What the Death of my Estranged Father Taught Me About Fear by Cayla Meredith
I was having coffee with a friend a few weeks ago when we began reflecting back on the highs and lows of the year; specifically December 2018. The year ended rough for me- a stranger had messaged me on Facebook, telling me my Father- who I hadn't seen in one decade- was in a hospice about to die of pancreatic cancer. Without even giving it a second thought, I called the hospice the next evening; "Tell my Father his daughter is coming".
Once I arrived at the hospice, the time I had with my Father was brief, beautiful, and cathartic. I had never seen cancer up close before - I hope I never do again. I went in knowing what to expect but found myself rocked to the core by how thin, frail, sallow and sick my Father looked (I still see his sunken face when I close my eyes). The cancer had taken away everything; his thick black hair, his body weight, the rosiness in his cheeks- but most shockingly of all it had completely taken away all of his defenses.
The only Father I had come to know in my childhood was the life of the party and extremely charismatic- that was one part. He was also someone that I craved attention from, that was not around, that was distracted, that was arrogant. He was half-involved. I'd reach for his hand all the time but he would drop mine after a few seconds- so eventually I stopped trying. I loved acting and excelled at it, and I grew used to scanning the audience for him, but he would never show- so I stopped looking. He always told me he loved me, but then he would leave, so that is what I came to believe Love was. As a defense mechanism, I started to swallow my words and my feelings for him because I didn’t know if he was capable of ever fully reciprocating them. The Father I came to know at the hospice- Cancer Dad- was nothing like the man I previously knew. He couldn't sleep when he found out I called- he told me he was both terrified and excited to see me. The day I visited him, he stared at me in disbelief when he saw me next to his bed. He couldn't believe I had come. He told me I was beautiful. He broke down in tears. He told me he loved me over and over again. He held my hand for two hours- not once did he let go.
Despite what happened between us in the past, seeing him felt like a homecoming. It felt like everything I ever lost had come back to me and made right. It felt easy, like he was mine and I was his- like this was the way it always should have been. We conversed like we were Father and daughter; it was effortless and comfortable. At one point I told him I was mad at him, that he was stubborn. "Thank you for giving me that quality", I said pointedly, smiling. He laughed. "You're welcome", he said, and the way that he said it was direct and certain and assured- and loud- and I forgot about how magnetic and unapologetic he was as a person, how his voice filled whatever room he was in, and as I was conversing with him I couldn't help but be astonished by how charming and funny he was despite being almost completely unrecognizable.
All this being said, there was a small portion of our time together where he couldn't even look me directly in the eyes- his pride had prevented him from showing up for me in the way I so desperately needed him to, and he knew it. He told me he didn't want to tell me about the cancer because he was afraid I would 'kick him to the curb', he said. His remorse was so evident I could almost feel it pouring out of his bones, rising off his skin.
My Dad slipped in and out of consciousness after I saw him and then died a few days later. The nurse at the hospice told me (over a midnight phone conversation when I couldn't sleep) that no one had lit him up the way I had after our visit; he was giddy and smiling hours after I left. "He knew you were coming and waited for you", she said. I am sharing this with you because earth-shattering loss can often times provide important insight (although I do desperately wish elucidation had picked another person, time, place). My Dad made a lot of choices rooted in fear; and the thing about fear is that it is really powerful. Leading with fear can create strong cycles of thought and action that, over time, become very challenging to break. If you avoid doing something or saying something because you are afraid- that may make sense in the moment- but isn't that what life is? Just a series of moments?
Fear, pride, ego, stubbornness; they can all be paralyzing- if we allow them to be. I saw their cumulated effects in the eyes of my dying Father. So today I want to remind you that you are allowed to feel your fearful feelings- but you can also move forward in spite of them. You can choose joy in spite of them. You can practice forgiveness in spite of them. You can extend love in spite of them. None of these are mutually exclusive. Fear (and a LOT of pain) always offer us the opportunity to grow- but we have to choose to take it.
So tell me: how can you choose differently for yourself today?
By Cayla Meredith, Founder of The Move to Heal Project The Move to Heal Project is an inclusive online website and blog that advocates moving the body as an aid for anything mental health related- anxiety, depression, trauma, and the like. We also believe in empowering the community to share their own stories of pain and resilience as a reminder that no one ever walks alone.