On My First Christmas Without My Dad

When I headed back home to Michigan for the first Christmas since my dad’s death, I didn’t expect it to get difficult until the holiday actually arrived. Since I got here this weekend, my routine hasn’t reflected anything he’d normally be a part of – I’ve been puttering around the house, out with high school friends, working. I flew home for Thanksgiving too, and that had been tough, but it didn’t hit me until my family sat down for dinner. I assumed it would be the same this time around – that his absence wouldn’t be painfully obvious until Christmas Eve and Christmas itself. HAH. Instead, I felt the sadness the moment I walked through the door to my mom’s house.

When my dad passed away in August, I started going through his belongings and clearing out his house that same day. I was already at the house since most of my extended family on his side had gathered there that day, and he was a renter with zero plans to drop dead anytime soon, so it’s not like any plans for his stuff had been made in advance. His things had to go, and fast, whether we were ready to sort through them or not. He was a father figure to countless people beyond just me, but I’m his only child, so there were no heated debates over who got to take home various treasured keepsakes, just me staring down a mountainous burden of stuff. One thing he made clear to me growing up is that all his hundreds of albums, the ones we treasured and blasted in the living room nearly every day we spent together throughout my life, would be mine when he died. That I should take care of them, but mostly that I got to enjoy them like he did. It was always a lighthearted conversation instead of a somber one, because the idea of him dying, presumably in very old age after a full life instead of in the middle of an unfinished one, was some mythical abstract thing.

So, the first things I packed up in the house were his albums, and his stereos, and the turntable he was storing for me in his attic until I finally reached a point in my life in which I stayed in one apartment for longer than a year at a time. Every time I finally thought I’d finished packing up all the music and moved on to other parts of the house, I’d find another lone box of vinyls randomly placed in his attic or his closet or even in the corner of his porch. It was endless, and each one was heavy and overflowing, so I’d have to enlist the help of my mom or uncle to help me drag it out to the car.

The albums, along with the boxes of flannels and fishing poles and baseball gloves and all the other things that defined him most, are now sitting in a bedroom at my mom and stepdad’s house. They take up the closet, and half the floor, and really most of the space in the room. My parents have been divorced since I was around four, and after I graduated from high school, my mom and stepdad moved to another house in town from the one I grew up in, so while the bedroom is mine in that it holds all my childhood treasures, it’s still their house. In other words, if we’re talking in a symbolic sense, it’s not exactly the ideal place for every last worldly trace of my dad to reside. Still, it’s my job (and honor, really, which I take probably a bit too seriously) to preserve and take care of that stuff, and I’m constantly moving from one tiny NYC apartment to another, so this is the only solid space for it until I settle into a more permanent home someday. I have two stepsiblings, and all three of us are grown, but during the holidays we flock to my mom’s house and become a family of five again for a few days. Naturally, the house is full of photos and decorations that indicate that our blended family lives there – a family that, like most divorce kids, I always compartmentalized as separate from the family I had with my dad. Guests who visit us for holiday dinners this week would never guess that my father’s entire life, a whole other family really, is tucked away into one tiny room upstairs. Even his ashes are being stored in my room until we make a trip down south scatter them, staring at me from the dresser every time I enter the room. I thought it would be too weird to put the urn on the mantle, for him to have to spend the beginning of his eternity as a living room display for my mom’s post-divorce family.

Each night since I’ve been in town, when I go up to my room with the intention of going to bed, I can’t help but stay up another hour and leaf through the albums that sit next to my bed in crates. I like to close my eyes and pull a random one out. About half the time, I end up with something in my hands that was one of my favorites as a kid – Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Stewart Copeland, Neil Young – and other times it’s an artist I grew to love on my own that I never knew he was a fan of. When I play the old favorites, they remind me of running around my parents’ former house as a preschooler with the record player on, or being in grade school and choosing which album I wanted Dad to play next based solely on the prettiest cover art, or having 3am listening parties on breaks from college in his living room with he and my cousins. And then, not surprisingly, I get all upset in spite of myself when I’d thought going through the albums would just be a fun trip down memory lane. During those nighttime music sessions, I miss not only my dad but the entire half of my life that is now gone – his house, our neighbors, his pets, his friends that have known me since I was a baby. My whole life I had two distinct, separate families – and in a way that I’m just beginning to explore, two distinct and separate lives. Now I just have one, and the other just up and vaporized one sunny day in August.

