On The Matter Of Mattering In The Aftermath Of A Parent’s Death

It has been five-and-a-half months since my dad died and yet it sometimes feels like it hasn’t hit me yet. Even though his ashes are sitting in a box in my apartment. He had been absent from my day-to-day life for years, our interactions limited, at their most intimate, to Skype. Then we stopped talking. And then eight months later, he died. After the initial shock, my day-to-day life didn’t seem to be that different. I was used to not speaking to him, and had long ago resigned myself to not seeing him again. I couldn’t figure out how to grieve.

In 2005, my dad moved from San Diego to Hilo, HI. I only ever saw where he lived for those many years in February of this year, when I went to get what I could from his house before forfeiting it to the mortgage company. Walking through that door for the first and last time, I was struck by two things: first, how incredibly destroyed it was. The last squatter had taken everything of value and sold it. There was no furniture, aside from a couple shelves lined with my dad’s library of books. Dirty, moldy dishes were overflowing out of the sink, and littering the kitchen counters. Cabinets doors were falling off their hinges. A massive pile of my dad’s belongings — books, papers, his glasses, mail, and hundreds of loose photographs — took up nearly all the floor space in what was once his living room. Utter squalor.

The second thing I noticed, after absorbing that the house was in an even worse state of disrepair than I could have imagined, was that the walls and shelves were decorated with dozens of dusty framed photos of my brother and I, as well as a few of my mom. There was my senior prom photo, with me in my yellow vintage dress, crunchy finger waves and MAC Vamp lipstick, clutching my date who has, predictably, since come out of the closet. There was the kissy-faced self-portrait I had taken in one of my many high school photography classes, a print I had cast off after it came out too dark. And there was one of my favorite photos ever taken of my dad and I together, when I was two. I’m sitting on his lap, in my signature striped shirt and Oshkosh overalls, clutching a squirt gun, he in his token backwards baseball cap, which mostly covered his receding hairline. It’s a randomly beautiful photo, sun-bleached in spots. I was very cute. My dad’s face is filled with nothing but kindness.

There were tons more photos on display in what remained of every room. They — more than the destroyed house, more even than the knowledge that my dad had died where I was standing — were what made me wail. How much I mattered to him hung on the walls and in the air. This is the biggest thing I brought home with me.

When my dad died, the world became less one person who was thinking about me. Less one person who, even in his own often misguided way, cared about how I was feeling and doing. Less one person to whom I really, really mattered. It may seem like a selfish thing to be consumed with, but it’s the aspect of his death that I was most unprepared for. His absence — knowing that right now, he’s not sitting in his house in Hawaii, looking at photos of me, thinking about how and what I might be doing — sometimes makes me feel like I exist a little bit less than I did before. It’s a weird, ghostly feeling, and I’ve found myself trying to grab hold of it by making myself more real — bigger, louder, more intense — sometimes in not the healthiest or most productive of ways. Asking to be noticed, forcing people to notice me, just to confirm that I’m noticeable. Crying some. Drinking, at one point, more than I should. Exercising — sweating, really — has been helpful. It reminds me of my own aliveness. Sex could be good or bad, depending on who I was having it with, not that I’m actually having it with anyone.

Being single, especially, feels harder now. Dating is difficult enough, especially if you’re a sensitive person, as I have always been. Making yourself vulnerable only to be disappointed, never knowing why you didn’t hear from so-and-so again. Even the thickest skin gets bruised. And yet I’ve kept at it, sure that the payoff is coming. It’s instilled from a pretty early age that the two best, most important and fulfilling types of love are familial and romantic. Platonic love is wonderful, of course, but the fatalist in me knows that if I’m stuck in a burning building with, say, my best friend’s husband, she’d save him and I’d be toast. To find that person To Whom You Really Fucking Matter, the person who would save you first in a fire, you have to be willing to meet a whole lot more people to whom you really fucking don’t. In the best state of mind, I’ve found this frustrating, but I haven’t taken rejection too personally. In my worst state, I’ve thrown up my hands, sobbed into a pillow and declared that I give up completely.

Now fucking mattering to someone matters even more and not fucking mattering at all feels like an actual threat. I’ve always wanted to be wanted; it’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time, the hangup that my worthiness will ultimately only be made 100 percent real through someone else’s validation. It’s something I’m conscious of and always working to overcome, but losing my dad, who, no matter how much we fought, always saw me as worthy of so much, has set me back. It’s like I’m really short on People To Whom I Really Fucking Matter and no one is scrambling to fill a vacant slot, to put my photos up on their wall, to think about how and what I might be doing, to affirm that I exist.

I’m not the most fun to date these days, and on the dates I’ve had in the last few months, I’ve managed to bring up my dad being dead. I can’t help it. If you’re trying to get to know me, this is part of who I am, it’s the thing that defines me right now. I’m Amelia and my dad just died and sure, I’ll have another drink. Let’s toast this boner-killing moment! I’ve tried to make up for being the not fun date with the dead dad by being the too fun date on her third glass of wine. The two don’t balance each other well. So instead, I’m doing my best to focus on those who are already in my corner, friends and family, who’ve lovingly responded to every plea, both verbal and non, with confirmation — yes, Amelia, I see you, you’re there, you matter. I’m hoping, as I work my way through this thing they call grief, to need it and question it less and less.

That photo of my dad and I now hangs on on my wall. Every time I pass by it, I take a moment to remind myself how much he loved me and how much I loved him, and how those feelings don’t just dissipate in silence or in death. The world may be less one person to whom I’m really fucking mattered and who really fucking mattered to me, but everything that made us matter to each other remains.

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