads. I gave one away to one of our skating lesson friends and the other to my dad. His toothless smile spoke a thousand words (he was in a bad car accident before I was born, in which the nerves in his gums were damaged and all of his teeth were removed). We even got cotton candy that day. Lord knows we didn't need anymore sugar.
My dad had a camera that he took everywhere with him—he often let us take photos on it. I loved using it in the skating rink because it meant I could use flash, so I took the opportunity to blind my dad with an up-close face shot.
We headed back home after going to our usual lunch and cheesecake for dessert (those were the days at Chick-fil-a!). Our dad was tired, so for the rest of the afternoon we laid on his bed and played Pokemon until dinner time.
After dinner and telling our grandparents about our day, our dad threw in our favorite Pokemon movie (the one with Entei acting as the little girl's father). What can I say? We were (and still kind of are) huge nerds when it came to Pokemon.
My dad was a smoker, and about 30 minutes into the movie he told us he was stepping out onto the porch and to knock when the movie was over. It was a cold November night—the screen door was covered with condensation. The movie still had about 90 minutes left, but we didn't think too much of it.
Before we knew it, the movie was over and it was time to get our dad to rewind the VHS tape and get us ready for bed. It was just a little before 9 PM. I knocked on the front door—no answer. From the kitchen, my grandmother told me not to open the screen door. They didn't live in the greatest neighborhood. Cupping my hands around my eyes like binoculars, I looked for any signs of dad—his cigarette light, the movement of a shadow.
"He may have gone to his car, go get dressed for bed and brush your teeth. I'll go out there for you," my grandmother said, my Papa snoring lightly on his recliner by the door. Reluctantly, Kelcie and I got ready for bed.
Our grandmother tucked us in and said she would bring our dad in when she got him inside. We started tickling and pinching each other to pass the time, throwing ourselves into a fit of giggles.
We heard the screen door open, then close. Quick footsteps walking through our room to our grandparents'. The small frame of my grandmother carrying a quilt as she hurried for the door. A loud snore, mumbled voices, the recliner creaking back to its original position. The screen door, our Papa hastily walking through our room. Kelcie and I remained silent, confused as to what was going on.
Our Papa's voice rung out in the silence, presumably on the phone.
"My son collapsed on the porch. Yes. We need an ambulance."
Our Papa had always been a trickster, Kelcie and I had been on the tail-end of his jokes and pranks since we could remember. We thought this was one of his jokes. His voice grew too quiet to hear. Kelcie held me close, both of us confused.
Red and blue lights streamed through the window, painting the wall adjacent to our bed. Kelcie gasped. Things were happening too fast. My memory is fuzzy for this part.
But I remember seeing my grandmother, her head in her hands, talking to a strange man who had a hand on her shoulder as if it was the only support my grandmother had from falling over. Kelcie and I stared at each other, then back at the scene in front of us. I briefly see a gurney being picked up into an ambulance, the red and blue lights making it difficult to see. I felt sick and ran to the bathroom, sneaking past my Papa in the dining room and locking the door behind me.
Heavy footsteps come down the hall towards our room, towards my sister. I sit on the floor with my ear pressed against the door.
"Where's your sister?" a man's voice spoke, his voice full of sympathy.
"When she comes out, make sure she joins you in here and stay in here, okay?"
I heard my Papa weeping from the kitchen as I left, another stranger seeming to console him.
We stayed in the room until our grandmother entered, a thousand questions ringing out into the room.
Through her tears, our grandmother hummed a hymn and said a prayer.
"It's time to sleep, girls."
"We'll talk in the morning, okay?"
Distressed and barely able to keep our eyes open, we fell asleep. Our questions were left unanswered.
A heart attack. Our church's pastor delayed his morning sermon to speak to Kelcie and I on the couch. Our dad was in heaven and he loved us very much. Kelcie cried quietly in our grandmother's arms, I sat beside her in shock, keeping my face straight as tears streamed down my face.
He passed away just three days shy of my sister's 10th birthday.
For the months following his funeral, we always imagined he was doing what he had dreamed for a long time—traveling the world and experiencing all of the things he'd ever wanted. We pictured him with his acoustic guitar, playing around the world. We couldn't believe he was gone.
This year will mark 12 years since my dad passed away. The pain hasn't left, the flashback as vivid as if it happened just last week. That being said, I have learned a lot in those 12 years without my dad... one of my best friends.
- The best memories are stored in the heart, not in the items attached to them.
- Even if they seem to be out against you, things happen for a reason. Losing my dad at such a young age taught me to take no time with family for granted—to live everyday like its our last.
- He may never physically be there to walk me down the aisle or congratulate me on certain accomplishments in my life, but he will always be in my heart. His laugh resonates through my body, his out-of-tune singing stuck on repeat in my mind.
Losing a loved one doesn't get better with time, but the memories we shared will always be something I cherish.
For those of you who have lost a loved one at any point in your life—I understand. I understand the first year, the first missed birthday and holidays. I remember the struggles of getting through Father's Day without letting your heart shatter. Hang in there. The pain may not dissipate but the despair will subside with time. They are still there, watching us. And it is up to us to tell their story.