I’m 32 years old and I have two children, including one in middle school. I’ve been married for over a decade. I’ve bought and sold three homes, paid off two car loans and purchased an appropriate amount of life insurance. None of those adult milestones, however, prepared me for the rapid aging I experienced last week when my stepdad died.
We found out my dad - that’s what I called the man who raised me through my teenage years - had lung cancer this summer. I spent the next several months trying to make up for the months and years that I had not told him how much I loved him. I told him thank you as many times as I could. I took my mom, his ex-wife and the indisputable love of his life, to see him and make her own peace. I took my baby brother to do the same.
Still, I was unprepared.
I was in Mexico on a press trip when I received the text that a routine biopsy had gone horribly wrong. A major airway and artery had been punctured. He was on a breathing tube. I flew home from my work trip Sunday evening and by Monday night I was on a Greyhound headed for Iowa. I walked straight from the bus station to the hospital, where I saw an old man in a hospital bed who bore an uncanny resemblance to my dad.
He couldn’t talk, but he knew who I was. He turned his head to see me and reached for my hand, which he would squeeze in response to my questions. Again, I told him that I loved him and that I was thankful for all he had given me. I would continue to tell him that even as his cognition waned. I spent the next two days putting Vaseline on his lips; swiping his mouth with a sponge; and meeting with doctors, his son and his sister to talk about “options”.
On Thursday, I held his right hand and stroked his hair back from his forehead as a nurse injected morphine into his IV and a respiratory therapist turned down the ventilator that was pushing air into his battered lungs. I held my face next to his and said “I love you, I love you, I love you” over and over again until his breathing stopped. I sobbed like a baby, and then I became an adult.
I’ve heard that losing one’s parents changes a person; I thought it was because of the disappearance of that buck-stops-here lifeline that our moms and dads often represent. But, I still have one dad who is very much alive and an active part of my life. My mom is, too. There are still plenty of people to call in the event of that hypothetical disaster (and my stepdad couldn’t have offered much more than a plate of food in a crisis.) It’s not that.
When I think back to my high school years, my dad is present in every single memory. Now that he’s gone, it’s as if the book has been closed and the key turned on that part of my life. My childhood is forever sealed away as past. The only thing left is adulthood, a time in which my parents look like old people and I use a loud voice to speak short sentences that I hope can be understood.
My mom brought me to her house after Dad died, and I’ve been spending the last several days helping her. I’ve swept her floors and baked banana bread. I asked her to sit down while I cleared the leaves from her deck. I helped her make laundry soap.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked while I was vacuuming her living room.
“I just want to help out while I’m here.”
She eyed me suspiciously. I’ve never helped out during a visit; trips to my mom’s house are a chance to let her take care of me. She cooks my favorite foods and I sleep in. But I can’t do that now that I’m an adult.
“I’m sort of hyper aware of your mortality right now,” I admitted.
She nodded and let me get back to vacuuming, unfazed by my fear of her imminent death. After all, she already knows that death is coming someday. I guess that’s what makes us grown ups.
Do you feel like a real grown up? If so, when did you make the mental leap?
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