When I was 4 years old, my father died.
When I would meet someone new, I needed to get this information out almost as soon as I said my name. “Hi, my name is Rachel,” I’d say. “My father died.”
Next, I usually let them know that my mother wrote a book about it and that we were doing just fine, whether we were or not.
If I let someone know that my father died and that I was Rachel from “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” then perhaps they would understand.
If I drew attention to it first, they could not judge me. They would not be surprised by my sadness. I wouldn’t have to try so hard to seem normal. Perhaps then, they would excuse my worry.
I worried a lot. I worried about having friends. And not having friends. I worried about being cool and pretty and smart. When I was older I worried about my health. Constantly.
But mostly, I worried about my mother.
I was convinced something awful was going to happen to her. If she were late coming home, I would pick out my black dress and wonder where I would live. I knew I was one mere tragedy away from the orphanage. And I knew that tragedies actually happened.
So I clung to my mother.
I called her at work incessantly. I referred to her as my best friend. I slept in her bed until I was about 9.
And though I clung to my mother, she wisely did not cling back. I knew I was loved, but I was never discouraged from doing things that did not include her. And so as an adult when I moved across the country, I did not feel I was abandoning her. She gave me the freedom to create my own life. That was the best gift she could have given me.
And though I was the daughter of this very generous, loving mother, I still felt cheated. I have spent years trying to create a connection between my father and me, needing to be his daughter as well. I have traveled the country meeting his friends, gathering his autopsy papers, searching for what he may have left behind. A letter he wrote. A hat he wore.
I have watched videos of him so often, the tape has worn down and his image has gone missing. Although I am very much my mother’s daughter, at times, I was more the daughter in search of what wasn’t there. The daughter of the missing parent.
I was the daughter of death, the daughter who had been shortchanged. At least that is how I saw myself.
And so, a few years back, feeling I had something to offer, I trained to be a grief counselor. As I toured the facility, I cried for the little 4-year-old girl I once was who did not have a place like this. And I felt emboldened to do good work.
But I quit on my second day of training. Not because I could not handle it, but because I had a secret.
I was two months pregnant. I sat there and realized I no longer needed to concentrate on death. I had this new life to think about. It was quite freeing.
I am no longer just a daughter. I am a wife and a mother now. My role has been expanded. That empty part of me is more full. I no longer define myself by what is missing. And so, when I meet someone new these days, the first thing I want them to know about me is not the loss of my father, but that I am a mother.
And I wonder if being a mother is what allowed my own mother to survive.
I look for my father in my son’s face sometimes. I look for him in my mother’s stories. But I am not the lost daughter anymore. And though I admittedly still worry some (I check my son while he sleeps a little too much, I take note of sirens when my husband runs to the store), it has improved. For I know now that I am more than just the girl whose father died.
Nevertheless, although I am 38 years old, that 4-year-old girl and her story still linger within.
I used to try to heal her, guide her, banish her even. Depending on how the older me was doing at the time. Now, though she is quieter than she used to be, I like her being there. She reminds me of me. At times, I feel she takes care of me.
She is my true self. She is unburdened by the tragedies of life, running around her front yard before death entered her world full of hope and belief. But she is also knowledgeable, injured and cautious because it did.
As a mother, I am all of these things, but I try to keep the worry at bay. I don’t need as much taking care of today. I have someone else to take care of. And I need to believe that my son’s future will not be touched by despair. Yet, I know that it is possible.
But, I also know now, that it is not a given.
Rachel Zients Schinderman and her mother, Eileen Douglas, will speak at the The National Alliance for Grieving Children 13th Annual Symposium, June 25 – 27 at California State University, Long Beach. For information go to http://www.nationalallianceforgrievingchildren.org/mc/page.do?sitePageId=73056.
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