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The Grief of Losing a Father Figure

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

I once read a quote where it said that life is painful but extraordinary as well.

I have always liked that quote; in fact, it felt ritual to post each year on social media.

The last time I ever expected to write the following would be a few years from now. Well, many years to be exact. Over the weekend, my stepfather passed away. He lost his five-plus month battle with stage four stomach cancer. He was 60 years old, a man who still had a life to live.

My mother advised me over the phone that early morning–the call to break the news to me–that Al was sound asleep. He was in no pain.

It was what most of us, including my mother, wanted. None of us wanted Al to be in pain, especially when we were informed just two months earlier that the doctors were unable to stop ongoing bleeding with the growing tumor in his stomach. Al had two choices. He could proceed with chemo and return to the hospital every few weeks for a blood transfusion due to the stomach tumor bleeding. The other was to stop treatment completely and be placed in hospice.

Al made the brave decision to return home and be with his family. He lived with my mother and his two daughters (or my stepsisters). At the time, like many of Al’s loved ones, I was enraged and confused too. For a while, I thought there were other treatments or a way for the doctors to surgically shrink the tumor in order to perform a surgical removal. I mean, they had to. Al was always a fighter.

But the irony with cancer is we do not get chose when it comes to recovery. That was the reality when it came to Al’s deteriorating health.

Al always echoed his concern of being at the hospital, while away from family, and something bad happened. Including death. He wanted to be home with people he loved. It clicked over time — that was his worse fear, to be away from the love of his life (my mother) and his baby girl (Lindsay).

The reality was difficult to accept, especially when I struggled to drive over to see Al, my mother, and my step-sisters. When my mother sent out a group text of Al’s treatment coming to an end and for him to go into hospice, I immediately called out of work and saw them. The drive there was nerve-racking and I felt sick to my stomach, petrified if I had to pull over to throw up or be consumed by anxiety and panic attacks. Fortunately, neither had occurred.

To be honest what kept me focused on getting to the house was repeating, “Go there for Al. Go there for Al.” So, I did.

As soon as I arrived, a truck was already parked in the driveway of their home. It was hospice delivering equipment. The rest was sort of a haze. All I remember was my mother walking the aide outside and greeting me. Then, we walked into the house together. She told me something around the lines of not being scared when I saw Al.

In the living room, Al was sitting in his favorite LaZ-Boy chair. So far, he appeared to be “himself.” He was in the middle of filing his taxes. He was talking and answering phone calls, as well as surfing the web. Why? It was actually he who wanted to get a jumpstart on his taxes from the year before. However, it felt like the elephant in the room for a bit while Lindsay and my mother helped Al with his paperwork. I decided to stay a few extra hours when my mother informed me that hospice would be stopping by in a bit. At the time, Evelyn was at work.

That was a bigger punch in the gut and, I am certain, it was the same for my mother, Lindsay, and my other stepsister, Evelyn. I forgot names. I forgot what time hospice stopped by. But it was clear when the coordinator began asking Al and our questions about his final wishes. While I sat on the couch, next to Lindsay and across from Al, we listened as he declined for anyone to perform CPR for him if that time ever came. My mother, Lindsay, and I were silent until, Al broke the ice and flat out asked us, “Right, girls?”

We agreed. I stayed as late as I could. On my way home, at some point, I bawled my eyes out.

Little did I know, at the time, Al was accepting his new reality or fate–something that my therapist guided me through in the weeks to follow.

At the time, I was unaware of my own denial. That was something I learned of my own denial in the weeks to come, regardless of how busy life got. Sure, my work schedule changed and film and book projects kept me busier than usual but, the longer I was away from Al and the house, I was consumed with guilt. I saw Al once more after the day when Hospice dropped off equipment and the coordinator visited. But each week, I dreaded the arrival of another weekend. The truth was simple: I was terrified to see Al and accept the reality of him never getting better.

In-between the two to three weeks of not seeing him, my mother, or my stepsisters, I felt like a bigger asshole. Whenever my mother and I spoke on the phone, she was emotional and divulged that Al was not going to live much longer. I retorted that it was possible for him to get better, something that a few of us strongly felt for weeks. But my mother expressed her truth about Al’s state of eating fewer meals and sleeping more, especially in his final week.

Ultimately, my therapist called me out on my denial the week of seeing Al for the last time. She informed me that the longer someone avoids something, the pain will only go up. During this session, I wanted to scream and argue against her but sadly, it slowly began to click. The longer I went without seeing Al, the more anxious and stressed out I felt. The giveaway was experiencing shoulder pain and tension just days before seeing my stepdad. I felt disappointed in myself. My therapist was right but at the time, I was scared.

