Let me be clear: I’m not a fan of firsts. So, when the first email from my son’s school appeared in mid-July. I stared at it long and hard before I let out a tiny laugh only our dogs could hear. It was way too early to think about school, so I did what any good summer-lovin’ mom would do — I ignored the email. I also dismissed the hollow feeling in my stomach. Over the next month, the back-to-school emails piled up in my inbox, and I finally had to accept the truth behind my avoidance: The beginning of this school year marks the end of the first year without my dad. And I’m not ready for any of it.
Back to school last year started out like any other, almost. My then 9-year-old was switching schools and it was a big deal. He was super nervous and we were all trying to make a good first impression to support our kiddo — but my car had other plans. A few weeks after his first day, my car battery died during carpool stopping the long winding line of parents trying to pick up their kindergarten through fourth graders. I tried everything to restart it, which really only consisted of me saying words my son shouldn’t hear, before it was clear I’d stopped the flow of traffic.
I got out of my car, and with a voice dry and thin, I apologized to parents I’d never met in the line behind me. Then I tried my best to hide behind my steering wheel as two teachers pushed my car out of the way. I assessed: My husband was too far to help. My dad was closer.
“Do you need me to come get you,” were my dad’s first words after I explained how I’d stopped traffic, and not in a good way. His caring tone calmed my frazzled self like it did when I was a 9-year-old with a school issue. My dad called tow trucks and fix-it places so I could (somewhat) calmly explain to my son why we were stuck at school a little (or a lot) longer. I caught a glimpse of how this was on its way to becoming a funny family story for our weekly dinners.
Over the next month, we had just enough dinner time to laugh about my car in the carpool, celebrate my birthday, and eat congratulatory donuts because my son won the lead in the school play. Yes — the new school he was so nervous to attend. Then faster than I could say “trick-or-treat” it was mid-October, and I was standing in an emergency room next to my mom and husband. The room was pretty much empty so the clergy member assigned to us had no problem finding my mom when he overheard me ask where the ambulance had taken my father.
“Let me take you to the doctor,” the reverend said. But my mom who’d worked as a hospice nurse and a recovery room nurse knew the drill. Without emotion, she asked, “Did he die?” After a long pause, the reverend confirmed what my mom seemed to already know: My dad was gone.
I gripped my mom’s wrist. She stood still. My stomach felt empty and full all at once and I didn’t know whether to console my mom or let her be a mom and comfort me. We were led into a private room where the attending physician explained it was probably a heart attack — even though my father had no history of heart disease. My dad’s unexpected death started my year of firsts without him.
His birthday was two weeks later, and we had dinner on his 73rd birthday without him. That was a first. There were the big emotional firsts like Christmas, New Year’s, and my son’s birthday. I powered through these like I’d powered through sleepless nights with my newborn only to emotionally crash afterwards — calling friends and describing the weirdness or sitting alone reading birthday cards I’d saved.
But it was the smaller firsts where my grief left me hiding in the bathroom that surprised me: The first winter snow when my dad didn’t text to give me his safe driving report or the first lawn mow of the season when he didn’t call to tell me his grass was presentable. Everyone I spoke with said, “The first year is the hardest.” That’s when I’d politely nod and hope time would move faster so I could feel less alone — less sad. Well, now that this first year is coming to an end, I’ve changed my mind.
Those firsts made up the moments that defined, well…us. They were overwhelming and tear-filled, but somehow my big feelings of grief made him feel closer. He wasn’t so far off when my sadness connected me to him. Now, moving into my second year, I’m losing all of our firsts together which is a loss that feels enormous, too. No one told me about that part of the first year — the moving on. How do I do that?
Since I can’t stop time or my emails from reminding me about the first of school, I find myself waiting in the carpool line waiting for my now 10-year-old. I glance down at my dashboard to make sure everything is in order. I giggle when images of last year’s fiasco pop into my head.
I think of my dad.
Where heaps of tears normally would’ve sprung up, I smile instead — a first. I remember his instant offer to help and how we laughed about the whole thing at dinner. This past year, our connection was held closer through my grief — something I wouldn’t have known to anticipate. I can’t avoid moving into a year of seconds, but maybe it’s okay to not be forever tied to my dad through loss and sadness. Perhaps this new space leaves room for something lighter and warmer to move in — prompting a lingering smile.
My dad would’ve liked that.