Losing My Father, Then Losing His Gifts

It was only an earring. A dainty stud with my birthstone, opal, glittering back at me in shades of orange, silver, green and smaller technicolor sparkles. But when it fell out of my ear and onto the crowded dance floor, panic ensued.

It was an accident; I had just brushed my hair out of the way when it had fallen off. Even though I frantically searched the floor with my phone’s flashlight, I knew it was gone forever. The worst part was that it was the second pair that I’d lost. The studs are so small that once they are gone, there’s almost no way to salvage them.

I’m not a materialistic person by any stretch of the imagination. I like things as much as the next girl, but tangible objects aren’t something I desire. There are very few things that I cling to. Those earrings, unfortunately, were one of the few.

In October of 2015, my father and mother went to Israel. He had been having back pain for months but powered through. Though I urged him to go to the doctor for x-rays or a cat scan, he said it was just pain from the rotator cuff in his shoulder that he needed replaced. His primary doctor said it was sciatica. Considering he never complained about pain unless it was severe, I had a feeling in my stomach that this was more serious than he let on. When they returned from Israel, he had an appointment with the surgeon.

A few weeks later, he and my mother came to visit my brother and me in New York. They decided that their plan was to move to New York when my father retired (which we never expected to happen because he was a workaholic), so they started to rent out a place on the Upper West Side. I took the bus down 10th Avenue, feeling such relief to see my parents, especially when I’d been worried about my father. He complained again about the pain and had to lie down, but he wasn’t acting any differently than usual. Still, I felt unsure.

My parents told me about their trip, my father offering his own distinctive anecdotes which included comments on the food, waiting for my mother to get ready, and other remarks that no one else would think as noteworthy. He was the ultimate storyteller. He presented me with three sets of earrings — all fire opal, telling me how Mom threatened to go after the shuk owner if the earrings weren’t real.

Even though I had this feeling in my stomach that something was off, I didn’t push it. After their visit, I continued to call my parents at home in hopes that I was just making something up in my mind. I don’t know whether I was too afraid to ask or if I wanted to believe it was as simple as something related to his shoulder.

I wouldn’t find out the truth until the next month, on Thanksgiving. I knew something was wrong when he wouldn’t take a phone call from his doctor in front of me, instead sending me out for an errand. I also knew something was off when my father was absolutely exhausted while waiting for me to finish cooking our Thanksgiving meal. It wasn’t until we’d finished the meal that my father broke the news. He had stage IV Lung Cancer.

I think, at first, I thought it was a sick joke. I didn’t know how to react. It took a few moments for it to settle and, by then, I was bawling my eyes out. My father said that I couldn’t cry because if I was weak, he wouldn’t be strong enough to fight it. As it turns out, the strongest man I know wasn’t strong enough.

By April, he was gone. Everything I’d ever wanted, every dream I’d had about the future, died with my father. I won’t be walked down the aisle at my wedding by my father. I won’t get to take my parents out to dinner with my first publishing check. My children will never get to meet their grandfather (at least they’ll have my mother. She’s going to live to be 300 and still look like she’s 40, I swear).

I’ve received plenty of gifts from my father, most of which aren’t tangible. I have his business acumen, strong will, and good heart. I don’t suffer fools, I think for myself, and I believe that family is more important than anything. Those are things that mean more than any gift I could hold in my hands.

But the moment that earring fell to the floor, my heart sink. I understand it might seem insignificant. I realize that it is just an earring. But it felt like, on a much smaller level, losing another aspect of my father. They represented a time before my world, as I knew it, ended.

Grief isn’t something you can push past. Once you go through it, it becomes a part of you. It eats at you and lives inside of you. It also suggests that you put things into perspective. Nothing seems to have quite as much meaning anymore. Or, perhaps, everything has meaning. More than a year later, I can finally enter Zabar’s again, where my father would eagerly select the “oiliest” whitefish they had to enjoy for brunch. Before, just seeing a Bloody Mary or chicken parmesan — my father’s favorites — on a menu would make me tear up. Now, whenever I go out and I see either on a menu, it makes me smile.

This past Thanksgiving, I was reminded of the pain. I’m sure my father didn’t purposely tell us his news on a holiday, but it has made one of the days you’re supposed to be thankful the hardest for me. As much progress as I’ve made, Thanksgiving is one of the few days that still really hits me deeply. There will always be an empty chair, At the same time, it has made me more thankful for the time I had with my father.

Perhaps losing the earrings was a sign that I need to let go. After all, I can lose tangible things. What really has meaning are the memories. Those earrings connected me to my father, yes, but what connects me to him more is the values he instilled in me. Losing my father almost broke me; losing an earring certainly won’t.

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