Losing A Parent Too Soon


In September I submitted an essay application to apply for a writing grant. I just found out it was rejected. It stung a bit, but I'm not ready to let go of the experience or the words quite yet. I worked really hard on this essay and my friend Bree seriously was THE most generous and amazing friend; editing and challenging me to push further...

So I'm not going to let go. I'm going to share it with you all because I'm proud of this piece...And while I'm tired, tired, tired of hearing no no no I don't see myself stopping anytime soon. This one's for all those who are tired of 'No' but keep pushin' on anyways.

What Remains For My Child

A wise woman who read coffee beans and drank sweet tea, brewed from sunshine told me God had given me the ability to remember because He knew I’d come to count on those precious memories one day.

People never believe me when I say I can remember being two. I remember sitting in my car seat on top of a table while my mother and father argued in front of me. My head followed them as they paced the room. It’s a simple memory, a fragment of a moment, but when I told my mom about the car seat and the table one random day when I was a young teenager she paused and put her hand to her mouth.

When my parents broke up I spent weekends with my father. I remember him taking me to see Pinocchio, burying my face in my dad’s arm during the whale part. He teased me after while driving back to my mom’s. Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo” played on the radio. Her butter-smooth thickness lulling me into a peaceful daze like it always did. He’d stop singing only to encourage me to join in. The sun danced all around the back of his head as he crooned; his hands swayed back and forth.

Then there was the night he performed at the top of the stairs, moonwalking to “Billie Jean” for my stepsister and me, sparkly glove included. I remember laughing as he effortlessly lifted one foot and then the other, moving into the spin and finally landing on his toes. The man could dance.
I remember him teaching me how to brush my teeth. Standing by his side as he instructed me to move the brush from one side to the other in circles. He stressed the importance of touching every tooth with your brush. I loved standing on a chair beside him, both of us facing the mirror. I loved doing it The Dad Way.

...Or the one time I got blisters from my new church shoes. He carried me into the bathroom, took off my shoes and made me put my feet in the bathtub as he poured rubbing alcohol on them. The cool liquid hit my foot, seeped into my blisters and began to burn intensely. I screamed in pain as he fumbled with band-aids and apologies. It was the first time I realized maybe, possibly my dad didn’t know everything. Yet, I still thought he was magic. How else could he make me laugh even though I was in extreme pain?

Those were the type of memories I held onto as a small child. They were sweet and easy. They all followed a visual pattern. They centered on my father, always radiating warm light. I never recall others being around us, even though I’m sure there were people. My brain chose to remember him how I felt him. The memories are hazy and simple, possibly because I hadn’t known they’d bear such importance later. When they popped back up, they brought smiles and a happiness I took advantage of. They were fresh and untainted and useful. It’s amazing what you purposely choose to see and retain when you know what you’re experiencing is rare and precious.

When I was four I moved to Texas with my mother. That was the last year I physically saw my father. My mother treated our move like a new chapter. She never mentioned my father or the life I had with him. The only way I could preserve my family was to rely on the images I had unintentionally, but thankfully, kept.

Once when I was nine I went searching through my home for a book only to find my mother, eyes swollen and tear-stained, in her bedroom being consoled by her mother. She sat up in bed and told me, through choking breaths, that my father had died. This memory
always comes back to me painted in violent reds. Her words pushed their way out, tears and spit flying, clearly heartbroken and crazed. I stood calm and stoic, unable to process or emote. I wasn’t hugged or consoled. Neither my grandmother nor my mother moved from the bed. Instead, I walked to my bedroom alone, closed the door and sunk to the floor.

Then the memory shifts. I remember being cold and still. I searched my room, willed the carpet and wood to teach me what to do; teach me how to grieve and exist. The room was silent and unyielding, empty and alone. Only then did I begin to cry. It was the first time I felt and understood loneliness.
It was also the first time I truly understood the concept of a father. For the first time, I felt his distance. I felt the emptiness of the last five years without him and an overwhelming sense of guilt that I’d never gotten to see him again. I’d never hear him sing again. I’d never have a daddy to love me the way I felt he had.

With my back against the door, I held my head in my hands as sorrow, grief and anger filled the cracks splitting through my chest.

On that day, up against my door, the wise woman’s words came back to me. That night I gathered up Sade, the silver glove, and tooth brushing lessons, and let each one play over and over again. I allowed the warmth of those memories to blanket me in the comfort of my past. I allowed them to block out my mother’s words as I sang Sade songs over and over again... “So if you want it to get stronger you’d better not let go. You’ve got to hold on longer if you want your love to grow. Got to stick together, hand in glove. Hold on tight. Don’t fight. Hang on to your love.”

She would swirl the ice in her tea like she was consulting crystal balls. “When the sugar sits it’ s time to stir things up, baby girl.”

After my father passed, I thought about death constantly. I gravitated toward stories and conversations circling the topic. I watched Beaches and Steel Magnolias on repeat, paying special attention to how those affected by death reacted. I became obsessed with my dad’s last day, what he thought about in his final moments. I developed an insatiable need to know about him, but no one in my family was willing to help. Everyone stopped talking about my father. It was almost as if he never existed.

