As I've written in previous articles, I'm incredibly privileged in many ways. My relationship with my parents, however, surpasses the realm of privilege. Both my parents throughout their lives have been overwhelmingly loving, supportive, and open to being challenged; they have sought to understand me and my communities; they have actively struggled with unboxing queer identity; they have welcomed my transgender sweetheart into their lives with tenderness and welcoming.
I know that, especially for the queer community, parents like these are rare at best. My deepest hope is that you have someone in your life who can give you that kind of love and support.**
My father would have been 67 this week. On a hot summer day in 2015, he passed away surrounded by his wife of 32 years, my brother, and me: the end of a 3+ year long journey with cancer. The night before he passed, he'd regained consciousness for a few minutes. When he realized he had both his wife and his kids at his side, his eyes lit up and he whispered his last words: "I'm thrilled!"
My father and I shared a particularly strong bond. I inherited his sense of humor - we both knew we were hilarious, the world just wasn't mature enough to appreciate it. We would send epic streams of puns to each other, back and forth that lasted for days. We could make each other laugh in a way that no one else could.
I haven't really laughed much since he passed.
Last February proved to be a hard month, as the buildup to my dad's first birthday since his passing coincided with the one year anniversary of our magical San Francisco communal living home burning down (stories for another time). This February is shaping up to be equally hard, but with the added challenge of being oceans away from my family, my community, and my father's gravesite.
This grief is still very new, and my biggest struggle (and the greatest pain) is finding ways to maintain a connection with my dad: to keep him present in my life, to not let him slip away. Family friends often tell me they feel his presence: I hear stories of a bird that followed them while they were hiking on one of my dad's favorite trails; of a moth that sat on their shoulder for an hour while they were reading; of a dream where they spent all night laughing and talking together; of them hearing his voice chiming in while they were singing. While I'm grateful they have those experiences, on tougher days it also pisses me off. He was MY father. Why do they get all the postmortem access to my dad's presence, while I desperately cling onto memories, furiously fighting the sensation that he's getting farther away every day?
*Please note, if you're a family friend and you're reading this, I love you dearly and appreciate your sharing with me.*
I haven't yet found a way to feel like I can stay connected - if you have tips or suggestions, I'd be grateful to hear them. I've been a little more successful developing tools to help navigate the heavier times, particularly around special dates. Here are some things that I've found have helped:
1. Traditions are your friend. Traditions are grounding. Traditions give roots to things. For the 11 months after my father's death, I clung to the Jewish tradition of saying the Mourner's Kaddish daily. When the 11 months were up and it was no longer appropriate to say daily, I felt a huge loss. The daily prayer had been centering, and kept me feeling like I was actively involved in a connection with my dad.
2. But the great thing about traditions is that you can create them at any time, and you can make them be anything that is meaningful to you. My dad loved nature and loved gardening, so last year on his birthday, my mom and I planted a cactus in the garden he'd created.
3. As I won't be able to repeat the action this year, I plan on spending his birthday in nature, either hiking or in a garden.
4. Objects are also grounding. Though we're only traveling with carry-ons and space is limited , I made sure to bring a necklace my dad had given me, one of my grandfather's handkerchiefs that my dad always had on hand, and Humphrietta, the sloth/puppet that my dad gave me a few months before he passed. You might be asking - is a sloth puppet really a wise item to pack, when it means you have to leave behind things like...clothes? Maybe not for you, but it's been awesome for me. Plus my sweetheart got hella creative when he packed her.
5. According to Jewish custom, when we visit a grave we don't bring flowers, but rather, leave a pebble on the gravestone to show we were there. Along my journey, I'll be collecting rocks from each of the places we visit, so upon my return I can share the adventures with him.
6. While I know a lot of people take comfort in having internal conversations with loved ones who have passed, I'm not at a point where I can imagine what my dad would say back to me. Plus, it's no fun punning without a partner to riff off of. Still, during the times when I've been most upset, I've found writing my dad letters to be both comforting and calming.
These are a few of the things that have worked for me, but I'd love to hear what has worked for you. Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments. And if you have a minute this Friday, give a little silent shoutout to wish my dad a happy birthday.
**If you're in need of support, Your Holiday Mom and Letters to LGBT Kids are beautiful places for a little extra internet love. If you're struggling and need more serious support, The Trevor Project (866-488-7386) and Trans Life Line (877-565-8860) are incredible resources and are accessible 24/7.