Death, Dads, and Sand Castles

Today is hard.
It’s hard because I know better. I know that life is short and often times very unfair. I know people can be taken from you suddenly without any warning whatsoever. I know what its like to stare death in the eyes.  To wake up to the shocking news that your husband has died. To be taken to a private hospital room to “see him”, after he is already gone. To have a forever-image in your soul of his puffy arms and neck, lying in a casket. To have no goodbye. No goodnight. No good morning. No chance to breathe or adjust or process.
On days like today, Fathers Day and Mothers Day and all the other difficult “special” days since losing my husband, I long to go back. I want to go back to me and my brother and my dad playing on a Cape Cod beach. My dad swimming with us in the big waves, holding us tight and keeping us safe. My mom hugging us kids by the Christmas tree as we opened our many gifts, or making us a special birthday cake that looked like Winnie the Pooh or Raggedy Ann. Always making us feel special, always making us feel loved.

Me, the neighbor girls, and mom’s homemade birthday cake …

It was a time before I knew what pain or illness or death was. A time where getting some penny candy or riding the go-carts or building a really cool fort with the neighbors, was my biggest goal on a typical summer day. A time where my legs were as skinny as they are in these pictures, and where my dad actually still wore shorts. It was a time where a trip to Johnsons or Kimballs Farm for ice-cream made me the happiest person in the world, and where dad’s steak on the grill, or mom’s homemade spaghetti and meatballs, was about as complicated and awesome as things got.  A time where I knew nothing of disappointment or fear or aging. A time where dreams were made out of Legos, and hope sat inside of every badly-made sand-castle.
In many ways, I was lucky. The fact that my first instinct is to go back in time, whenever I’m faced with difficult or tremendously sad days, makes me lucky. Because it means that my childhood was happy and filled with love. It means that I had both of my parents, and that they both loved me, and that nothing earth-shattering or tragic happened during those years to take away my innocence. Not everybody is so lucky.

Mom, me, my brother Dave, Dad

My husband Don was not one of the lucky ones. He was the product of an affair, and his biological father had a family of his own. Don’s mother, who was quite controlling and manipulative, kept Don and his real father apart his entire adolescence. For almost 20 years, my husband thought that he was the son of a terrible man – his “stepfather” – who did nothing but abuse and harm his mother, and who one time, held an infant Don over a high balcony, threatening to let him go unless Don’s mother did whatever ridiculous thing he was demanding at that moment. My husband witnessed countless acts of physical and emotional abuse on the women in his childhood home, and eventually, his mom packed him up from their home in Whittier, California, and they escaped the evil stepfather.

My husband and his very first picture book. His love of animals began early on, because his mom worked 3 jobs as a nurse, and he spent lots of time sitting in hospital waiting rooms, entertaining himself.

Somewhere around his 20th birthday, my husband’s mother decided it would be a good idea to inform Don of who his real father was, and to set up a meeting between them. According to my husband, this meeting was awkward at best, and the man that was his father, although a very nice person with a good heart, did nothing that day or in the years to come to show Don that he wanted to be a part of his life, or that he mattered to him. Never in my life will I understand this, how a grown man felt no need to acknowledge or love his adult son, who only wanted a relationship with his father. They usually spoke about once a year – on Fathers Day. Their conversation was always the same. Don would wish his dad a Happy Fathers Day, his father would ask: “How are you and Kelley doing?”, and then he would make up some excuse as to why he had to get off the phone.
I would spend the next hour consoling the man I loved, trying to answer his painful questions of: Why doesn’t he want to get to know me? Why doesn’t he care? It broke my heart into about ten thousand pieces, each and every year.  His father continued to keep Don’s existence a secret within his own family, and so, about one week before our wedding in 2006, when Don’s father passed away, nobody told us. Nobody knew to tell us. Nobody knew there was an us. We found out almost 2 years later, after receiving a letter from a woman in Alabama. The letter read: “My name is Cynthia, and you don’t know me, but I think we share the same father. I’m writing to let you know that our dad died, and to see if you’d like to connect or talk.”

