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Living With Ghosts

When your parents don't want to be here

By Chelsea DelaneyPublished 3 years ago 4 min read
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Living With Ghosts
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

"I must still want to be here for some reason, though I don't know what it is."

I felt a shock of recognition as my father's words reached me from the hospital room, echoing the words I've pondered for years.

Last night his heart rate plummeted, three hundred miles away from me. He barely got to the phone to call 911 before passing out in his cramped trailer. By the time the ambulance got him to the hospital, his heart had slowed to a scary, stubborn, thirty beats a minute.

Except that I wasn't scared, at least not in the way that most adult children would be upon receiving such information. My dad will be 78 in a few weeks, and for the last ten years, he's practically lived at the hospital: lung cancer, skin cancer, broken leg, knee replacement, cataracts, and the list goes on.

But even before the falls, the midnight hospital calls, and the jokes about cute nurses, my father has never wanted to be here. He wasn't actively suicidal, but in my 42 years I can't remember a time where his foot touched the ground. There was joy in neither the ordinary or the extraordinary, ideas and plans never reached execution, everything was judged lacking against the golden past, and there was never any sense that he was learning or trying new things. He and my mom divorced when we were young, and he never once tried again at love.

I've spent my whole life wondering why. Was it the divorce? Was it the memories of war that he still refuses to discuss? Why do some people rebound and some people resign themselves to being ghosts--dead in spirit while alive in body? Why does he stay if he's so deeply disappointed by all of it? What happens when a ghost must teach a child about living?

It wasn't always this way. In the last five years I've started to engage his storytelling talents as a way for us to meet that doesn't center on endless monologues of despair. I've listened to the tales for hours in fascination. Summer porch jamborees growing up in West Virginia, jumping out of airplanes in paratrooper school at 17, selling Native American jewelry across the American Southwest in the 70's, camping in the high desert during winter, meeting Jimmy Stewart, and shutting down the bars in Breckenridge before it was ever a haven for ski elite, and was just home to "a handful of ski bums and some really good coke."

My dad was Forrest Gump, but I didn't grow up with that man. It makes me furious and sad and confused when I think about it. Did that part of him die? Is he held hostage somewhere within his current being? Sometimes I talk to that piece of him, like it was standing next to me. I say to this shadow:

"Look how amazing Niagara Falls is dad!"

"Are you frickin' kidding me dad?" when I camp on Mt. Lassen in November and it's sixteen degrees at night.

"These red cliffs are amazing dad!" as I drive through New Mexico.

I do not startle anymore at the latest health report, because I have been practicing my father's death for years. I will still grieve when he goes, of course I will, but I will not have to restructure my life around his absence. I've released him a thousand times already, and wished him more peace in whatever comes next.

The gifts mingle with the costs in understanding these things. I chew every piece of joy thoroughly, be it large or small. I leave my sorrows before I'm done expressing them, so that they don't swallow me. I experiment. I threw the baby out with the bathwater way more often than I'd like to admit. I reflect. I won't stop reflecting, obsessively analyzing a moment for how I could learn MORE. I take chances. I'm frozen by the idea that I may take the wrong chance, missing something that will keep me here and alive. I follow through. I direct my tunnel vision towards the product, completely forgetting the process.

There is no right way to understand and relate to your parents as an adult--they are an amalgam of myth and memory for most of us. But when they are ghosts, the complication grows. At some point you must speak to your living ghosts the same way you speak to the departed. Thank them for their gifts, forgive them for their faults, and draw the boundary lines around how much they are allowed to influence your current endeavors. This is much, much easier said than done, but it is key to the work of authentic living.

I choose to be here. I choose to wake up every morning and place my feet, gently but firmly, on the ground. Here may be complicated or simple, welcome or unwelcome, but it's where the gifts are.

grief
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About the Creator

Chelsea Delaney

Life is weird, write about it, paint about it, dance about it, and sing about it too. Use every language in your arsenal to sculpt the world you want to live in. Writer, educator, artist, and creative midwife--this is what I do.

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