When I listen to those albums, or really, any time sadness has hit me this week, I miss my dad and that life in a way that’s almost tangible. I think just about anyone can relate to that feeling, whether they’ve lost someone to death or a long-distance move or a break-up. It’s not so much sad thoughts in my head, it’s a physical sadness that I carry in my body. It’s a literal heaviness, and as our Christmas celebrations get started at my mom’s house, I feel like the sole keeper of that pain. I don’t say that to discount my family’s support. My stepsiblings and my stepfather are sympathetic and supportive. They’d do just about anything I asked to help me with this. Even though my mom hasn’t been close with my dad in almost two decades, they’d been together for 15 years once, and his death hasn’t been easy on her either. But I’m the only person in the family who just lost a piece of her emotional foundation.

It’s an isolating feeling, and it brings with it a bizarre form of guilt whenever this side of the family is celebrating together. It would be one thing if the whole family was grieving and we were collectively determined to have a good time despite the sadness. Instead, I’m the only one with his absence weighing heavily on my mind. I feel like I’m the keeper of his memory, and if I just have fun instead of reminding the rest of the family that he’s gone, I’m tossing that memory out the window. I feel like he’s being forgotten, because, in a way, he is. He doesn’t exist to anyone else in this house, not really – and I don’t mean that as a dig at my family. I remember feeling this weird panic so acutely this past Thanksgiving. As I laughed over dinner, time was hurtling forward without my parent, and his existence was moving further into some abstract past. I wanted to shake my stepdad’s relatives by the shoulders and say “Hey, my dad is missing! He used to exist too! You can’t forget about him!”

Growing up, I was resentful (bratty, really) about splitting the holidays between families. My dad and I had very turbulent points in our relationship (which is another complicated story for another day), and my parents’ lifestyles couldn’t have been more opposite. It also didn’t help that the timing of having to leave my mom’s house for my dad’s always seemed to clash with my stepsiblings’ arrival from their mom’s house, as if we were home on and off in shifts. I would dread the moment I had to leave halfway through a family party before dessert was even served to make the 45-minute trek between parents’ houses. Now, I never have to do that again, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel good. I’d always been all too happy to focus on the present and compartmentalize thoughts of whatever family I wasn’t currently with at each house. During the chunks of the holidays I spent at my mom’s, I wasn’t usually actively thinking about what was happening at Dad’s – I never felt like having fun at her house meant I was forgetting about him. Now, when my extended family is gathered at my mom’s, I sometimes feel like I’m screaming inside, silently begging them not to forget about him. My dad was never part of the holiday season at my mom’s house anyway, so nothing about our Christmas will change either – just me. I love this time of year, and I want to enjoy it as best I can. There have been plenty of times in life when all I’ve wanted to do was wallow, but right now, I don’t want to be sad, and it’s so frustrating to feel that way against my will. I also don’t want to drag the rest of the family down with me.

I don’t what to expect emotionally from this week and none of it makes any sense, but here’s what I know so far: that I’m going to enjoy every moment I can, and stay as present as possible. That I’m terrified of losing any more of my family members, and being home surrounded by them makes that fear so acute that it’s hard to sleep at night, but I know at least on a logical level that wasting your present by dwelling on hypotheticals is a miserable way to live. That I have a freakish amount of things to be grateful for in this life. That I always have my dad’s siblings and don’t know what I would’ve done without them this year. That I’m going to bring that record player downstairs and play my dad’s old holiday albums for the whole family on Christmas.

I had a dream recently about my grandmother – my dad’s mom. In the dream, I was at a some kind of holiday gathering in a room full of my stepfather’s extended family members who she’d never met, and she was standing across the room, unbeknownst to anyone but me. She gave me a quick smile and a little wave, and this moment of emotional recognition passed between us, like she understood me better than anyone in the whole world. To my memory, the first time I’ve dreamed about her in the twelve years since she’s passed away. That must mean something good, right? I know I’m not the only one experiencing a painful transition right now, and I know there are plenty who have already been through it – maybe you have some advice to share? The holiday season isn’t easy on anyone, even if you’ve just had the best year of your life. If you’re having a weird holiday, you’re not alone, and I’m thinking of you.

[Image via Shutterstock]