what happens 16 years after your dad dies

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I have this place I can go when I’m missing my dad. It’s our family farm—the place he grew up, the place I spent all my Saturdays from birth to leaving home, the place I got married eight years after he died, the place we all come back to every year to remember. You, reading this, probably don’t have this kind of place. Most people don’t. We’re lucky.

I’m sitting here now, on October 17, sixteen years after he died. I’ll describe it for you.

Today is cloudy and beautiful—grey and stormy chalky blue. The wind is making ripples on the pond, and I can hear a fish flop every now and again. The leaves are just starting to change, just enough that we can legitimately call this time fall. The grass is short, thanks to my brother who bushhogged a few days ago. I probably walked through some poison ivy between my truck and the pier, but the grass is short enough that I can’t tell where it is.

I’m on a small pier my dad and uncle built when we were kids. It’s a little ramshackle now, but I’ll be damned if the thing isn’t still standing—still safe for me to sit on if I stay near the center. The boards are mildewed green from the Florence and Michael rains, but they’ll dry out. There’s still this one pylon that sticks up twice as far as the rest. They never cut it off. I don’t know why.

It’s strange to think of these boards in the pier begin placed by someone who isn’t here anymore, to picture in my mind his thick hands holding nails and hammering them in.

All these years later, all these loved ones later, I still don’t understand how someone is here, and then they are gone.

I was not with my dad when he died. It was sudden, a heart attack in the night. I had moved back to North Carolina three weeks earlier, 27 years old and out of sorts.

When I finally picked up the phone that morning and my mother told me the news, my then-partner ran into the living room straight out of deep sleep. He later told me the way I screamed made him think there was a dead body right there on the floor. Funny. I also threw the phone, and to this day, I am ashamed that I didn’t take better care of my mother in that moment.

I was in shock. When someone dies suddenly, the trauma is different. Not better, not worse. Or maybe both better and worse. My husband and I have talked about this many times, since our fathers’ deaths—both when we were in our late 20s—were so different from one another. For me, the shock was almost physical. For years, I thought if I could go inside that rental house I lived in back then, I would find pieces of myself littering the floor where I stood. I lived there for several more months, but I may have missed something, you know.

Shock will make you do strange things. I took the longest shower of my life that morning. It is odd, I think, that I took a shower at all. That I didn’t grab my shit and rush to Mama’s house like the rest of everyone we knew. I took a shower. The longest shower of my life.

My sister and brother didn’t have the luxury of screaming and showering. They were both in public places—at a first real job out of college, and in the halls outside a college lecture class. By the time I arrived at the house I grew up in, there so many people in the yard that I panicked and told my boyfriend to keep driving. He didn’t.


I’m not down at the pond anymore. I had to pee, so I’ve relocated to the porch of an old, falling-apart house. My dad was trying to fix it up when he died. We were all too young and too traumatized to finish it. My brother just got the bathroom working this year. Sixteen years later. It feels like a little miracle.

I need to leave soon. I’ve got other stops to make: the cemetery, lunch with my mother, picking up our kiddo, getting some supper in her, putting her in the bed at a reasonable time for school tomorrow. My husband is in the middle of tech week for a show.

I’m trying to close this writing, and I’m trying to understand why I’m writing it. What I’m trying to say. I’m sad today. I miss my daddy. I miss him more than I have in many years, and that feels strange. Regressive. Childish. I feel like a child actually. A child who has lost her father, instead of a grown-up woman of 43 whose dad died 16 years ago.

I feel vulnerable.

Now, unlike when I was 27, I am at a time of life when many people I know are losing parents. More and more of my friends have joined what my husband and I call the Dead Dads Club. Fewer and fewer are distressed at hearing “Dead Dads Club.” Saying your parent is dead (instead of passed away or gone) seems to be most upsetting to people whose parents are still alive. For people whose dads or other close loved ones are dead, the plainspoken-ness feels sort of right, but when your dad is alive, “Dead Dads Club” seems a little crazy.

Maybe that’s why I’m writing this. Why I’m publishing something so much more stream-of-consciousness, in many ways more intimate, than usual. For fellow members of the Dead Dads Club—and for those of you who will eventually join us.

Because I sound a little off when I read back over this. A little depressed. A little Too Much. A little it’s-been-sixteen-years-and-you’re-still-in-this-place?

I can assure you, I’m not always in this place. In fact, I’m rarely in this very place anymore. I have a very good life.

But I also know that when I was in this place all the time, for the year after, and when I am in this place from time to time now, what I’ve written here barely touches the nerve. I know about the weeks I spent sitting in the floorboard of my truck while my boyfriend did the grocery shopping because I couldn’t bear to randomly run into friends going about their lives like normal. I know about the way I smelled my dad’s suit hanging in a back closet at my mom’s house for over a decade, even though the smell of him had faded away. I know about the times I have laid down right on top of his grave.

I happen to have had a father I was very close to, and who I believe contributed quiet and hardworking love to this world. Of course, when your 55-year-old beloved father dies suddenly, it rocks you.

But I also know people who had way less-than-ideal parents, parents whose own struggles caught my friends in webs that are hard to break free from. Friends whose parents have died after long health struggles as reasonably old human beings. Friends who barely knew their parent before that parent died.

And still, the death of those parents has been disorienting in a deep way.

If that disorientation comes back and surprises you one day sixteen years later, you are not alone.

I write about my father or his passing most years at this time. Here are some other pieces about him: when daddy comes back, invitations from my dad, still not here after all these yearsthe parent who remainsi don't hate october 17but i'm not too fond of october 18--with apologies to ma place called farmthis year.