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On Grief and Derailment, Eight Years After My Father’s Death

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Today marks eight years since my father’s death.

I was 23, almost 24 when it happened, and for the months leading up to his death, I was in denial that it was coming. Lung cancer took him suddenly and without hesitance. He went from raw strength to raw weakness in the space of just a few months, and I didn’t know how to cope.

I still don’t. Years later, I feel his death as strong as the moment it happened. I never grieved. At that moment, my life was shunted off-axis, and the depression and anxiety that had been festering all my life took the forefront.

At that time, I was about 60,000 words into writing The Shadows At Sunrise. I’d shown Dad the printed copy of what was ultimately half a novel, but he never read it, and it’s this fact that partly derailed everything that came after. What was the point, I felt, in continuing to write if he would never read it? If I had foolishly kept the plot from him instead of discussing it openly, having his input, hearing what he loved and didn’t love? In the gloom of the funeral home, standing over his open coffin, I tearfully told him the plot from beginning to end. It’s one of the few memories I have from that time, the rest dissipated like dust or lurking in my subconscious. I spoke of love and sacrifice, and grand gestures to defeat ancient foes, while questioning if I could survive in a world without my father.

The intervening years haven’t been altogether kind. I’ve written in fits and starts, finally finishing (a version of) the first draft in 2013, leaving it for way too long, returning to attempt a rewrite, shelving it, before at the end of last year figuring out a way to continue.

But what to do when that old feeling remains? How do I continue?

Depression and Bitterness

Depression has been oft-compared to a black dog, and if that’s true, then this mutt of mine circles my word processor, growling and bearing his teeth in warning.

I’ve struggled with this for almost a decade. There are times, yes, when the fire of inspiration flares and I feel, for a little while, incensed to continue, to tell this story, but then comes the dog, salivating for flesh.

I don’t think I’m alone in my fear of angry dogs.

So instead of finding a way past the dog — and I’m hoping therapy will grant me the metaphorical string of sausages to placate him or, at the very least, distract him — I allow bitterness to take hold.

Bitterness doesn’t feel justified. It feels wrong — it is wrong — to be bitter about this kind of thing. It feels like I should buck up, get on with it, get writing, fuck the dog. If only it were that easy.

I feel bitter against the universe for taking my father from me.

I feel bitter that I haven’t stuck with the novel (or other writing) in these intervening years.

I feel bitter that others have had novels finished, bought and published since then. (Sorry, friends. I don’t like it either, and please know I 100% support you in your careers.)

I feel bitter that a doctor fucked up reading his scan over a year before he was diagnosed and said the shadow in his lungs was nothing to worry about. Court vindication since then has done nothing to lessen the hatred I feel for that doctor.

Most nauseating of all… I feel bitterness toward my dad for leaving me.

Yeah, I know how that sounds. I don’t feel good about it either. But had he not left, he could’ve been here for so much. I could’ve completed The Shadows At Sunrise, and he could’ve read it, the man who made me love reading in the first place and whose death sparked the depression which has also, in part, taken reading from me. He could’ve offered feedback helped me craft the narrative into something he would also have loved.

Publication of one’s novel is never guaranteed, but if I were lucky enough for The Shadows At Sunrise to be bought, he could’ve been there at the launch. He could’ve held the printed copy in his hands.

A huge reason for his cancer was a lifetime of smoking. He had chances to stop. Mum quit smoking a full decade before him, and yet despite begging and pleading him to quit as well, he continued. So yeah, I feel bitter. He could’ve been here.

But he isn’t.

So instead, I have to make do with what I’ve got.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Death

Can there ever be such a thing? I’m asking myself that, too.

I tend to look at cause and effect way too much, like a vast tapestry spreading back and forward from and to each individual moment.

But where can the “bright side” be in losing one’s father?

His death made me the person I am now, all blemishes and faults. It made me more empathetic than I already was, as debilitating as that can sometimes be.

And, in the intervening years, the story of The Shadows At Sunrise has immeasurably changed.

I promised an explanation in last week’s blog entry, and this isn’t the post for that. Elements of the plot have somewhat changed, however. I’ve since been to the first act’s opening location, and it suits the story far better than the original draft ever did. This will, I hope, make the novel a hell of a lot stronger.

Would I have come upon this change had I continued with my draft back then? I really don’t think so.

But this feels like the only concrete “bright side” I’ve got. The others are more nebulous. I’m more mature. I’m more in touch with my mental health (or perhaps “more aware” is more accurate) and its failings. I can bring the lessons I have since learned to my characters and their journeys.

Is that enough? I don’t know. I will never feel like I’m glad I lost my father, but I have to figure out ways to continue with what I’ve got and be at least satisfied. I never wanted to be almost 32 and still unpublished, still trapped in this quagmire, running over the same old ground for years.

We do what we can with the cards we’re dealt, as they say. And yeah, others have it worse. I know that. But comparison is more than just the thief of joy. Comparison sparks hatred, and we carry our individual traumas as best as we can.

So, I’ll continue trying to do what I can. I hope you will too.

If there’s one more “bright side” I’ve found, it’s this: an appreciation for the people who walk this road through life by my side. I value you more than you could ever know. That includes you, dear reader, for being there through all of this. You will be forever important to me.

If there’s one thing you can do for me today, it’s this: don’t wait for the “perfect” moment to share something with the people you love. There never will be a more perfect moment than this one, and we are blessed (or perhaps cursed) with not knowing just how much sand is left in our hourglasses before that moment is lost forever.

Until next time, be well.

Matt

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash

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