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Sunday Reflections: We Got To Write a New Ending to Our Story, and I Will Forever Be Grateful

Before we begin, I want to tell you that this is a story about parental loss. My father died just a few days ago (at the time that I wrote this) and what I will say is real and raw and if you, like me, are struggling with parental loss, you might want to look away. I respect that.

Karen at 18

This is my first father’s day without a dad and to be honest, I don’t know how to be a daughter in the world without a father. This isn’t even a totally true and accurate thing to say, because I definitely have some other father figures in my life. But this man, my Dad, is the only father who has known me since the moment and I was born and that loss feels significant. I feel a loss and an ache in my soul that can never be healed. My daddy is gone and I miss him.

It turns out, I am a storyteller. Maybe not a good one, but a storyteller none the less. So I want to tell you stories about my father. I want to tell you about what my daddy means to me.

In my 4 years in high school, I did not speak to my father. The reasons for that were valid and protective and difficult, but that’s only part of our story. Because the truth is, we got to write a new story in the years that followed and that story became the story that mattered, for us both. And it’s not the totality of my father’s story, many other people have their own stories and those stories matter too. These are just mine.

I could tell you all the stories about a little girl and a loving dad, and they would all be true. Learning to ride a bike and the first time I watched the movie Grease and my Dad laughed as I skipped around the block singing the songs. But those are just a part of our story. Important, but it’s what happened when I was an adult that really matters, at least to me. And then there were the dark years. And I am so thankful every day that our story did not end there. The fact that it didn’t end there, the fact that we got to write a new ending to our story, has changed everything about me and my life. I will forever be grateful.

Things Fall Apart

After I graduated high school, I moved out on my own and built my life around a boy, because I was 17 and that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. That didn’t work out. My Dad and I had just begun rebuilding a tenuous relationship and that changed everything for me. First, I went and visited him for a week and he was there for me. Then, a few months later, he flew to Texas and rented a mini van and we drove from Texas to California together as I tried to figure out what I was and who I wanted to be.

This would not be the only time he rescued me as an adult. He always managed to find a way to be there when I needed him. Always.

In California, I began a new life as a newly minted 18 year old and I met Timothy Jensen. That man would soon become my husband (well, 4 years later) and the father of my two amazing children. So as you can see, that cross country drive really did change everything about my life. Everything.

The first few years of our relationship were rocky. We weren’t always comfortable around each other. We didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know how to talk about the hurt we had each caused the other. My dad went to therapy with me. Which, if you knew my dad, was an amazingly big deal and truly a gift. And we grew closer. My dad proved to me that people could change and they could grow and relationships could heal. You have no idea what a gift that is.

After a few years Tim and I got engaged, moved to Ohio, and went to college together. We got married somewhere in the midst of that and my Dad came out and walked me down the aisle. Then he and my brother filled my car with a 50 lb. bag of bird seed and to be honest, years later we would still find birdseed in my car. This story isn’t important, it’s just one of my favorites. My Dad was many things, including a fun spirited guy.

Do not move, do not look

Around the time of Tim and I’s one year anniversary, Tim, my dad and I went hiking in the mountains of California. Tim did a very Tim like thing and fell 30 feet down the side of the mountain and it seemed to us both that there was no way he could survive that fall. So my Dad looked at me and yelled, “stay right there, do not move, do not come look.” And then he went to go look and see what had happened with Tim, trying to protect me from whatever was about to happen next. This would not be the last time that my Dad tried to protect me from whatever was going to happen next.

Tim shattered his knee cap, but was otherwise fine. Years later he told me that he was so scared that day that I was going to be a widow after only one year of marriage. He told me how much he worried in that instant about the hurt I would feel, it haunted him.

A Grandpa is Born

A newborn grandpa with a newborn Riley

My Dad was there to meet my first daughter. He was there when I lost a horrific pregnancy, having to terminate a failing pregnancy that was taking my life. And he was there when I gave birth to our second child. Every step of the way he held me emotionally, without judgment or scorn, and listened to me weep, wail, cry, and then celebrate. He walked a very delicate emotional road with me in the valley between the birth of my two children that was dark and complicated by tremendous loss. His love and support carried me through that darkness. He was always carrying me through the darkness and celebrating with me on the other side.

My Dad was a great dad to me in my adult years. But he was also an amazing grandpa. And he loved his grandkids so very much. His heart melted for them. Even though we lived in separate states, he always managed to be there when it mattered. He saw Riley in a karate competition, a musical, and more. He was there when Scout scored her first soccer goal and sat and watched her take a gymnastics class. Being a grandpa brought him to a place of joy, happiness and peace that I hope every human gets to experience.

When he couldn’t be there, we talked on Facetime and I would turn the camera around and he would watch Thing 2 do flips in the background and they always made sure to show him Charm. He claimed to hate that dog but secretly, they loved each other. Charm always snuggled up to him when he visited and you can trust a dog’s opinion of a person.

