17 years ago today I lost my father. While I don’t normally post too much about personal things, because I realize that most of you don’t read this blog for accounts of my life, feeling connected to you as readers and commenters, I felt inspired to write about this today.
If you haven’t lost a parent (or a dear loved one) or lost someone only recently, it’s hard to understand the feelings that you experience years later. When I think about how much my father has missed out on since his passing, it seems like more than 17 years. However, on the other hand, it just doesn’t seem possible that this much time has gone by.
Losing my dad has taught me that life is messy and sometimes incredibly cruel. When my dad got diagnosed with Melanoma (the second time) in 1996 he was 44 years old. Several years earlier he had a mole removed from his shoulder that, surprisingly, came back as Melanoma. It was pretty deep. Yet, despite this, after having surgery, which included removal of some lymph nodes in the surrounding areas of the cancer and a skin graph, he was declared cancer-free. It hadn’t spread. What a relief. Therefore, in 1996, after months of him being ill, first with what we thought was at first food poisoning and then an ulcer, a CT scan showed a tumor in his intestinal tract. We were shocked when doctors asked about his previous diagnosis of Melanoma on his skin. What did one have to do with the other? Back in the 90’s it was still misunderstood how Melanoma spread. As we came to find out, while his lymph nodes were clean, the cancer had gotten into his blood stream and spread. He was given 6 months to live, however, when my uncle, a surgeon, looked at has reports and scans, he gave him six weeks. Yes, that’s how quickly Melanoma spreads.
My dad wound up surviving 15 months through extremely dangerous treatments, the blessing of having a doctor in the family who could step in and help, multiple surgeries, and more. We celebrated his 45th birthday in a Florida hospital, and my sister and I spent our last Christmas separated from our parents while my dad had yet another surgery in Florida on Christmas Eve. In the end, it was my dad’s decision to stop all treatment. As hard as it can be to believe, we all supported him. We had hospice come into our home and he died with dignity at around 7:30pm.
Living through the 15 months that he was sick, combined with the grieving that followed, practically wrecked me. I was 23 when he died, not a child, but someone who was just starting to begin true adulthood. I still needed him. Losing him changed me forever. I saw the world differently. Suddenly waiting around for things to happen seemed silly, petty stuff was senseless and at a very young age I took an inventory of my life that most people don’t do until middle age.
One thing that I was deeply unsatisfied about what my career as a fashion designer. This really pissed me off. Not only had I decided that I was going to be one at the age of 9, and then worked my butt off to become one, but I felt really inconvenienced by the fact that I didn’t feel settled in my career. I resented that something gnawed at me and told me that this was not the career I was meant for. I just wanted to stick my head in the sand and go to work. Yet, the more meetings I sat in where the design team would spend 20 minutes arguing over something like whether a skirt should be 18″ or 19″ long, or if a shirt should have four buttons or five, it became clearer and clearer, this wasn’t me anymore. It was on a 1st class Chunnel train from London to Paris for work at 25 and sipping champagne, miserable, that I realized that there was no way this career was going to make me happy.
The thing I have learned about grief and loss is that it never goes away. However, what you learn to do is plant beautiful things around the ugly hole that never gets filled again. 17 years later, I have learned to do that. Not only did I eventually leave my career as a fashion designer to start my style consulting business in 2002, but I learned how to become the person who was born the day my dad died. And, for this, I wouldn’t trade anything. What I have learned is that, while life can throw you some of the ugliest and most devastating things, it’s not only what you do with them that matter, but how you see them. 17 years later, not only have I moved on, but my entire family has. It can be crushing to know that my dad never saw either me or my sister get married and never met his grandchildren, however, I think that makes him very happy from heaven to know that if he showed up today we wouldn’t know where he would fit. If you are only experiencing recent loss this may sound horrible but, trust me, in 17 years you will understand.
In 2008 I released my first book. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind who I would dedicate it to. If it wasn’t for the loss of my dad, my life probably would have never skewed the way it did. Interestingly, my father was an entrepreneur too. I guess it isn’t just the sarcastic eye roll, the exact same mouth, stoicism, and the way I tend to internalize a lot, that I inherited from him.
Right before my book released I got married. It was 20 days prior to the 10 year anniversary of my dad’s death. I knew I wanted to do something that honored him, but also knew that I didn’t want to do something sappy. When I considered the sappy route I could just see my dad in heaven, rolling his eyes, saying something like, “are you kidding me?”. Instead, this is what seemed appropriate, a celebration of life, vs. a mourning of loss. A tribute that reminded everyone that it’s okay to move on and create a beautiful life, while still honoring those who made it possible. The video below is what I did.
Nothing seemed more perfect.
Oh, and FYI, I can promise you that my dad is rolling his eyes in heaven right now for me even taking this much time to write this post. Sorry dad, but deal with it, you were loved by many, and still are.