My dad died during my final year of law school. He never woke up from his third heart bypass surgery. I stood next to his bed in ICU when they switched off the machines. I remember how at the last moment his eyelids had opened, but his irises were all milky and faded. They were not my father’s eyes.
His passing had a profound impact on me. It felt like the ceiling to my world had been ripped away, that suddenly the rules of life applied to me. I didn’t have immunity after all.
We had a rocky relationship up and until I entered law school. You see, I screwed up a lot and my dad had concerns about my future, like whether I would actually have one. My going to law school had him beaming with unrestrained pride. I was getting my life together.
I got offered a position with a law firm in a town near ours that year. I didn’t accept the firm’s first offer and so they had amended it. My excitement was somewhat subdued by my dad being in hospital, but I felt confident he would walk out like he did before, his veins updated and new, a renewed zest in his step. I was eager to tell him the news of the new offer. After all, this was how we both wanted my legal career to start. But I never got to tell him that.
It happened on a Friday. I had just written my first paper for finals. The firm had phoned me later that day with their amended offer. I remember driving from Cape Town to Mossel Bay—over 400 km away—to visit my dad for the weekend and deliver the good news. Little did I know I would never get the chance. He passed away that night.
I didn’t complete my exams. Emotionally I imploded. After some significant coaxing from my family, I went to see a psychiatrist for the first and only time in my life. He told me to write a letter and address it to my dad. I hadn’t thought of dealing with my pain in that way, which is ironic considering how I loved writing, but then I wasn’t thinking straight, just obsessing over how terrible life is.
So I listened to the shrink and wrote the letter. It started slowly enough, but then something broke, and everything just came pouring out. I wrote with fury and grief. I allowed my anguish to flood those pages, all my regrets, all my fears, my anger at God—everything. I went all in. Tears and snot and ink and half a dozen pages later I was finished and emotionally spent.
I felt better, though. Lighter. My grief was still there, obviously, my heart still ripped to shreds, but somehow writing that letter gave me some closure, even a slither of hope that life could still hold promise. I realized then a loved one’s passing only affects those left behind. It’s the absence of that person–the inability to share special moments or see the glee on their face or hear their happy laughter–that breaks your heart. It’s that permanent absence that makes the longing so tangibly painful. Writing the letter to my dad somehow helped me cross a bridge to him, making his absence, if not less painful, at least, more tolerable. It helped me pick up my sorry self. I went back to law school the next year and completed my degree.
It’s been fifteen years and I still have that letter tucked in the back of one of my old journals. It’s yellow now and crackly, but the words are still there. The pain of longing never completely disappeared. Instead, it has evolved into something that is closer to a dull wintry ache you feel on cold, rainy nights.
I wish my dad could have met my wife and kids.
Writing affects me this way. Always has. It is a sort of therapy. An unburdening on paper of sorts, and I always feel better for doing so. I realize I’m generally undisciplined. I’ve tried to keep a journal for most of my life, but I could never stick to a routine. I’ve gotten better at it as I got older and life became more complicated. You know—when life itself is both complicated and simple all at once.
Keeping a journal allows you to unplug from the world around you. Writing fiction has that same effect to an extent, but with journaling you are the main character and it allows you to take stock of life, of you, your emotions, and how you fit within in the moving parts of this great machine we call Life. It also keeps you sane and keeps the noise in your head down to manageable levels. It’s a silent therapy.
I say you, I mean me.
Sometimes it untangles a complicated mess. Sometimes, when it feels like you’re falling through the cracks of life, writing allows you more honesty–with yourself and with your unseen enemies–and it helps you through the fog of emotion that clouds your thoughts so overwhelmingly.
It also helps you claw through writing insecurities.
Writing in your journal, as a writer, is a good way to collect your thoughts, order them, and prepare yourself for the day. It creates a quiet peace.
This is a longish post. I’m sorry. It is also a deeply personal one. You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about this today. Well, I read an article on Brain Pickings this morning about famous authors and their journaling habits and it made me think and you know how it is once you start thinking, then you have to write about it.
I say you, I mean me.
This is my last post for 2014. I wanted to make it extra special and honest. Emotionally honest in the way that Hemingway mandates. I wish you a Happy New Year. May 2015 hold so many wonderful things for you that not smiling becomes an effort.
I say you, I mean you.
Until next year.