Me, my Bunny, and my Dad

During the year before we got married, I had written some letters, with Don’s permission, to his father, expressing how much it would mean to the both of us if he would be at our New York wedding. (he lived in Florida) Included in the letters were several pictures of me and Don together, happy in our joyous “engagement high”, and loving our life and our future of many promised years. I remember Don calling him just a few days after he proposed to me, excitedly telling him about how he had asked me to marry him under the Rockefeller Center Tree in NYC, and how our wedding was going to be filled with the themes of my love for Christmas. He said: “Well congratulations to you, but New York is just too far of a trip for me right now, so good luck and we’ll talk soon.” Don cried that night into my arms, because there was a tiny part of him that still had that hope, that just maybe, his father would show up for the most important, happiest day of his life.
Instead, his dad carelessly kicked his sand castle over, and hung up that phone one last time without a second thought. That was their last conversation, and a week or so before our wedding, Don’s father died after having a massive heart-attack on his golf-course. A long time later, his daughter Cynthia was going through some old mail and piles of her dad’s things, and she found my letters. She looked at the pictures of Don, who was a spitting-image of his father, and she figured out the rest and then reached out to us with her letter.

Me, Dad, and Don in Boston, 2010

Cynthia and Don kept in touch and spoke on the phone a few times, trying to piece together the puzzle that was the relationship between Don’s mother and their father. It was like trying to solve a mystery, and everyone who had all the clues was already dead. Don never got to meet his half-sister in person, because he died on that July 13th morning, of a massive heart-attack. Just like his father. Except his father had many warnings, and got to live out his life to a ripe, old age. Don was not that lucky. Much later on, after my husband’s death, I found out through a conversation with Cynthia, that their father had heart problems most of his adult life. He had a minor heart-attack in his 40s, a double-bypass in his 60’s, and then the final heart-attack while playing golf, at age 86. He lived a full and mostly healthy life, and he got to enjoy many rounds of golf while retired in beautiful, sunny Florida – the future that my husband pictured many times for us, and spoke of often.
But Don’s father never had the desire or the time to speak to his son on the phone, and he didn’t have the decency to take the 5 minutes to inform Don of his own medical history, and warn him to go get his heart tested and take the necessary precations that one would take when having early heart-disease in their immediate family. So because Don was healthy, active, never used a sick-day from work in his life, and never had any symptoms or warning signs of what was to come – his life ended at age 46, collapsing on a cold, hard floor. As Don himself used to always say, after coming home from a long shift as a paramedic and working on a patient they lost too young, due to sudden and unexpected heart-attacks, “that guy was fucked.”

Dad gives a welcoming toast at our 2006 wedding, as Don, me, and mom look on …..

It is tough to explain to people why Father’s Day always hits me so hard. Maybe it is because my husband and I never got to have children, and so I never got to see what an incredible dad he would have been. On Mother’s Day, I do grieve the loss of me never being a mother or having the family we might have had together – but that’s different. It’s different because at least I’m still alive. I will most likely never be a mother, and I definitely don’t get to raise a family with my husband, but I do get to live. My husband was robbed of that honor. He was robbed of time, and of life. He never got to be somebody’s son, and he never got to be somebody’s dad. And he REALLY wanted that – to be somebody’s dad. We talked about it all the time, and we talked about the possibilities of natural childbirth vs adoption, and he spoke of how much he looked forward to being that loving father in someone’s life, that he never had himself. And then he died – because his father couldn’t be bothered enough to give him a heads-up. It hurts. It is extremely unfair and it hurts to know that our lives were shattered and stolen from us by death. And every single year on Father’s Day, I still hear my husband’s voice inside my heart, asking: Why doesn’t he care? I can still see the tears collecting in his gorgeous blue eyes, as he looked at me, helpless, like a lost little boy.
My husband did end up having a dad though, a real dad who loved him like a son and who showed him that every single second that he had with him. My dad. For the last 7 years of my husband’s short life, he had the greatest bond with my family. My mom, my brother, and my dad all took him in, and he was one of us, and we loved him. And the relationship between him and my dad, was extra-special, because of the non-relationship Don had with his own father. Nothing made me happier than to see my dad and my husband out in the driveway, working on a car, talking baseball, or just mocking something together.
Laughing. There was always a lot of laughing. They were like buddies, and they really loved each other’s company. My husband called my dad “Pop”, which was just about the cutest thing in the universe. Seeing them together melted my heart, and it made the fact that his own father was never really a presence in his life, just a little bit easier.
On our wedding night, when the reception was over and the parties and hanging out with friends was over, and it was just me and my new husband in our hotel room for the night – he held me very close, looked into my eyes, and started to cry. “What’s wrong, Boo?” I said to him. “Thank you”, he answered. “Thank you for giving me a family.”

Don and my Dad go bowling … on our honeymoon!!!

