The Fifteen-Year Thaw

My father died fifteen years ago today. This feels big to me. I’ve felt a sense of anticipation for this particular anniversary that has been absent literally every other year before now. In fact, some years I’ve forgotten the date altogether. When I brought this up to my therapist last week, she asked if I had any idea as to why I was feeling differently this year. My answer? Well, I’ll admit I gave her the easy one.

I don’t know.

Insert eye roll here.

But honestly it’s taken a good deal of sitting with what feels like dread in order for me to figure out that what I’m actually feeling is much more complicated. This is weird to me because I don’t miss my dad. There isn’t anything to miss. There aren’t memories to cherish. So I don’t experience that deep ache and longing for him that I still feel over the loss of my mom almost five years ago. Yesterday I had to go shopping for dress clothes for my thirteen-year old for his upcoming band concert. (#Godhelpme) After exhausting EVERY OTHER department store in Tulsa, I begrudgingly made my way to Belk. Why begrudgingly? Well, I thought it was because walking around another store was more than I could take. And while this was true, as soon as those sliding doors opened and I walked inside, I realized that I also felt way too much of my mom in that store. She loved Belk. To her, this department store represented the ability to provide for us in a way she’d never been able to before – before she left my father. So it just hurt too much to be there. I left as quickly as my broken body would allow.

My dad died in the middle of one of the most severe weather events in Tulsa history. The ice storm of December 2007 left much of the city buried under 1-2 inches of ice and led to the worst power outage ever experienced in the state of Oklahoma. Families, including mine, had to pack up and relocate to the homes of friends or family who had managed to keep power. As the ice fell, I drove myself to my father’s apartment. Just two weeks before, Dad had been discharged from his seventh hospital stay that year and finally placed on hospice. I was reeling from the horror of it all and feeling very much alone and afraid.

And cold. So crazy cold.

Over the next two days, as the ice fell and the power flicked off and then back on again – and with it the machine providing my father’s oxygen, I huddled under blankets and hovered over my dad’s failing body. I tried to keep his fever in check. I washed his face and hands. I helped him swallow what medication he could. And as I felt the warmth of him slowly fade away, I felt my own heart chill and harden much like the ice that covered the world outside his apartment door.

They say anger keeps you warm. They’re wrong. It makes you ice cold.

My husband tells the story of a stunt he participated in at a work party. It was called the pregnancy test because plunging your arm into icy water and breathing through it was supposedly the closest a man can get to what labor feels like (insert more eye rolls here). Pregnancy test involved placing your arm in a cooler filled with icy water, breathing through the pain and seeing how long you could leave it there. At first the frigid water was brutally painful – something akin to fire. It was an agony that could only be surpassed by that inner drive we as humans have to WIN (which I guess is a whole lot like how I got through the birth of all four of my children #competitivetoafault). Mark was determined to win. So he pushed through the pain until, after a few minutes, his arm went completely numb. Suddenly the whole thing became easy. Terribly dangerous, but easy. In fact, it became clear that he could leave his arm in there as long as he wanted because it just didn’t hurt anymore (and this is where the whole labor and delivery comparison falls apart). He also knew that when he pulled his arm out of the water and it began to thaw IT WAS GOING TO HURT LIKE HELL. But my husband is a smart man. He realized that eventually a frozen arm is a dead arm, so he pulled it out. And after a few minutes of writhing in pain while cradling his thawing arm, he was just fine.

Unfortunately, the heart isn’t as quick to thaw.

It’s too easy to say that my heart hardened with anger towards my father. Anger with him is a part of it, for sure. There’s a lot there that is worthy of anger. But buried within the layers of anger – when I choose to go digging – I can also find disappointment, loneliness, resentment, guilt, fear and so on…

And maybe the most important find of all – ambivalence.

The dictionary defines ambivalence as the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person… simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.

Why ambivalence?

Because I loved him and I was afraid of him. Because I wanted to care for him and I was deeply relieved that I didn’t have to anymore. Because I wanted him to live and I wanted him to die. Because I blamed my father for what had become of him and of us and I blamed myself for failing him.

It’s a brutal push-and-pull.

And it’s just much easier to keep my heart down in the icy water and allow it to freeze over.

But fifteen years is a dangerously long time to keep your heart on ice. I know this. Mark isn’t the only smart person in this family. And so I’ve been slowing pulling my heart out of the ice. The thaw has begun. It hurts like hell. But I can tell there’s life under all that ice. There’s warmth and new growth and the potential for spring.

Look around you: Winter is over; the winter rains are over, gone! Spring flowers are in blossom all over. The whole world’s a choir – and singing!”

Song of Songs 2:11-12