I had started this post several months back, but I was still very much in the midst of Paul’s health scare, and caretaking overtook blog writing. So I’ve picked up the threads and finished the thought.
21 years ago today, my father took his own life. For 21 years, I have marked this day.
On this year’s anniversary, I’ve been struck by the number itself, shuffling into the third decade since his death. I realized that, very soon, my years without him will outnumber my years with him, and that frightens me.
Lately I’ve felt stranded in my past, in reliving the memories and emotions of my younger self. There’s a tremendous longing for that sense of security and wholeness, and for the greater ease from what seems to me a simpler time (knowing, of course, that our minds tend to blur much of the trials of the past – a bit of mental self-preservation!).
When my dad died I had been married less than a year, and was less than two years out of conservatory. I’d gone to university and spent a year abroad before I went to music school, so I wasn’t young young, but I was young enough, and at a stage where it felt like my career and my personal life were finally under way. And into this period of beginnings, where I was figuring out everything anew, came the finite moment of my father’s death.
I think many of us get stuck in a moment of time, like an endless eddy where you are sucked back in the moment you think you might be whirling your way out. For me that moment wasn’t the shock of his death itself, or the numb hours following it, or even the funeral. Rather it was the moment I finally arrived home to Hawaii from the East Coast, when my mother ran into my arms and cried “What am I going to do?”
I realized in that moment that I had become my mother’s caretaker.
Mom had at that point lived in the US for nearly 30 years, but her English was, and still is, fairly rudimentary. Enough to get her through daily activities and straightforward conversations, but not much more. In Honolulu, with its large Japanese population, you can still get away with some pretty basic English. Her realm in our family was very precise: Mom kept our home sparkling clean, cooked incredible meals, took my brother and I to our many activities and drilled us in Japanese kanji every Saturday. Dad did everything else, and so when he was gone Mom literally had no idea what she was going to do; she’d never seen a water bill, or understood insurance, or had the tires rotated. So, with my brother, I took over most of what Dad had done for her.
That moment has been on my mind lately. I often think of my past as divided into two discrete eras – the before-times, pre-suicide, and the after-times that proceeded my father’s death. And sometimes the distinction feels less connected to his presence or absence, but to my relationship to my mother, and that moment in which the tables turned, when I ceased to be her child and she became my charge.
And I think that’s the genesis of my longing for security and wholeness, because that was the moment when my life to that point was blown wide open, and when the dust settled and everything fell into its new place, I had in some ways lost both parents. That feeling of quiet safety (the one I can sometimes conjure up during meditation) is the precious memory of our childhood that we hold onto well into adulthood, a warm cozy contented space within us. And as my mother cried in my arms that day, that space within me disappeared.
It becomes contingent on us to find our own sense of security and belonging, of course, and that’s been my challenge during the decades after my father’s death. I felt thrust into a role I was neither expecting nor prepared for in early adulthood, and though I’m more equipped to both understand and fulfill those duties now, I’m not sure it would be easier, or that it would hurt less if he had taken his life in 2022 rather than 2001. And so I keep searching for that small still place within me where I can hold myself as if a child, to recapture that elusive sense that all is well with the world. I know it’s there.