I was not ready to accept.

Later that week, I made the trip down to the house. For the first time, I met two of Al’s caregivers. He was happy to see him and I was too. Immediately, I went over to Al and gave him a hug. I apologized and told him something like, “Sorry, I didn’t come sooner.”

It was all I thought of at that moment. But something I always admired of Al, once someone was there — it’s all that mattered.

Fortunately, my final memories of Al were beautiful and positive.

For the next few hours that day, I ran some errands with my mom, watched movies, and overheard banter and chit-chat between everyone in the household. Al enjoyed snacking on sweets and sugar. He also picked up a newish habit and was smoking a vape with 5% tobacco. Some were not too pleased with his recent intake of just sweets and, then, tobacco. But Al always smiled, as he did, and said he just simply had a sweet tooth.

Before leaving the house, I asked Al what type of candy he wanted the next time I saw him. It was between Boston Baked Beans and Australian Licorice. Even at his frailest, his eyes lit up and he requested Boston Baked Beans. I told him how about both. He smiled. We embraced twice. I was a bit terrified when I felt how brittle and thinner he was. But at that moment, I had to remind myself that cancer altered his physical appearance but never his attitude.

In those moments, I was relieved to be there with Al, my mother, my stepsisters, and the caregivers. It was what I needed, and I know Al did too, in order to heal. It was all an eye-opener and proof — Al was living his life to the fullest with no regrets.

Al died six days later after my visit.

It was terrible. Two nights before his passing, I struggled to sleep. I stayed up passed midnight back-to-back, trying to watch TV and binge-eating sweets. I was super nervous and overall, worried. I thought to myself that Al could not die. He had people to be there for. He needed to be there for Lindsay’s graduation or Evelyn’s wedding. It was very difficult for me to not go down old habits and wonder why the good people appear to go first.

It was never a secret, especially when I publicly shared my childhood to young adulthood, as well as the aftermath of Jeff’s passing just years ago, in projects: I wanted people such as my abusers to switch places with Jeff or Al, aka my biological dad and older brother. I cut ties with them more than 10 years ago after confronting them about their abuse and when my biological dad relapsed from alcohol.

For years, I suffered at the hands of their abuse, something that I never went into full detail with either Jeff or Al. In therapy, I learned that one’s past never defines their future, let alone are there pre-requisites when it comes to sharing your trauma and overall story. For me, I felt that time would sometime arrive where I felt ready to tell, both, Jeff and Al of the details.

Often, I wonder if it was best for neither of my two father figures to know.

**Sidenote – I am forever talking about this in therapy; it is something I continue to work on.***

On the morning of Al’s passing, I woke up with 6 am to seven missed calls from my mother. By the time she picked up the phone, I already knew her answer. She choked up. We both discussed how it was best for Al to go in his sleep, without any pain. He was at peace. Al once told us that he felt best when he was either falling asleep; it made him relaxed.

Fortunately, I was able to cry for the first time on the phone with my mother. She choked up and agreed with me that the situation sucks. Cancer sucks.

I decided to visit the house that day, along with my partner. So far, there have been many ups and downs before a funeral is set. Just taking it one day at a time like many loved ones of Al.

The irony with one’s passing is not only learning more about others, and both their fortunate and unfortunate intensions, but of yourself. Al’s passing got me to open up more to my partner and vice versa with him. For the first time, sharing personal details of the past and worries about the future felt calm and not traumatizing. I would like to think a lot had to do with, both, Jeff and Al being present. I would like to think they were telling me that it was OK.

I would be lying to myself if I said what was next. A lot continues to make me anxious and scared right now.

First and foremost, I am dreading Al’s funeral because I do not want to see people I care about cry. I am also not ready to see Al or say goodbye to him. I am, more so, annoyed by the idea of running into toxic individuals at the services–people like my biological dad and older brother–and giving them peace of my mind. Let’s be honest, who does not have these wishes.

But something I continue to tell myself, and probably will forever, is this is about Al. His passing is my time to reflect on the beautiful relationship I developed with him. It is about remembering him as the man who lived many lives and turned his life around. It is about the fortunate situations he experienced, including the five and a half years of being with my mother. Al was never a traveler, but he traveled with my mother to various cities and countries. This is about Al and the third chance of having a wonderful role model and father figure in life.

That is something I am forever grateful for.

I would like to think that both Jeff and Al are hanging out in Heaven. Hope will continue to move me forward.

Originally published: July 5, 2022
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