Losing Your Father at 9 Years Old

By Tara Shlimowitz

I wasn’t an aspiring writer back then. The eulogy I clutched in my sweaty palm included lines like, “He taught me how to ride my bike” and “He used to play catch with me.” I liked playing catch with him. But that’s not the point. I was admirably stoic for a 9-year-old who had just lost her father. But, really, it just hadn’t hit me yet.

My mom and aunts continually asked me if I would be able to read the eulogy at the funeral service, or would I prefer that one of them do it for me. If it was too overwhelming of an experience I didn’t have to do it, they said.

I can deliver the eulogy myself, I assured them.

I wasn’t nervous in front of the expanse of black suits and dresses. I was an extrovert back then, too. Or maybe when you’re that young you’re just a ham. But I loved the attention. When I put on my show du jour, people smiled, laughed, called me cute and precious. What single-digit-age child doesn’t love that?

This somber occasion didn’t call for my usual antics, though, and I completely understood that. But I did want to read my own words about my father to everyone who came to honor him.

Since I hadn’t been overtly emotional, I knew I wouldn’t get choked up at the podium. In fact, I found it strange that I hadn’t cried at all during the last week. I couldn’t. I tried, trust me. My mom and sister cried on the floor, on the recliner, under blankets, in the shower. I faked it every time my older sister cried because I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t want them to think I didn’t care.

I was seated in the front row with my immediate family, staring forward at the open coffin. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the crowd aside from watching them file into the room.  They had hugged me and offered their condolences. They said, “Sorry,” and I said, “It’s okay.” But, really, nothing was okay about the situation. Of course, “Thank you” would have been an acceptable response, but no one clued me in on condolence-accepting etiquette. Somehow, I think that wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind.

My sister caught my gaze as she walked up front to precede me at the podium. Tracy seemed to have no trouble reading the eulogy she prepared. She spoke clearly, slowly.

Then out of nowhere she broke down. I had already seen my sister cry over my father’s passing, but it was heartbreaking to watch the 13-year-old I looked to for support lose it in front of our closest family and friends.

At that moment, every single emotion I had bottled up inside of me—since the cancer really started taking a toll on my father and our family—broke down the flimsy dam I built and flooded out of me like a deluge.  I was a soggy mess.

Tracy courageously finished the eulogy she wrote. I, the self-proclaimed stoic, couldn’t bear the thought of telling all those people who I barely knew just how wonderful this man was we all lost.  How could they understand? He didn’t give them a personal bike-riding lesson. He taught me how to ride my bike, how to balance on my own two wheels, how to keep from falling, from crashing and hurting myself.

But my father, my instructor, was in that room with us, too. So I conceded and let my aunt read the eulogy.

From memory, I said every word in my head as my father’s sister spoke them aloud, like a playwright watching her piece performed onstage. Tears streamed down my cheeks as the gravity of the situation hit me for the first time.

Others went to the podium to recite their favorite memories of my father. I knew I’d never be able to speak similar words. It was a depressing thought, but still something I couldn’t completely wrap my mind around.

For years, I imagined his return. A black sedan with tinted windows would pull into the driveway as I played basketball. He’d step out of the car into the Florida heat and I would run into his arms. “I’ve been on a top-secret CIA mission this whole time,” he would say, “and I couldn’t blow my cover, but now it’s over.”

Or he’d be waiting for me outside of school one day. Maybe I’d see his face in the crowd at my softball game.

There were constant reminders that he wasn’t returning: we boxed up his clothes, gave back his company car, and my mom started dating again.

I played basketball outside often, always watching and waiting.

The black sedan never did pull up.

Oddly enough, I started missing my father the most during my college years. Before that, I was living the regular life of a teen struggling for independence. I played “what if” scenarios in my head when things didn’t go my way. Like, “If my real dad was here, I’d be allowed to date at 14.” I wanted him there because I thought he would have been more lenient.

But in college, nothing like that matters anymore. Everyone was building relationships with their parents instead of pushing them away. My college friends, for the most part, had beautiful close-knit nuclear families that they would talk to often and visit on holiday. I saw my girlfriends interact with their fathers and wished I could’ve had the chance to build a similar relationship with my father.

Instead, I began involving myself in cancer-related issues. I participated in Relay for Life multiples times, sent in my hair three times to Locks of Love, donated to the American Cancer Society, and lit a candle in Paris’ Notre Dame in memory of Zac Shlimowitz.

Actually, that last list item was just for him. He told me before he died that he would watch over me. It was the least I could do for my guardian angel.

This entry is part of T2A, a movement to encourage creative and artistic expression from those who’ve experienced grief and loss. To find out more about contributing or to ask us to cover a specific topic, please email me. (Tara will respond to your comments below.)

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Filed under Ask a Question, father, Funeral, grief, loss, parent, Trauma to Art (T2A)

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