Their silence made my memories more important. I took them and constructed a man I could relate to, one I could love and keep alive in my heart. I lived with a father made of memories. Though if I saw a father and daughter sharing a moment, a friend hugging her father goodbye, bits of my creation would chip away. Deep down I knew I didn’t have enough.

I’m not sure if it was practicality or pessimism that drove me to keep a journal, but even when I was thick in my own delusions I’d write. I wrote about everything: every insecurity, every passion, every dream, every heartbreak-- all for posterity’s sake. I wrote the reasons why someone would label me as moody (because I never felt like I belonged with my all-white family). I explained why I was insecure about my looks (because my family nicknamed me ‘Ugly’). I wrote about the meaning of friendship. Why I wanted to be an actor when I grew up, and how I felt when I got to perform. I was brutally honest; exposing insecurities, jealousy, anger and weaknesses. I understood the kids who sprayed their names on the walls of the world in hopes of being remembered. I wrote with a
specific audience in mind, an audience that would crave the why and scoff at anything less than the truth. I knew my children would read my words one day and they would never have to fill in the gaps of me with the memories of others, or the lack thereof. At nine years old I began to write with the journalistic integrity of a woman whose truths would be sought after and pursued with vigilance. I ignored the dangers associated with writing it all down. On more than one occasion I was grounded for the details of my writings. Still, I never censored (though I did learn early on never to refer to my mother as a bitch). Even with security breeches, I kept writing. I wrote for children who would want what I wanted from my father: a complete person made whole by a breadth of personal information.

“The truth is like tea. It needs time and sugar.”

For years I was allowed to believe my father was a saint. He was handsome and loving, intelligent and fun, but then I turned eighteen and my family decided I was old enough to hear the truth. The act itself sent me spinning. The realization that I was holding on to thin strands of him crushed the universe I had created for myself to function. My father hadn’t wanted me. He wasn’t always the most respectful person. They told me why he took his own life, a fact I had painstakingly wondered about for years. I’m not sure there’s ever a right time to divulge that type of information, but allowing me to pay tribute to false memories for years felt corrupt. I had created this great father figure in my head. He would have done all of the great things I saw other dads do. He would have avoided doing all of the terrible things I saw fathers do. It’s incredibly difficult to pretend you’re okay with loving a fraction of a figment of your imagination. The truth
blurred my resolve, which blurred my dreams. I had found so much strength in my version of my father, all lost.

I didn’t know what to do with a father who had initially not wanted me... who said I wasn’t his when he saw how light-skinned I was when I was born.

I still spin. Once you know the unknown is infinite, disappointment comes anytime it wants. Now having a child of my own, I try to tackle the unknown for her. Life is fleeting and unpredictable. I know I could pass before old age steals me away and if that happens, God forbid, my writing will pick up where I’ve left off. If I do get to see her reach adulthood, she’ll still have my work when she goes out into the world and makes a life for herself. I can think of no better gift than a mother’s road map. I think my life will make more sense if she’s given the editor’s notes, firsthand. It will be easier if she forms opinions of me herself instead of having to rely on the filters others give her. I hope she reads and learns why I am the way that I am. I hope she sees how her mother thought and felt about the world and most importantly how I feel about her. It’s no secret that motherhood swallowed me whole and spit me out as a deranged, sleep-deprived shell. I hope she’s able to read my words and see the person I was before I became pregnant, how I experienced motherhood and what it was like after the shock wore off (I’m waiting to write that any day now). I write about marriage and the handful of loves in my life before her father. People spend so much time hiding their true feelings and emotions, so when we experience something powerful we question if we’re reacting appropriately. It leads to questioning the carpet and the wood for the answers that humans are too scared to share.

When you lose a parent at a young age you experience two extreme losses. You’re robbed of the parent and of the opportunity to know the person who’s half responsible for your existence. I journal to right those wrongs. I write so my daughter will never lack in her quest to understand and know her mother. Some may call it morbid, but it’s the most optimistic perspective I’ve ever taken regarding the relationship I’ve held over the years with that of memory. My father’s passing may have left me only a handful of memories, but he gifted me with a lesson: I’ll never know my father, but the notebooks I’ve filled over the years will ensure my daughter is never left wondering if the sunshine dancing off my back is enough to carry her through the years without me. 


  1. It's hard to type through bleary, tear-soaked eyes.... I put off reading this for several days knowing, inevitably, this would be the outcome. If I'm gonna cry, I want to CRY.

    Tish, you gave me an insight to you, your father and your family that I'm sure only few know. Thank you and when I next see you, expect a HUMONGOUS hug ❤️❤️❤️

  2. I look forward to the hugs! For whatever reasons it pained my family to mention my father. If I ever brought him up I'd see pain shoot across folks' eyes and so after awhile it became the new normal. Speaking and celebrating memory keeps folks alive in our hearts. I just had to decide my need to have him close to me was more important than the discomfort I perceived in others having to remember him. Writing this was hard for so many different reasons.


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