Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Realization: The Divergent Path

My head is throbbing, my nose is simultaneously stuffed up and running (How does that happen? If air can't get through, how can snot? It's a mystery.) and my cheeks are a mess of fiery red blotches. I just had a good, old-fashioned cry, and trust me - it wasn't pretty. I'm sitting here alone in a hotel room listening to the sounds of the happy people in the hallway who must have just returned from having cocktails. My breathing is starting to regulate itself to an even respiration pattern from the hitching gasps of my earlier sobs. I will be alright. I am not hurt. I am simply sad.

I'm in Boston this week, performing a fascinating research study on people with disabilities. We're interviewing folks with visual and mobility disabilities to see if we can gain some insight into how we might make our digital tools and content more user friendly for folks who rely upon assistive technology. I always tell people I love my job, and it's true. It's important work that means something and I feel fortunate to work for a company who places such a high value on the importance of accessibility.

Our last interview of the day was a man named Dave. I greeted him in the hallway to bring him into the room where we are conducting our interviews and when I saw him, I faltered momentarily because he looks like my dad. His beard was short and well-kept, not the long, scruffy one my father was so proud of, but the resemblance was there. His glasses were the same shape as my dad's, and because Dave had a significant visual impairment, he had some of the same mannerisms that my father had. Something about the tilt of his head, maybe.

I tried to push the thoughts out of my mind, because I had to focus on this interview, take notes, participate in the discussion, and get to know Dave. I had to hold it together and remain professional. But as the discussion went on, there were so many things that Dave did that called my dad's face to mind. The way he smiled as he nodded a bit as he said something. The way he searched our faces as he responded to a question, clearly trying to pick up facial cues to see if he was 'on the right track' with his answer. And his laugh. It was Dad's laugh.

These interviews are two hours long and we take a quick break about halfway through. During the break, I made a beeline to the bathroom stall, not looking my colleagues in the eye, hoping they wouldn't notice that something wasn't quite right with me. Thank goodness nobody asked me a question, because at that point I would not have been able to get words past the lump in my throat.  Behind the metal door of the bathroom stall, I gave myself a pep talk: "Pull yourself together, Monica. Focus. This is important work you're doing here, and Dave has a story to tell."

Before we resumed the interview, I sent my brother a quick email, telling him about Dave's resemblance to our dad. Zak's response was quick, light, and exactly what I needed to read. He told me he'd gotten his monthly phone reminder to call dad today and had been thinking of him too; that he missed the 'old fart.' Reading Z's email somehow centered me. I was able to focus on the rest of the interview and learn what I needed to from Dave.

I held it together until I got back to my hotel room. My colleague asked if I wanted to go to dinner and I politely declined. I needed tonight to just be alone with my thoughts. To catch up on some work, stare mindlessly at the TV, maybe, and look through pictures on my Dad's Facebook page. As I looked at some photos, I didn't see the resemblance to Dave quite as clearly as I did earlier. I think my mind was sorely missing Dad, and so internally I squinted a bit to bring my father into focus and I zeroed in on the similarities in mannerisms.

But I was surprised at the realization that my life's path has now diverged onto the "after Dad died" route. It seems ridiculous that this awareness came a full two-and-a-half months after his death, but somehow this concept that I'm never going to share another experience with my father became a reality today.

And that sucks.

Losing a parent is a reality for most people at some point in their lives. We all figure out how to get through it the best we can. I have been given many gifts in my life, and I can usually focus on them with grateful appreciation. I know that it will get easier, that I won't always feel an almost physical pain response to the pangs of sadness that hit me out of the blue when my mind flashes to something from the "life's not fair" file - like the mental snapshot of my father rubbing his forehead after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, saying to himself, "I don't know why I have such a bad headache." Or when I remember how terrified he was when they had to strap him to the bed because he kept trying to get up and was too dizzy to walk without falling. I have heard that these intense flashbacks that recall the horror that we felt during those last few weeks with Dad will fade with time and life will go on. I have so many wonderful things to look forward to. So many things.

But tonight I am looking over my shoulder down the path, searching for the spots behind me on the trail that were traveled before I was forced to take the "after dad died" fork in the road. Wishing I had maybe done things better or differently when he walked that road with me.

Before he left today, Dave squeezed my hand goodbye and left with a smile on his face. I can't explain it, and I'm sure a cynic (or, hell, a normal person!) would say that I imagined this, but I felt a physical warmth pass through me with Dave's handshake. Tears threatened to form as I smiled at him.  I know that logically the dial on my imagination-meter is cranked all the way to 10 because I am exhausted and homesick from being on the road for a week. But as Dave's face transformed quickly from Dave to my Dad and then back to Dave, he left me with something precious: a fleeting warmth that felt like my father telling me he loved me. I'm going to snuggle up with that gift tonight as I stay one last night in a hotel room before flying home to see my family, and cherish it.

Thanks, Dad. I love you, too.