I never much liked October to begin with. As a kid, I hated the fall—the temperature drops, it gets darker earlier, and the leaves fall off the trees. I know a lot of people love this time of year, but for me it’s always been depressing. And then October 3, 2002 happened, and since then I’ve had a damn good reason for my annual autumn blues.
15 years ago today, my dad died. I was 19, in my second year of college, and completely unprepared for the ways that night would change my life.
He had been diagnosed with lung cancer five months earlier. We knew it was bad—stage IV lung cancer had (and still has, 15 years later) an abysmal survival rate. But we did our best to keep our hopes up. The first round of chemotherapy showed some slight progress, and in some ways my dad was still a lot like himself. He still cracked sarcastic jokes, and when we moved that summer, he stubbornly insisted on moving furniture that was way too heavy for a cancer patient to lift.
But as much as we tried to stay optimistic, it was obvious as the summer progressed that his health was worsening. After a lot of tough conversations, I decided to go back to school to start my second year at college. To stay home would have felt like an admission that he wasn’t going to get better, and none of us were prepared to do that yet. I still regret that choice sometimes—not being there meant that I missed my dad’s last lucid days, but a selfish part of me feels relieved to have missed an excruciatingly difficult month as he weakened to the point of breaking him arm just by attempting to sit up in bed. I feel guilty that my mother and sister were left as his caretakers, while I had the option of escaping into college life. My last conversation with my dad was a phone call while I was getting ready to go out on a Saturday night.
I went home at the end of September, planning to stay the weekend to celebrate my sister’s birthday. My dad was in the hospital and had been for a few weeks, but I was still holding tight to the naive belief that he could get better. When I arrived, my mom sat me and my sister down to tell us that wasn’t what was happening. She didn’t know how long it would take, but my dad wasn’t going to get better, and he wasn’t going to come home.
We spent the next six days waiting for him to die. If that sounds awful, it’s because it was. My mom came home once a day to shower; the rest of the time, she spent at my dad’s bedside. My sister and I went home to sleep each night, but most the day was spent at the hospital, sitting with my dad, who could no longer even communicate with us. We were trapped in a terrible limbo of wanting it to just be over already so he could rest and not be in pain any more, but at the same time not wanting it to end because that meant my dad would be dead and gone forever.
We were all there on that last night. My mom sat holding his hand through it all, telling him she loved him and urging him to let go. But my dad was stubborn right until the end, and he hung on for as long as he could. I was sitting in a chair on the other side of the bed, across from my mom. I remember being afraid to reach out and touch him, because that would make things too real. I also remember it being the night I understood true love for the first time, as watching my mom say goodbye to my dad was both the most heartbreaking and the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
In the end, my dad’s breathing grew more and more labored until it finally stopped completely. There was relief, because we knew it meant the end of his pain, but mostly it was just numb in that room. It was late on a Thursday night, none of us were prepared to think about the next steps or the logistics of a funeral right then. That would come later, along with laughter and tears and honoring my dad’s memory. That night, none of us really knew what to do with ourselves.
The next several days were surreal. My best friend came home from college and slept on the floor next to my bed that first night, like a human security blanket. Because I had come home from college with no more than a backpack full of dirty laundry, I had to go to the mall the day after my dad died to buy clothes for a funeral. I broke the news to a friend over the phone, half-naked in an H&M dressing room. My sister’s friend brought her PlayStation to the house in an effort to distract us. My cousin rented Zoolander and we watched it after the funeral, because we all needed a mindless escape. I didn’t go back to school until the end of October, and I honestly can’t remember what I did to fill my time during those weeks. Most likely I read and watched movies and generally tried to put off re-entering the real world.
Eventually I went back. Back to school, back to life. That first year was a false start though. I put my head down and bulled my way forward in life, afraid that if I stopped to think about things, I’d never get out of bed. I kept it (mostly) together until the summer when I was home again, where I finally realized that I needed a break if I was ever going to truly move forward with my life. Taking a semester off from school and starting therapy are very likely the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. I started to heal, and figure out ways to cope with my grief so I could remember my dad without the pain overwhelming me.
That’s not to say I was “cured” of missing my dad, of course. I still miss him like crazy all these years later, and sometimes the realization of everything he’s missed or the fact that I’ll never see him again hurts so much that I can’t catch my breath. I’ll never get over it, not fully. And October 3 is always going to be a really hard day for me.