Before you read this, you should know…that this post in not for the faint of heart, but the story is true, and I think the message is important.
Nine years ago today…it was a clear Sunday morning, and Brian and I were getting ready to attend a good friend’s baby dedication. As we were about to leave the house, I got a phone call from my mom, she said only three words, “Get Here Now!”
We raced to the hospital where my Dad was currently admitted. They had rushed him into the ICU…now normally under these circumstances, I don’t believe the family would have been let inside those doors…and looking back, if I could change one thing, I would never have walked into that room.
Instead, I wish my last vision of him was on the night we had our last conversation…where we were laughing, and he kept asking Brian and I if we had a secret to tell. He said that we looked like the “cat that ate the canary”…he thought we were pregnant. We were not, but it was a fun conversation, because what he didn’t know was that Brian and I had just talked about starting a family. The last time I saw my Dad, he was smiling and laughing…I hugged him tightly and told him I loved him before I left him that night. I wish that was my last memory of him.
We met my Mom at the ICU doors and the nurse buzzed us in…the next 19 minutes of my life will forever be burned into my retinas. As our family stood there, six doctors and nurses rotated around my dad trying everything in their power to save his life…they would say, “he’s gone,” and then “he’s back,” and then “we lost him,” and then, “no wait, he’s coming back.”
For 19 minutes my Dad fought hard, so hard…and for 19 minutes I screamed at God in my head to just take him if it was his time. See, I won’t get into the details of how my Dad died, but it wasn’t peaceful…it was graphic. I now know what people mean when they say that the light leaves a person’s eyes as they pass. I helplessly held onto my mom and sister until finally the head doctor called it. The nurse called out the time, and the doctor looked at us and said, “I’m so sorry.”
After we left the ICU, I felt numb, as if I was walking outside of my body. I was talking and hearing everything and everyone around me, but I wasn’t really there. The nurse came back out and asked us if we wanted to see the body…my eyes got big, and I thought…”NO! I just saw enough.” But we went anyway, and when I touched my Dad, I yanked my hand back because his body already felt so cold.
My Dad and I had a LOT of life talks growing up. I was always a bit of an old soul, so when I started to ask my Dad about life and death…there was one thing he always made VERY clear. He would say, “Our body is just a vessel, our soul is who we are, and when we leave our vessel…our soul goes to heaven and we watch over our loved ones for the rest of their lives.” As I stood and looked at this body that was my Dad, but so clearly was NOT my Dad anymore, I heard his voice saying those words in my head as if he was speaking them into my ear.
For the next week, my family ran on autopilot, each of us dealing with the loss in our own way…and at the center…our biggest concern was always our mom. The funeral was a blur. As I said the eulogy, I looked out at a sea of faces…a sea of faces that had so much love for our family, and I will always be eternally grateful for all of the people who sat in those pews. My words could never do “thank you” justice.
As the relatives left town and everyone went back to their lives, when things started to calm down…that’s when the full weight of what had happened really hit me. If you have ever lost someone, you know that it’s the quiet moments, when you are alone with your thoughts, that the emotions hit you like a semi-truck going 150 miles an hour right into your heart. It’s tough…so tough.
The emotions, the loss, the permanent change in our family, establishing our new normal…all of this was hard and scary, but nothing prepared me for what was waiting for me three weeks after my Dad passed away. And I will admit, I am actually afraid to put what happened into words, because part of me is scared that if I give it “life” it might happen again.
They started out small at first, I would fall asleep and dream about Dad. In the dream he would be smiling, and then his face would change into a demon or contort into a corpse…and then I would wake up. But then the nightmares became uncontrollable…Dad standing over me covered in blood, the blood dripping on my face…Dad crawling up and onto the foot of the bed missing parts of his body…Dad screaming wide-mouthed while his head shook violently back and forth.
One time, during a nightmare, I “woke up” and clung to Brian. He held me and stroked my hair while saying, “You’re okay…you’re okay…” Then his voice started to change, and when I looked up at Brian his face wasn’t his own, but instead the hollowed out face of the dead. I started to scream, until the real Brian finally got me to wake up. He held me and stroked my hair, and just like in my dream he said, “You’re okay…you’re okay…” I jumped up and pushed him away, and when I realized I was really awake, I lost it.
I was stuck in my own version of Inception, waking up from dreams, but not really waking up from dreams…until I would break the void by screaming somewhere in my conscious, “WAKE-UP TARA! IT’S NOT REAL!” When I woke, I would always be drenched with sweat, and a lot of the time, my face was covered in tears.
As if the nightmares weren’t enough, sleep paralysis started to occur…for those of you that don’t know, sleep paralysis is when your brain wakes up, but your body has not (often in nightmares when your self-conscious makes you wake up to flee the nightmare). I am sure there is a lot more science to it, but I don’t care to know the details. What I do know is that it is absolutely the scariest feeling ever!
Only a few people know about my nightmares…but no one, except Brian, knows how bad it really got. I would cry at night, because I was scared to go to sleep…scared to death to go to sleep…like Freddy Krueger was coming to get me. I clung to Brian as if I was saran wrap, good thing he can sleep in pretty much any condition.