And so, today is hard. And I know that I am not alone in today being hard. A lot of my friends or family lost their dads long before today, and mine is still alive and well. A lot of people had or have shitty dads, and mine is loving and caring and big-hearted and kind. Some people, a few dear friends of mine, do not have either of their parents alive, and lost them long ago. My friend Frank lost his best friend in the world to suicide, then his parents, and then his sister. I have no idea how he is still breathing – because it is really really hard.
And then there are people, like my best friend since I was a little girl, who have been dealing with the heartbreak of infertility for years now, and so through no fault of their own, they cannot be moms and dads. And of course, I cant forget my widowed friends – the ones that I have met online, or in person, or in endless late – night texts or phone calls, telling each other that it will be okay, or that maybe it won’t. They are hurting today too. The ones, like me, who never got to have children, because their partners died before they could. The ones who did have children, and now they are raising them alone – as only parents – not at all what they had planned. The widows have to play mom and dad, and the widowed men have to play both dad and mom. They have to watch their kid’s go through milestones and moments, for the rest of their lives, without their partners to share the glory, the horrors, the miracles. And so for all of you and all of us – just know that I know that it’s completely unfair, and it’s not right. And all we can do is just breathe. Breathe and feel whatever it is that you need to feel on this very difficult day.
Because it’s hard when you know better. When you know that every kite eventually comes back down, every puppy and kitten eventually goes over the rainbow bridge, and every sand-castle will one day disappear. It might get kicked by someone who doesn’t think much about your feelings. Or, if you are very lucky, it will simply get washed away by the waves, in the ocean that we call life.
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17 thoughts on “Death, Dads, and Sand Castles

  1. You are not only a great writer, you are an important writer. Your powers of empathy are astounding. Oh, and a little while ago I saw a rainbow. Whatever that means.

  2. It was our honor to give Don a family. We couldn’t have asked for a more loving, giving, beautiful man for a son-in-law. The best part was because he made you so happy. To see you two together made us so happy.

    Life can be so cruel…Don deserved much more and so do you. We will always be grateful to have known him, even for such a short time and for the wonderful memories he gave us of the beautiful life you shared together.

    Thank you Don…you may have never had the chance to be a Dad but you gave so much to all that knew you and you showed us all by example of how we humans should be with each other.

    You will always have a special place in our hearts. There should be a special “son’s day or daughter day” so that we could celebrate you and Kelley every year.

    Love you and Kelley so much,

    Mom and “Pop”

  3. Girl I wish there were more time in the day to get on the phone with you- you are a remarkable person and writer. Loved this, as all of the other posts I’ve read by you. Looking forward to seeing you next week- you rock girl! Xoxoxo

  4. I often wonder that too about my past childhood. There are times where I wish I can go back in time and go back to the good ole days. The days when you had no worries. The only worry was if your next door neighbor was able to go out and play or not. I miss those days. I am glad I also had a good and loving childhood.

  5. That was very touching. I saw a lot of my husband’s relationship with his own father when I was reading about Don’s “relationship” with his. Both are very very sad situations. It’s wonderful that a part of that missing piece for Don was found with knowing your dad.

  6. Kelley….this writing could have been written about my husband…he had a terrible relationship with his father….who favored his stepchildren over his own children…and my husband reached out to him every chance he could. It was only AFTER my husband died did his father reach out to me, of all people…and only then did he want to honor my husband….and
    ironically, this father just died nearly
    a year later(My husband died May 2012)…and there was a shared memorial service in my husband’s home state of California (we live in Ohio) a couple of weeks ago….I had a lot of heartache over the nonloving relationship my father-in-law had with his name sake son…who was the love of my life…and I had to give up the heartache and replace it with forgiveness because I was eaten up with sadness and bitterness…And as you wrote life is too short and my husband would not want it wasted in that way…2 weeks before his unknown death my husband said he forgave his father….and the week of his death my husband thanked me for letting him finally be part of a family who adopted him like yours did with your precious

    Your words echo my feelings…written so wonderfully…..

    2:5i year marriage..yet he would not discredit the mother by sharing the real reason for the divorce

  7. Wow that was hard to read. I had to take a deep breath after that one. I totally hurt too and I’m sorry you share that kind of pain. I hope more people read this because I know quite a few people who can relate in some way like you said. I’m happy you got a great mom and dad though. Happy Father’s Day to your dad.