Mommy, Something’s Wrong with Daddy

A couple of years ago he came to visit and to see Riley in one of her high school musicals. It was my birthday, November 2019. That night, Tim went back to the school to pick Riley up and I got a phone call, “Mommy, something is wrong with Daddy.” And as I ran and jumped in my car, my Dad opened the passenger door and went with me to figure out how to help Tim. That night, he sat with me in the hospital as we waited to find out if Tim had had a stroke. Once again, my Dad was sitting there by my side trying to protect me from whatever was about to come next. As we went from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment to figure out what had happened to Tim, my Dad knew when every appointment was and called when we were leaving to find out what they had said. He loved Tim just as much as he loved me, and you could hear the concern in his voice.

Now, It’s My Turn

During the last few years, my Dad was sick a lot. First he had cancer and then he got Covid. There were several times when we rushed to catch a plane thinking it might be the last time we saw him. And then, miraculously, he survived.

The girls and I were with my Dad when the lockdown began and that was the last time I got to see him healthy and alive. It was my greatest fear that he would get Covid because his body was so battered from the cancer. As I sat there at the beginning of lockdown, looking at this man I loved with all of my heart, I feared it would be the last time that I saw him. I fucking hate that I was right.

Take a Walk with Me Dad

When I moved to Texas, I took a job in which I had an hour commute. I would leave work and call my Dad on the car phone (hands free!) and talk with him. We spent hours each week talking on the phone as I commuted to and from work. And then when lockdown hit, I began working from home and started walking my neighborhood. I would walk and we would talk and we would joke that we were taking a walk together. There is something beautiful about being on the phone with someone and all you can do is talk. My Dad and I talked deeply about our lives, our feelings, and the world around us. I got to know my Dad in ways I never could have imagined. We talked about his years of military service, what he thought about what was happening to our country, and shared our deepest hopes and darkest fears.

My stepmother became sick with Covid on Christmas Eve. My Dad on New Year’s Eve. I cried in the New Year begging God to please let my Dad survive Covid so that I could see him again. Ironically, my Dad did survive Covid after a several months long battle and we were thinking that he would be coming out soon for Riley’s graduation. It seemed so fitting and perfect, that he would survive cancer and Covid to then be reunited with this family that loved him so as he watched this child, his first grandchild, walk in graduation. After 4 long, grueling months where I did not know if I would ever get to see my Dad again, he bought tickets and we started joking about what he would wear to Riley’s graduation.

One week before he was supposed to come out he died from a car accident because the universe is random and often cruel.

Going through Riley’s graduation without my father was one of the hardest moments of my life. He had fought so hard to survive because he was full of pride and joy and love and he wanted to celebrate his first grandchild graduating from high school. And I thought he would be there. He should have been there. It will never be fair that he wasn’t.

For This New Ending, I am Thankful . . .

But there is a part of me that can’t be bitter because my Dad and I, we got to write a new ending to our story. In the last 30 years he and I became very close. That’s the part that hurts the most, I don’t know who I’m going to call anymore. I don’t know who is going to sit beside me and protect me from whatever is about to come next. Who is going to hold my hand when Tim does the next Tim like thing. Who is going to take a walk with me. Who is going to love my children the way that this man did.

My Dad, making Thing 2 laugh

I don’t know how to do what comes next. I am a daughter in the world without a father and that loss feels like a gaping chasm inside my soul. I feel blessed beyond measure that we got to write a new ending to our story, but I wasn’t ready for it to end. I still need him to hold my hand and answer the phone and sit with me and protect me from whatever is about to happen next. I need him to drive home with me and walk this neighborhood with me and share his soul with me. But now there is no one to sit with me and protect me from whatever this next is, not in the way a father can. And what happens when that next is the loss of your father . . .

My Dad had long hair and rode motorcycles. He was a Vet. He gardened and made pie from scratch with the berries he grew in his garden. He loved fiercely. Was extremely ethical. And he taught me that we all contain multitudes and that you should not judge a person by their outward appearance and that people are struggling with things you may never know. He taught me you could choose to be better, to do better, and to heal. He taught me that sometimes, if you are lucky, you get a happy ending. I’m thankful for my happy ending.

If you are reading this, I thank you. I have just come back from the memorial service of my Dad and have just survived my first Father’s day without being able to call him on the phone and wish him a happy day. I am thankful every day for the man that he became. For the family that he built for us. For the grandfather that he was to my two beautiful daughters. For the father in law he was to my amazing if not overly accident prone husband. I’m so sad every day that he is dead, but I am so proud that he died a good man, a loved man, and a loving man. I am so proud that I got to call him Dad. I will never not miss him.

If I was going to tell teenage Karen anything, it would be this: sometimes, when you’re lucky, you get to write a new ending to your story.

Comments

  1. Oh, Karen, I am so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you have so many memories with him. I’ll be thinking of you and your family.

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