I miss my father who passed away in 2016 on New Year’s Day, when I was 26.
It was the second time we lost him—the first was five years earlier when a massive stroke hemorrhaged through his brain, leaving him hospitalized and in rehabilitation for the better part of two years.
He never fully recovered.
He could not speak, he lost his mobility, and he lost many of his exceptional cognitive abilities.
I say we lost him because though he was still my dad, and regarded me lovingly as his daughter, I never want to forget how painful it was for all of us to grieve for what had been.
I live overseas, so the nurses at the adult care centre where he spent his days would help him reply to my emails, I imagine through gesturing and emotion and nonverbal expression.
When I visited home in the summers, he and I would share a beer and lounge in front of the TV watching concert DVDs or basketball games.
We would go for drives, sit on patios, and be in silence together.
His presence felt no different than it had when I was younger. During this brief time, each new year felt like an opportunity to settle further into our post-stroke father-daughter relationship.
I Did Not Make it Home to Say Goodbye
Then, in the final days of 2015, I got the call from my mom. I was in a remote area of Northern Laos with my partner and it was the middle of the night.
Living away from family, I’ve found that time can often feel blissfully suspended.
My days take on a peaceful quality, knowing that everyone I love back home is safe, asleep, and at peace. It’s at night that reality visits.
The connection was poor as her video call came in at 3 AM, but I could see the pixelated image of off-white, aged ceiling tiles as my mom adjusted the camera to focus on her face. I knew right away. When you’ve spent as much time as we have in hospitals, the details are unmistakable.
“She is in a hospital room, it’s my dad,” I managed to say to my partner.
I remember my mom saying, “you need to come home.”
I did not make it home in time to say goodbye. We made it as far as Saigon, and I woke up on the first day of 2016 a world away from my dying dad. I recorded a voice note for him in his final hours and hoped that it reached some part of him. When my mom told me he was gone, I became empty.
As I lay awake that night, I felt the cold realization of losing him on the first day of the year. I had always loved transitions.
New Year’s Day, for me, marked a foray into the unknown of the coming year. I had always treated it as a day to rest and let my mind swim with anticipation.
There was safety in this anticipation, in expecting change—it would be anchored by the constants in my life, and my dad’s loving presence was one of those constants. That night, my anticipation became porous, infiltrated by painful, childlike vulnerability and fear.
I Miss My Father Who Passed Away
Now, on New Year’s Day, the fear always visits. Perhaps the grief is not so sharp, perhaps I am not so empty. Perhaps I allow myself a subdued moment of anticipation, but it is never as wild and free as it was when I could feel my dad’s mooring presence. Grief dampened the childlike idealism that I used to deliberately let wander every New Year’s Day.
When the year ends, it feels like I’m reaching a checkpoint in a race that I can never opt-out of. It is both a relief to have made it through another year without my dad and a pitiless reminder that another lap awaits. The chasm of my dad’s New Year’s Day death anniversary holds an odd annular perfection, which has granted me the rare permission to fully feel.
It represents a gap in the endless continuity of life without my dad, a day where I can invite grief to sit heavily on my chest without social repercussions.
I’ve made it to the checkpoint, and it feels as if on this day, the full weight of my grief will not leak out of this abyss that I have created in between one year and the next. I can allow it to take over my mind and my body—something which, on any other day, feels like it could completely undo me. So I light a candle in his memory, and I feel it all.
Each year I wonder, what shape will my grief take in the coming months? A question that acknowledges the way that my life seems to go on, yet grief winds its way through alongside me, unbothered by the fact that a full year has passed.
It is always my grief that leads, taking the first steps into each day, each milestone, while I follow reluctantly, wondering if I will be able to do it, relieved and exhausted when I find that I can. Knowing these colors the way I anticipate what’s next. There is always a shade of resistance to living out a fatherless life.
You see, grief is a painful and heavy entity to carry around, but there is also safety in it. One would think New Year’s Day would be the perfect ceremonious moment to let go of it, to deny grief its unfettered access to me, to set it aside and say, “not this year,” and imagine what I might accomplish without its presence. But, it’s not so simple.
Grief often feels like the last connection between my life now and the life I had when my dad was alive; a buffer that moves forward with me, yet tethers me to the days when my dad could hold me, speak to me, be with me.
To let go of its grip would also be to let go of a kind of suffering that is deeply attached to love. Grief often feels like the last connection between my life now and the life I had when my dad was alive; a buffer that moves forward with me, yet tethers me to the days when my dad could hold me, speak to me, be with me.
How could I let that go?