In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be gearing up to walk across a parking lot in commemoration of four years of hard work.
Column: The glaring absence in the crowd as I walk to my commencement
Four years boiled down to an almost invisible crowd where milestones come in the absence of celebration. In a way, I find it oddly comforting. I have this tendency to focus on what’s missing and when nearly everyone is missing something, it almost seems less haunting.
I lost my dad in 2009 and every celebration since has come with this kind of empty feeling. It’s something I tend to avoid talking about, but it bothers me when I can’t lose sight of what’s glaringly absent — when in a crowd of thousands, I focus on the one face that can’t be seen.
The last time I went home, I found a journal sitting idly in a dusty old drawer in my room. Inside, words of my fifth grade self filled the pages with letters to my dad I’d lost earlier that year.
I’ve always had a kind of complicated relationship with loss. It’s hard for me not to dwell on an absence when it has such an eternal presence. When I was younger, writing letters was my way of making his life seem infinite, because if I could feel like I was still talking to him, then the absence wasn’t real.
But how terrifying is that to realize? That the inevitable outcome of life is this abrupt and uncertain end that just leaves others to pick up the pieces where they left off.
I know I’m not alone in this. Among the thousands of students who graduate with me this year the amount of loss felt must be insurmountable.
Since 2020, COVID-19 alone has claimed the lives of over 500,000 Americans. 500,000 parents, grandparents, sons, daughters, siblings and friends. But the hurt doesn’t end there. Hundreds of thousands were left to pick up the pieces, missing funerals and goodbyes while partied-out youths flocked to line up at bars because somehow humanity didn’t outweigh a good time.
These are depths of loss I may never be able to understand.
In my experience, the hurt will always stick but it persists less over time. Milestones, to me, always came with a sense of dread because the absence made the hurt feel newly broken.
My final conversation with my dad was over the phone. I had called him to ask if he would feel better soon because I missed seeing him every day. He told me not to worry, he would be okay soon and ended on “I love you.”
In that same dusty drawer, I found a program from a play I did in the third grade with a note by my dad signed “I’m very proud of you” in the back. Reading that now, it’s so easy to imagine him saying just the same, and I’ve clung to that feeling a lot recently. It makes the final words not seem so final.
Throughout every milestone in my life, I’ve felt that absence, and with each accomplishment I make, my family reminds me my dad would have been proud. I think back to that note and for an instant, I can almost trick myself into thinking he was saying it today. If I didn’t know better, I’d read it as a sign, but either way, I think he’s become infinite as his words stand the test of time.
When I graduated high school in 2017, I had a lot of mixed emotions. I was so excited to enter into this new phase of life, to move to a new city with new people and to welcome in all kinds of new experiences. My dad only ever knew the version of me that was afraid to take on anything without him by my side, and I couldn’t help but dwell on how badly I wanted him to see who I had grown up to be.
This year, I’ve been trying to focus a lot more on the people I still have around.
My mom brags about everything I do, and I laugh it off saying that she “has to say that,” but in reality, I know she really means it. My friends, who make me laugh until I cry on days I struggle to feel human. And, my grandma, who has watched me grow from a girl who cried losing a game of Sorry! to someone who has followed in her footsteps defining my career. Someone, she reminds me my dad would be proud to see and I remember sitting on his bed when I was eight years old as he explained what a journalist was because he knew how much I had already enjoyed writing.
I graduate college this spring, the next tick on the checklist of things my dad will miss out on, another occasion I find myself spending too much time reflecting on what’s missing rather than the people and the moment that is there. I’m absolutely terrified, and I still don’t think I’ve figured out what it means to be an adult outside the bounds of a classroom. But today, I thought I’d take a page from my fifth grade self and check in once again. So, Dad, this next part is for you.
Don’t worry. I’ll be okay. I love you.
And as I sit on my bed, Taylor Swift blaring through the speakers in my room, I find solace in the lyrics filling my hazy mind:
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“If I didn’t know better/ I’d think you were talking to me now/ What died didn’t stay dead.”