June 9th is always a bump in the road for me. Sometimes the bump is a gentle reminder; it passes with quiet acknowledgement and private thoughts. Other times it throws me akimbo––my arms invisibly flailing, my legs shaky, my thoughts tangled and unpredictable. But June 9th never goes unnoticed.
My father was killed in a car accident on June 9th, 1973. I was ten and half years old. Ask me where I was, when it happened and I can tell you in absolute detail, though I would only later circle back in time and know where I stood, when the person I loved most died. Ask me the moment I was told, and that is forever seared in my memory. It changed me forever; it changed my life––the trajectory, the narrative, the outcome. I am who I am, for better or worse, because of June 9th.
I think that most people feel the same way when it comes to traumatic loss. None of us get out unscathed. Some are “luckier,” and experience loss in a timely, natural way. But at Hospice I’ve seen seventy-year-old “children” sit beside ninety-year-old parents, bereft. There’s no age limit on loss.
But, children process loss so very differently than adults––I got my Masters in Social Work, and studied childhood grief, to validate my experience. To make sense of my wiring. I excelled in graduate school to dig deeper and understand how one day, June 9th, could so enormously change me. I studied hard, not always realizing how much of my determination was to save my own life. It wasn’t just that trauma, I’ve written about this before, so I won’t today, but it was big enough to be the predominant life event that my internal compass turns toward. Again, for better or worse.
I’m working on a novel. True to cliché, this first book (if it becomes one) will be recognizable to some. It’s not a memoir. But it’s not entirely fiction either. There will be those who nod and say “I remember this…” This is my friend’s story. This is Dawn’s story. It is and it isn’t. In reality, there are so many things I will never really know. There are very few people who knew my father, who are willing to dig in and fill in blanks that every child searches for.
As children, we are predestined to make sense of our parents and our families. We leave. We fly out of the metaphorical nest, realer than any metaphor I know, and we seek ourselves. We strive to be like or different from our parents. To repeat or avoid. We see our mother’s eyes, our father’s smile, in the mirror. We hear his anger, her scorn, her laugh, his compassion. We seek to figure out who we are, by examining from whence we came.
To lose a parent at an early age, that opportunity is changed forever. But like the salmon returning to the stream where it was born, we still seek answers. I don’t really know what kind of jokes my dad liked. Would I chide him for Dad Jokes? I don’t know if he was short-tempered or patient. I don’t know if sang along to songs. Would he protest in the streets, or would we be at odds over politics? Is my laughter like his? Do my eyes echo his expression? I have only a few photos to examine––I have studied them all: his hand is on my leg here; my hand is on his. He is happy in this one; pensive in this other. There are no more than ten photos; he died before we recorded every moment. He is frozen as a young teenager, skiing; as a high school graduate; a young man in the military; a young man getting married; a young father; a daddy with three small children. He is frozen as a thirty-three year old man, who was killed on June 9th.
Someone who loves me told me that they believe we should focus on how someone lived, not how they died. We should celebrate their birthday, not fixate on the day they died. It stuck with me. Honestly, it stung, not the intention. I can move beyond the words, well, because I know they love me. I could argue that I didn’t have enough birthdays to remember those moments of celebration. As children, we are reminded to make cards and say happy birthday. I notice my father’s birthday each year, but June 9th comes back vividly, because it shook my insides and forced me to walk differently, talk differently, laugh, cry, and answer differently. As a child, that stays with you.
I am struck by people who really don’t get it. Childhood trauma changes wiring. What I understood then, is not what I know now. Of course, we heal. I believe that above all else. I believe in healing. I would not be as strong and resilient if I hadn’t lost my father the way I did. I believe that. I might not be as insecure and anxious either. I might not worry so much about saying the wrong thing, or losing affections. I get it. I have a Masters in this. I have worked at hospice and connected with others, because grief is something I understand on a molecular level.
On June 9th, each year, I lose my father again. If the bump is gentle, I say a quiet I love you, still––and go about my day. If it’s a tougher year––hello, 2020––I might find myself crying, very suddenly. I don’t sit and wallow. I don’t will myself to remember. My father is ever-present. He is here with me. I know this, regardless of what others believe. But sometimes, on June 9th, I look in the mirror and feel a sharper pang that there is so much I don’t know. That the face that stares back at me may or may not be like his. I lost my father forty-seven years ago.
I lost my father, again, yesterday.
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