  8. Another great post, Kelley. I’m glad that Don had your family. It sounds like they made such a huge positive difference in his life. C was sort of in the same boat – his abusive mother died when she was 50 (I’m still angry he didn’t make it at least that long) and he treated my mother like the mother he never had. I know she feels like she lost a son.
    Many hugs to you. all these holidays suck for all sorts of reasons, don’t the?

  9. Hi – I’ve been reading your posts for a while now, and I enjoy the way your words flow so easily from your heart, the real and raw way you describe your emotions, and how you face a spectrum of your emotions in an often humorous way.

    You hit on many points so poignantly, the past you revisit for comfort, your husband’s past that was less than nurturing, and the present that you grapple with on a daily basis.

    The one point you missed, because you are fortunate never to have experienced this kind of pain, is what Father’s Day means to those of us who have lost a child. I recognize that you have not had the joy of birthing or raising a child, and I hope and pray that you are able to experience that one day. However, to have loved and lost is not necessarily true when it comes to losing a child. This unnatural, atypical loss causes pain every single day, and Father’s Day/Mother’s Day are among those days that brings it to the fore. Where on the supermarket shelf is the deceased card section? “If I was still here on earth I would wish you a Happy Father’s/Mother’s Day and tell you how much I love you and how grateful I am that you were my parents.” Sigh. I used to sign my son’s name on birthday cards until my other children told me it was too creepy.

    Yes, our other kids call and/or send cards. But it can never be all of them who will wish us a happy anything anymore. And, just as you define yourself as the other half of your husband, as parents our identity is bound with our children in such a visceral way. But how can we be a parent to someone who no longer exists? The loss wrenches the heart in a very different way than the loss of a parent, but I cannot speak to the loss of a spouse. But to lose the person who calls you da-da or ma-ma as one of their first sounds deeply resonates on Father’s Day/Mother’s Day.

    There is a lot of pain out there. I am truly sorry for yours. It seems you lost not only your husband but your soul mate. Life just ain’t easy and that is something we seem to both struggle with.

    Hang in there and keep writing.
    Michelle/Gilad’s mom

    • Michelle, you are so right in that I cannot even comprehend nor imagine the horrors of losing a child, and I want to thank you for sharing this with me here, and let you know I really appreciate that you read the blog , and also appreciate the kind words you have said here. My heart breaks for you, and all we can do is keep getting up and trying again I guess. Im so sorry for what youve been through and continue to go through – its just not fair. I will hang in there if you promise to do the same. xoxo, Kelley

  10. IT’S A DEAL!

    It’s been close to 3 years for us, so I can tell you that time does help. It doesn’t take the pain away; it lessens the intensity. It doesn’t make you miss the person less, but you have fewer expectations of having them be part of whatever event you are having. The pain becomes more manageable, but then there are those moments when it comes rushing back…but the recovery from that gets better, too.

    There are silver linings, though, as crazy as that sounds. The thing is, the “before me” did not recognize enough of the goodness that came my way since I always wanted more. Now if I can sit with a cup of iced coffee and not feel stressed out, I feel grateful. If I’ve had a good nite’s sleep or if I’ve spent good times with friends, I consider myself lucky. But I have learned the hard way to sincerely appreciate things. And my anger at how tough life is is now down to a simmer.

    I wrote through my son’s illness, but now I’m kind of floating. When you’re not the crisis-of-the-week, people don’t always want to hear your inner thoughts. But I have patience now, and I know I will figure it out.

    Thanks for listening.
    Michelle/G’s mom

  11. It’s taken me a while to be in the right place to sit down and read – but tonight I’m finally here. And I’m so touched by this beautiful post for so many reasons, both the painful and the beautiful. You are such a wonderful writer. And you have so many beautiful and meaningful replies from so many people. I know it sucks to be someone who is doing important things due to a situation you would wish away any moment – but you are doing important things nonetheless. For you and for Don and for everyone.

    I cried reading the part about him thanking you for giving him a family – and I’m recalling when we talked about that on the phone a while back – I wish I’d gotten to actually feel like part of Drew’s family when he was still alive… but the truth is we just didn’t quite get there. I wish that the way I am close to them now could have existed when he was still alive – so I think that it is SO wonderful that you and he actually got to share that together, even if it was not nearly long enough.

    The family history information is just so hard to take in – it breaks me heart hearing that – and I know it breaks yours too. *sigh* Its just not fair. But we do what we can with what we’ve got left I suppose, dont we? You’re kicking ass, most certainly.

  12. I just found your blog, I lost my hubby Doug May 24, I can so relate to your writings and find them very comforting, thanks so much for sharing, Blythe

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