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How Reality TV Helped Me During the Grieving Process

When my dad died, we didn’t technically sit shiva. Instead, we sat on the couch watching Dancing with The Stars Juniors in an indecisive silence for four to five days. My mom, brother and my aunt. It felt like forever. I remember turning it on so we didn’t have to think about it. Drowning out our profound and palpable grief with the exploitation of child actors, Stevie Wonder’s son and Sarah Palin’s grandkid.

My dad died from Parkinson’s in October of 2018, although I thought he would die in surgery back in 2013 when suddenly he was calling me on speakerphone with my mom on their way down to Denver for a “quick cardio check-up” his cardiologist had encouraged. My dad was 78 at the time, and though we thought he was in excellent health for his age, because all other markers pointed to this assumption, lab work and CT scans showed he was in dire need for an immediate triple bypass heart surgery.

My brother flew in on the last plane from Los Angeles and I drove to pick him up from the airport late at night. Picking him up was an added nightmare, having to circle the terminal waiting for him to pop out where I told him specifically to go. But his phone died and so I circled the airport for a solid 30 minutes, reeling in the anger and sadness and overwhelming feeling of premature grief.

I had been driving to and from the hospital from Boulder to Denver every day and night to be with my parents. It was time and my mom, pretending like she could control everything, knew whatever happened next was out of her hands. It would be fine. My mom, brother and I kissed him goodbye and each squeezed him tightly before they took him away to have open-heart surgery. A 78-year-old surviving triple bypass? Even though my dad was the picture of health, I thought, there was no way. I was sure of it, this was actually goodbye.

I had spent my entire life anticipating it, waiting for his death, anxiously gripping onto everyone’s fragile mortality as evidence that it inevitably had to happen. I had started crying about my dad dying 14 years prior, the day I read the first of many retirement home pamphlets that would come through the mail when I was younger. We were in the waiting room for over 13 hours, for a surgery where they had assured us it usually was an eight hour procedure, max. (Of course, it lasted longer.)

We had no update until they closed down the main surgical waiting room and sent us to a hallway situated outside of the ICU to wait. Still no update. I don’t remember any of us talking about being scared, but we were. Cellularly. None of us were hungry or thirsty or tired or energetic, I think we just were. I think the three of us just existed near one another, with no real expectations or energy left. We spent the entire day watching families sigh of relief, or be led away elsewhere to be told something else much more severe. We were the last ones left and then we were the only ones in the hallway.

I thought, “This is ridiculous. Something must have gone wrong.” But then someone finally came to get us: he had survived! He had a breathing tube and every other wire and IV you could wrap around his skinny, shaking, limp body. They told us it would be scary to see him like this, and that watching his recovery would be hard as well. But he wasn’t dead. He had a bouquet of balloons tied around the corner of his hospital bed and when he could finally open his eyes to see us, he smiled. We smiled, or at least I know I did. It hadn’t been goodbye yet. I wish I would have taken this as an obvious opportunity for a redo, but retrospect does nothing but stir up wishes and unfulfillable desires.

Now the day was actually here. He was dead from Parkinson’s. He no longer was twitching lifelessly in a body his soul had departed weeks ago, his nervous system fighting itself as it shut down. His white Hanes undershirt thinly veiling his emaciated and bone-dry leathery body.

So rather than replay that vivid morning, we binge watched Dancing with the Stars Juniors silently and smiled. And cried. And smiled. And tried to decide what to order for takeout, but none of us were hungry and our options sounded gross were and limited. Food wasn’t a priority. Nothing was. We had no priorities.

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Our windows were all open, but the air felt stale for days. Our butts making deep imprints in the couch cushions as we gushed over the cuteness of famous little 8 year olds doing the jitterbug on TV to a song from the early 2000s. It was funny and had nothing to do with anything and so we kept watching it. We watched every single episode, sometimes even singing along to the music. Or even commenting occasionally on how Honey Boo Boo was notably bad.

My dad’s Parkinson’s was diagnosed two years after his surgery in 2015, but the doctor said judging by the progression, he had actually been living with it for about the last 15 years. 15 years. I was in first grade 15 years ago, I thought the first time I heard it. He’s been this way basically my entire life. I felt such anguish and anger for him. How did we not know sooner? How could we make it easier even though we knew it would only get much, much harder? Why him?

Thousands of questions with no answers, but rather answered by intense floods of energy, emotions and reflection. Did that explain every other issue we had ever had? Like the time I snuck out so he called the cops because he was afraid I had been kidnapped? Nope. He just really, truly cared about me. None of that mattered now. Through this, I realized, answers are technically subjective and there were none in existence that I could grasp onto. I suggested things and encouraged my parents to follow the doctors instructions, so the disease would progress slower, giving them CBD products I smuggled across the Pacific Ocean, only for them to not try.

I knew when my dad died, an undiscovered part of myself would die too. Because I don’t think I was given enough time with him. Unfairly, I think we would’ve found out we had too much in common. Debilitating anxiety, dislike for large dogs, oatmeal raisin cookies, punching bags, our ongoing inner strife. Our otherness and loneliness. Our madness. All alive in me still today, but not in the same way if I could have shared them with him. I’d like to believe they would all be less heavy.

I turned on Dancing With The Stars Jr. because I knew it was what we needed. My mom, brother and myself. We needed Hollywood: lights, cameras, action! Costumes and all kinds of celebrity. We needed a break from the real world and found it in a children’s ballroom competition. Coincidentally, my dad loved to dance and so did I. We both knew we had that in common. So there we were, inhaling each routine like oxygen, when I saw Stevie Wonder sitting in the audience, cheering his dancing son on, that’s when I knew.

That special, unconditional, unwavering, enthusiastic love and support for my life from someone else had ended. I had been a child pretending to be an adult for so long within a support system that encouraged me to fail and in fact loved me harder for it. But now I was just actually an adult and the only one left in my cheering section.

Getty image by SurfUpVector

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