After you experience a loss, you have reckoning of sorts. I assume that it looks different for everyone. For some, it might be the cliched "life is short" kind, going off to do things they wouldn't have normally done before-- travel the world, skydive, take some other exhilarating, uncalculated risk. For me, it was the realization that my relationships were what mattered most to me at a time when truly not much else did.
I don't believe that it’s ever not isolating when you experience such a personal loss. You feel as if you singularly feel a hole in your chest, a feeling of caving in and constricting when your chest is actually heaving. Yet, you know your family members are experiencing that feeling of loss too. And, though it’s not a competition, I don’t think any of my siblings or I could ever outdo my mother. Nothing in the world will ever compare to watching my mother’s body crumple at the side of my dad’s coffin. Her loud wails shook her body, piercing the reverent silence of our gathered family and friends, the sound a prolonged reverberation against the hollow walls of the chapel. My siblings and I had followed her down the aisle after bowing with incense at the altar, but our arms holding her up could never unbreak her heart.
No one understands my dad’s playfully sarcastic humor (ever wonder where I got it from?), how often he brought up the Vietnam War or the stock market in conversation, or how frequently he drove my mom to different markets in a single day to make sure she got the best sale on fresh fruits and vegetables. Still in just a few words or even mimed actions, my siblings and I howl in laughter at the memory of the random times our dad embarrassed us the most...Like the time he accidentally hugged a guest who he thought was our mom from behind. Because despite not knowing the full story of what each of our relationships were like with our dad, we were around through most phases of the growing pains.
And so, that makes it all the harder and all the not-so-bad (I rarely venture to say better when I talk about losing my dad). Even though I hurt, they are the people who get how I hurt. Yet that's also the caveat when things seem similar, I forget that there are differences. My siblings had a different relationship with my dad. Without question, so did my mom. He was a different person to different people and though we mourn him as a family, I am both alone and not alone in that feeling.
In pretty much all areas of life, it’s important to set your ego to the side and recognize when you might not have the experience to handle what's at hand. That's okay. I am still in awe to this day and grateful to the bottom of my heart for my best friend, Cayla. I somehow nonchalantly texted her that my dad had died and that I didn't want to talk about it, but I wanted to let her know. (Honestly, there is no real "nonchalant" way to tell people about something so personal and tragic… but, let's just go with that adjective for now.) I think it happened instantaneously, but she asked me if it was okay if she told her other friend Rachel about it because Rachel had also lost her dad. I didn’t think much of it at the time and simply agreed.
Little did I know, that short text would make a big difference. When I broke down on my first day coming back to the Columbia campus, Rachel would be the first person I'd text and I thank my lucky stars everyday for her.
I walked into my Quantitative Research Methods class late because the usual classroom had changed at the last minute. I felt the goosebumps on my forearms take shape from the stark chill that emanated off the old cement walls. I hastily walked in and tried to find a seat, and accidentally made eye contact with a girl I knew. I wanted to sit down next to her to say hi because it had been so long, but at the same time, I didn't. There was too much that had happened in the weeks that I had left school and I didn't want to explain or talk to anyone. I backtracked on my steps into the room where the first aisle of stairs started but the steps were incredibly narrow and steep. I resigned myself to sitting close-by the steps at the top for fear of potentially careening down the steep steps and rolling onto the stage where the professor had already begun her lecture.
In most of my classes, I try to keep off my phone but I had forgotten to turn on Do Not Disturb and could hear it buzzing with texts and then the long buzz of multiple rings. I had texted my siblings that I was thinking of dropping out… and like a proper twit (yes twit, look it up), I didn't respond to the chat after dropping that little bomb. I stole a glance and saw a number I didn't recognize had called me. This later turned out to be someone from the Office of Student Affairs who was supposed to reach me because my sister told them I was unresponsive. Laughable to think that they simply used the same method (i.e. phone call) to contact me. I turned my phone off and tried to focus on the lecture.
At this point, I didn't know how many lectures I had missed. All I knew was that I needed to learn this for the midterm that was coming up in less than a week.
Just focus and try to listen, I told myself. It's fine, you got this.
Yet, as the professor drew plots and figures I increasingly understood that this new information was building off previous lectures so I simply wouldn't be able to understand as hard as I tried. Also, there are just things that don't stick in your brain when your past weeks have all been pretty singularly focused on everything having to do with a sudden death. My head felt heavy as I remembered that I had last sat in her lecture, alone also, after I had found out that my dad had died.
I guess I’m never going to talk to him again. Well, no, not “I guess”. Like I really am never going to be able to talk to him again. Never have another conversation. What was the last thing we talked about? Why did we talk about that? Why wasn’t I there? Why, why, why….
Deep breath. I watched the lines and numbers flash across the screen as I felt the tightening in my chest and my nose dripping, by far the most annoying side effect of tears.
HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH IF MY NOSE IS CLOGGED?
I mean it's fine if your face is wet, but your nose seriously ruins everything by getting clogged. You can't breathe and you can only sniffle loudly to no avail. You sound a fool trying to inhale and exhale through your mouth as you try not to tremble.
I didn't have tissues on me, and I didn't want to make any sudden moves to draw more attention to myself. Besides, I was paying for this lecture even if I didn't understand what in the world was going on so I sat.
Finally, class was over. I ran out before any of my classmates who may have recognized me could see me and before I could possibly run into anyone with my face visibly red and puffy.
I texted Rachel hurriedly:
Hey girl, today is my first day back at school. I just feel terrible, nothing is interesting and nothing seems important to learn anymore. I kinda feel like just dropping out and going back to CA. I feel like I know the answer, but do I just stick it out?
To my surprise, she responded instantly telling me that she had been thinking about me. She understood, she also shut down after her dad died and knew that it was hard to transition back as if things were "normal". Much to her credit, she encouraged me to focus on the small things that made me happy or gave me some comfort, and I did. It took me a long time to remember what used to bring me joy, but with some time, physical movement was something that eventually brought me back to feeling myself again.
At any point in life, there are a million choices you can make in the direction that you can go.
There were a lot of roads that I could have gone down when I made the decision to come back to New York, definitely one of which was to quit on everything that I had worked for to get here in the first place. But I stayed, and I couldn't have done it without the support of Cayla and Rachel.
Hedda Hieu Nguyen