Me, being me, I researched and found out that a LOT of people who lose a loved one have these same issues…horrible, uncontrollable nightmares years after the person has passed. This didn’t make me feel any better. After 6 months of nightly terrors, I felt helpless. I couldn’t keep operating day-to-day like this, I was exhausted.
So one night, as I tried to resist the urge to fall asleep, I whispered out loud, “Daddy-O, please help me.” When sleep overtook me, I found myself inside the hospital…the one Dad passed away in. And somewhere in my conscious I remember thinking, “Here we go again.” In the dream, I was looking for my Dad…or rather, I was looking for his body parts. I was with Brian, and I kept telling him that we had to put Dad back together. I found Dad’s hands in the hallway and his feet in a random hospital room. Then I turned a corner and saw THE ROOM. I dreaded going in there, because I knew what I was going to find. I took a deep breath, pulled open the door, and stepped inside. There was a body laying on a bed covered up by a white sheet. The body slowly began to sit up. I could hear ragged raspy breathing coming from underneath the sheet…and then the sheet started to slip down. I knew that I was about to see my Dad’s dead body once again. Just as the sheet was about to fall away, the scene evaporated…and instantly I was somewhere else.
I looked around confused. I was inside what looked like a beautiful restaurant with large glass windows on the far wall. Outside the windows, the only thing visible were clouds and stars. The restaurant was empty except for the far left corner…sitting at a two-top table with a small lantern in the center…was a man…it was my Dad.
I walked across the room and when he looked up…I froze. I had never seen him look so healthy. He looked at me and smiled…the radiance in his smile reaching all the way up to his twinkling eyes. We stared at each other for a few seconds until I broke the silence, “Dad?” He nodded his head and said, “Well hey there Sunshine, I need you to have a seat.” I sat down across from him, and we both kind of chuckled quietly. Out of nowhere, a waitress appeared. She walked over to our table and said, “Can I get you anything?” Dad looked at her and said, “Just a diet coke…I need to talk to my daughter.” She nodded and quickly walked away. My Dad looked at me and said, “No more.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I know what’s been going on…and I’m telling you, no more…it stops tonight.”
I nodded my head…and he just smiled. I said, “I miss you so much.” He said, “I know, I miss you too.” Then he seemed to look at something in the distance and said, “I have to go now, but everything is going to be okay.” I again nodded my head. He said, “I love you Tara-Rara.” Tears started to well-up in my eyes, and I said, “I love you too.” He got up and gave me a hug, and then he walked away…as he walked away he looked back over his shoulder, gave me a slight nod and smiled. And then I woke up. I brushed the tears off my face and sat up in bed. For the first time in six months, I wasn’t afraid…I felt calm and safe.
After that night…I never had another nightmare, I never experienced sleep paralysis again, and nine years later…I still haven’t.
And year after year, my Dad “showed up” in ways that you may never believe…unless you were there. Like the time our son fell down a set of brick stairs, and the whole family saw what looked like someone flip him in mid air. I ran across the yard and somehow he landed right into my arms…none of us could figure out how he flipped the way he did, just missing his little face…and there was not a scratch on him.
My oldest started having conversations with his Grandpa when he was three, he would tell us things that would give us the chills. One morning, he came down and said that Grandpa told him that me and Grandma were Robinettes…and that we were his family. My son had never been told what my maiden name was…we were still working on learning everyone’s first names in our family (you know, instead of Grandma, Memaw, etc.)
When you lose someone, your life is never the same. You will always have a new normal from that point on. There will always be a “before” and “after” chapter to your life. You will always miss them, this is one thing that time does not heal. You adjust and get used to living life without them…you get married, you have kids, your kids have kids, everything changes…but your love remains the same.
After Dad passed away, for years, I avoided talking about him in casual conversation. A lot of the time, I did it, because I wanted to avoid making other people feel awkward or sorry for me. BUT that’s not right, you should talk about the people you have lost…because that’s how they live on, their memory lives on through you. So it’s your responsibility to laugh at the silly things they did, to share with others about the time you had with them (even if some of those times were tough times)…they are no longer here to live, so you are their only life line.
When I meet a person who has lost someone, and I must add that all losses are different and everyone processes loss differently…but when I meet someone who has lost a loved one…there is always this moment of understanding. There is an unspoken understanding that we are part of a club that no one wants to be a part of, there is an unspoken bond.
The picture in this blog is of me holding my Dad’s guitar…that’s his yard hat, that’s his first record, those are his picks, and travel tags. These items are certainly not the most extravagant things my Dad owned, but they were his, so to me…they are the most extravagant things that I own.
If you have lost someone…first, I am so sorry that you and your loved ones have had to go through such an awful experience. But, second, I want you to know that they are still there. I know in my heart they are, I HAVE TO believe they are. You are the unfortunate recipient of a Guardian Angel…it’s not something that anyone would ever want…but I rest easier in life knowing that he’s out there, looking down on us. My Dad is the Guardian Angel I never wanted, but if I had to pick someone to watch over my family, there isn’t a better man for the job.
My best, and always…