Not too long ago I realized that I’ve been alive longer than my dad was alive. That may sound weird, or even morbid to some, but for those of us who lost a parent as a child, it’s the birthday that is most poignant. For many, expecting their fate to be the same as that of their parent, there even is a fear of dying at that age… For me, it’s about identifying with my dad and trying to understand who he was as a person.
My dad was 41 when we he died. To be exact he was 41 years, 5 months and 14 days old. I was 13 at the time, so my perspective, like that of any young teenager, was that my dad was old. Also, my dad’s parents had preceded him in death, one by five years and one by eight months. So, in some respects it was the natural course of the life cycle.
Once I came of an age that would roughly make me my dad’s contemporary, I tried to put myself in his shoes and imagine what his life was like. Most people that I speak with who lost a parent when they were a child express some apprehension as they reach the age their parent was when he/she died. Many are surprised when they actually live past that age. I understand the sensation of reaching that age and thinking about how life would be for my family if I were to die, but I never felt the fear of dying myself. I have always said that I’d like to skip 41 and just jump from 40 to 42, but facing my own mortality is not what made the milestone so salient for me.
Of course there were some unsettling emotions when I was diagnosed with the same disease (lung cancer) that took his life, and it didn’t help that I happened to be around the same age (39) that he was when he was diagnosed and died from it. I do think about the fact that my dad probably had lung cancer earlier, and how different life would have been if his cancer had been caught sooner. I also wonder what my fate would have been at 41 if mine hadn’t been caught early. I don’t let those thoughts consume me, but when I look in the mirror there are many times I see the image of my dad. Soon, I will no longer see that image because my dad will forever be 41. After I erase the terrible images in my mind of my dad when he was sick, I will always remember him as young, healthy and active. It’s actually a beautiful thing; the positive side of me that always insists on finding the silver lining in unfortunate circumstances.
It was a strange feeling to approach the relatively young age that my dad was when he died, and it gives me the chills to actually hear myself say, “41,” when asked my age. For 27 years my association with the age 41 had been significant, but I didn’t anticipate how I would feel after I reached it; the profound loss of not having that connection with my dad anymore. There will be no more, “Following in my dad’s footsteps,” and I will no longer hear, “When your father was that age…” It definitely threatens my identity a bit. I will never again be able to correlate anything in my life with my dad’s life, and that is why it’s so important to me to understand who he was. I never got to know my dad as a person. Sure, I have great memories and stories, but only from an egocentric adolescent perspective. As I’ve gotten older and my grief has evolved, I continue to yearn for that adult relationship and understanding of my dad. I search for any story or memory that will help me discover who he was and I try to find any connection I can that will help me feel closer to the man I never got to know.
What I wasn’t prepared to feel or understand is what he felt as a parent during his illness. My son Jack and I have the same age difference as my dad and I. From the moment Jack was born, I knew I would look at him differently when he turned 13, but I never expected our lives to be quite so parallel. In a way, I was living my dad’s life, and Jack was living mine. It was especially eerie when I received my own lung cancer diagnosis. Not only could I relate to the anguish my dad must have felt, but I could also identify with the fear and uncertainty that Jack was feeling. I’m not sure which is worse. As a parent I felt heartbroken and helpless, and as a child I felt lost and confused. Thankfully Jack‘s story ended differently from mine, but it brought new emotions to the surface; the 13 year old girl inside of me is envious of her own son.
I now understand why my grief was so intense and why my ability to process my dad’s death has been a long and difficult road. I see where Jack is in his life as a teenager, trying to manage the normal stresses of adolescence, struggling for independence and fighting to create his own identity. I cannot change what happened to me at 13 and I cannot change being diagnosed with lung cancer, but after following a little too closely in my dad’s footsteps I did change the path; I will celebrate my 42nd birthday in a few months (and I plan on many more!). I feel sad that my dad didn’t get the chance that I got, but as a parent I am grateful, so I live vicariously through the happy ending that Jack and my other three children have been fortunate to experience. In a way, I feel like my survival of lung cancer was my ‘do over.’