From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

When Daddy Died

Filled with the frenetic restlessness of my fourteen years, I impatiently stood in my parents’ kitchen listening to the drone of their conversation. Hurry up, hurry up, was my sole thought as I beat an accompanying tap with my foot. The bus would be arriving at the corner stop any minute, and I was tired of listening to chatter about doctors’ appointments and chest pain and shortness of breath. My main goal was to get to school on time and avoid a detention slip.

I couldn’t wait any longer. “Bye, Pop,” I called out. Totally out of character, my father was lying in bed while I tore through the house grabbing my jacket, lunch and bus fare. Mother was making Daddy a cup of tea when I hesitated at the door. It was the first time in my life that I could remember not kissing him good-bye. Oh, well. No time for a kiss today. Gotta go. My friends were waiting. He’ll be here this afternoon. I’ll kiss him then.

Besides, Daddy, at age fifty-four, was a strapping five feet, eleven inches. He was a railroad engineer working long, unorthodox hours on his daily train routes. He led the life of the rails, playing cards at the station house with the rest of the crew until his next “run.” Sure, he smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, but so did most of his friends and coworkers. He was usually the first one on the dance floor, whirling my mother around in a dizzying polka, stopping long enough to quench his thirst with a beer.

In between his extended train trips Pop tilled and weeded his garden, coaxing abundant crops from the earth. The back porches of the neighborhood were filled with the fruits of his labor, and if the neighbor lady were home, he’d stop by for a cup of coffee and a good joke. Everyone loved to see his big smile.

So, on that cold February morning, I didn’t give it much of a thought when I naively decided to exit without my usual hug and kiss. There was nothing to worry about. Besides, my father had promised to refinish a piece of battered furniture he’d picked up at the salvage yard. His workshop in the cellar was outfitted with the lifetime collection of a man who saw beauty in wood and castoffs. A favorite comment of his after a trip to the dump was, “Look at this beauty. Why, just a little sanding and it will be as good as new.” Our home was filled with little beauties.

His lesson to look beyond the outer shell of a piece of furniture also included the people we met. A particularly grouchy salesclerk was excused with, “Well, her husband is sick. She has a lot on her mind.” He didn’t let other people’s bad moods ruin his day.

As I ran into the brisk air I called over my shoulder, “See ya later!” But the guilty nagging of unfinished business bore into my conscience. I tried to relieve the ache by calling home at the end of the school day. Daddy was about to drive to the doctor’s office for his appointment, and he’d see me when I got home. Absolved, I went about the business of a high-school freshman.

Something was very wrong when I got off the bus at the end of my road. I could see a black stretch limousine parked in front of my house—the kind of car only the funeral director in town drove. I tried to run on rubbery legs, but no matter how hard I pushed myself, it felt like I was going in slow motion. Breathlessly, I flung open the kitchen door and stopped in my tracks. My mother’s face told the story. Next to her, the mortician began his technical explanation of what had happened. I couldn’t hear for the blood rushing into my ears. The only sound was an empty roar.

The next few days were tearless and raw. I sat in the back of the funeral parlor looking at the body of my father in the casket. I’m only a kid! He’s not supposed to die yet! My friends all have their fathers. He’s too good and too young. It isn’t fair. I spiraled into my empty core and knew that life as I knew it was over.

There was no rushing out the door now. I didn’t care about school or my friends. Burning into my brain was the memory of the lost moment, words never spoken and the hug never felt. Time was the enemy, and it overwhelmed me as the clock ticktocked through the night. Hour after hour I heard the chime until dawn viciously invaded my room. I was in no hurry for the day’s events.

I wouldn’t allow the tears that were pushing against my eyes to fall for fear that I’d be unable to stop the torrent. The pain that saturated every pore of my body prevented me from hearing or seeing anything but my father. I wanted to be invisible, to be with Daddy. Who would come to my concerts? My graduation? My whole being screamed, I need you! How could God do this?

The hours, the days, the years after my father’s death were blurry and turbulent as I foolishly tried to escape reality. Attempting to fill the aching void in my heart with the empty promises of a fast life delivered only trouble, and time did not heal my wounds. I was too busy being angry about my loss, but the day came when my grades couldn’t fall any lower, when there were no more parties, when my dearest and oldest friends stopped calling, when I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without shame, and the dam of tears broke.

For the first time, I mourned the death of my father, allowing emotion to wash over me. I cried for the loss of my childhood, for the way things used to be when my father was in our home, for the good times never to be realized, but most of all, for the person I had become. I felt like I could never be normal again.

Powerless, I called on the God of my childhood, and the healing began. The simple act of asking for help was the first step of a long and difficult journey. Daddy’s death lost its sting as my rebellious, destructive existence became a new life filled with self-discipline and responsibility. There were many times when I felt like a jigsaw piece that didn’t fit into a puzzle, but eventually that feeling left. Gratitude stepped in and took its place.

I had known pain. I learned to know joy. Finally, I had become my father’s daughter.

Irene Budzynski

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