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In Memory of My Daddy

Life changes fast. 
Life changes in the instant. 
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. 
The question of self-pity.

~Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

When I walked out the door every morning to leave for school, I always assumed that when I came back everything would be the same as when I woke up that morning. Now I know, regrettably, that life doesn't work that way.  Everything might be indescribably perfect one day, then the next, everything else could fall apart. It's almost as if life can just stop right in the midst of a fairytale, and the only option you have is to start all over from the very beginning in an entirely different life.

On December 13th, 2006 the most essential man in my life-my best friend-my role-model-my daddy… died. For seventeen years, things were great—they were beyond great. Sure, there were a few speed bumps in the road here and there, but none that blew out the tire completely. Don't get me wrong, I am more than appreciative for all of those fortunate years I was able to experience living in utter contentment and bliss. However, it doesn't change the fact that the fairytale I once knew no longer exists.

Now is the first time I have ever truly felt that life has actually stopped.  And yet, it hasn't. 

That phone call from my mom; the sound of her voice, the way I could hear my heart beating and ringing in my ears, the way my heart fell into the core of my stomach… the news I heard that day was the one thing I had always dreaded hearing for as long as I could remember. But dread does not keep it from happening.

There was a gap of time, a clarity I will always remember, a stillness between delivery and comprehension.  It's not reality.  It's not a dream.  It's not even a nightmare because within the sensation of emptiness, something keeps going.  It is a pulse in the middle of white.  I could reach out and touch the person in front of me.  I could feel the phone in my hand.  I even sensed the heft of the tears in my eyes waiting to burst, yet the next part, whatever that is, couldn't happen.  Time had stopped, yet I was moving and breathing.  Time had stopped and yet I hadn't.  Something huge has ended and yet it had not ended me. 

He wasn't just a "dad." He was the dad. He went above and beyond his "father curriculum" and taught me far more than I ever dreamed of learning. And the amazing part was, he never had to teach me by actually telling me. All I had to do was watch this amazing person – my dad – do what he did, which was love. He loved everyone around him. Even the people he really didn't "love," he still loved. That might sound like a contradiction, but he would find some way to look past the negativity, whatever that negativity was, and he'd find a way to turn it around. He was one of the few people who truly practiced what he preached.

He didn't just get lucky and score big on his books from a few wise words that he randomly came up with one day. He actually truthfully knew how to make people establish peace and even bliss in their lives. What an amazing quality to have – he had the capability of changing someone's entire life through his words… Not just someone's life, millions of lives.

Such a man can be said to wield a lot of influence, yet you would never have known it if you knew my dad.  My dad had a genuine humility and energy that was so contagious, you could feel it the second you came into contact with him. His energy was vibrant, yet calm at the same time.  His laugh was infectious, his smile gentle.  He was clearly exhilarated by the experience of being alive and had the power to infect others with his passion.

Yet, for all his fame and influence, my father taught me the power of words, teaching, and love – not the power of power.  This is what I carry with me on my journey to college.  This is what I keep in mind when school or even just the little mundane things seem utterly inconsequential.  Words matter.  Ideas and love are the vehicles toward being the best we can be as a species in this beautiful miracle of an opportunity to live in this world.

Sometimes, when I start to cry hard, I like to sit in my dad's closet, or go into his office.  I like to be somewhere that reminds me of him because it makes me feel he is closer. Death seems so far away, an unimaginable distance. When I was in his office last, I found myself surrounded by and in complete awe of the number of books he has written over the years.

Until that moment, I had never taken the time to realize how amazing it is that he wrote all those books. As I sat alone and let myself cry and miss him, I started to pick up each book and examined it closely. I opened each book up a few times to various random pages and skimmed the words on each page. After I finished, I noticed that on each page of each book, no matter what page I turned to, the words written were astoundingly beautiful. Each word brought me a sense of peace, comfort and even contentment. The wisdom in his words is hard to describe. My daddy had this amazing unique way of communicating the concepts of happiness to people, some very abstract ideas, presenting them very simply through his words through his voice. Everything he says just flows so beautifully, gracefully and calmly.

It's strange because all these years, I never knew what all the fuss was about?  So many people would constantly come up to me and comment about how my dad "changed their life" or how "brilliant" he is or what an "amazing writer" he is. I never understood what they meant and at times I even found it a bit annoying. I mean, he was just daddy to me. It was hard to see him as others did. Now, I can see it.

My understanding of the importance of ideas and words and their link will buoy my survival during this period and my journey into college to the importance of teaching and learning – these are the essentials to a life well lived.  Reading and writing are not just a means to a grade, they are the means to zap a connection between two or hundreds or even millions of people. 

I will never look back and say "I wish I did that differently" or "I wish I spent more time with him," or ever experience any sense of regret, because my dad and I lived our relationship to the absolute fullest. Whether it was some intense, political conversation we engaged in, or a light-hearted laugh, I treasure every memory I have with him because despite what we were doing, or what we were talking about, it was with him and that alone means it was quality time spent.  This too, this sense of deep engagement with those around me about matters of substance as well as just the day-to-day, I intend to take with me to college. 

This brings me to the question of self-pity.  I think Joan Didion's words are profound.  In a single sentence, "the question of self-pity," she sums up what the entire human experience can be hinged upon.  I know because I wrestle with it daily.  Put your guard up too much, then you're not getting the full experience of life.  Indulge it too much, then you risk falling into the void and never coming back. 

It's weird because a lot of people my age don't know how to handle something like this.  They feel sorry for me and I hate being pitied.  I hate the feeling of everyone looking at me waiting for something to crack.  I can sincerely say that my dad's death has by far been the hardest, most tragic occurrence of my entire life. All the things I once thought were such a "big deal" no longer come even close in comparison. 

This, again, brings me to "the question of self-pity."  Even more so than "to be, or not to be," the answer to the question of self-pity can lead to something even worse than "not being."  To over-indulge the desire for self-pity can throw a person into the dark abyss leading to a life of numbness.  To hide from the pain and over-protect is also to lead a life of waste.  To truly live means to face down the question of self-pity. 

I certainly don't have the answer; I just know that it is important to anticipate the question.  I know that the question will come back again and again as a part of being alive.  I don't have any pithy profound nuggets of wisdom to offer yet, maybe I never will.  I do know that I will get through this, that much I can feel from deep within.  More significantly, I have learned that if I can get through this, I can get through anything. I also know that I am in the process of becoming truly fearless.  It's almost as if you can't live fully until you've experienced a significant amount of pain or suffering.

I have learned that when it feels as if everything has stopped and yet I haven't that means I'm moving, even when it seems almost in spite of myself.  If I'm moving, then I'm living, and if I'm living, then I'm going to make the most out of it.  I can either stop living, give up and spend the rest of my life missing and wanting my daddy back. Or, I can do what I know my dad would want for me more than anything and that is to continue living my life in the most rich, fulfilled, passionate and remarkable way possible.

~Jazzy Carlson