I never understood the beauty of softness and vulnerability until it forced itself into my life, at an uncomfortably close proximity.
I was blessed to grow up in a home with two wonderful, loving parents who adored each other as much as they loved my sister and me. My mom was smart, creative, and focused, while my dad embodied the more laid-back jokester—together they provided their children with a beautiful picture of unconditional love and the mutual respect necessary to maintain a healthy marriage. For the most part, my childhood was smooth sailing up until my freshman year of high school, when my mom experienced persistent stomach pain that was diagnosed into an earth-shattering reality: cancer. The next year felt like one prolonged nightmare that corroded my feelings of security, undermined my ability to hope, and ultimately, ripped my family apart.
After absorbing the news, my family supported my mom through her surgery, chemo treatments, the horrible ordeal of wig shopping, and the emotional pain that came hand-in-hand with the indescribable physical pains of her illness and its treatment. Almost a year after her diagnosis, my mom’s body could no longer survive the double battleground of cancer and chemo, and she passed away at home.
This was the beginning of an entirely new kind of nightmare: if living in a cancer ward house had wrecked my sense of high school normalcy, living in the vacant aftermath was much worse. After a few weeks of my family’s utter disorientation and grief, our lives seemed determined to keep unfolding, and I adjusted by increasing my productivity—a coping mechanism that I now realize did not promote the healing I needed.
I learned a lot from that season in my life. Still, one of the clearest examples of a specific lesson came from the way my relationship with my dad transformed during this time. During my mom’s illness, I witnessed selfless love displayed every single day. My dad was unwaveringly supportive, caring, and thoughtful: he told her she was beautiful through her tears, held her frail body, and poured his life savings toward her treatment without a second thought.
Once she was gone, this strength disappeared. Without the hope of her recovery, my dad simply laid down and surrendered to the darkness that had been chasing him for months. He sank into a depression that prevented him from taking care of himself, much less his daughters. This lasted for months in its worst state, and even when things got better, there remained clear evidence of the ways that a loss of this magnitude refuses to ever completely heal. Even today, my dad is still struggling to redefine his life without his best friend.
Though my father’s weakness in the face of this challenge was very difficult for me, I am so grateful for the vulnerability with which he acknowledges it. I effectively ran my household for years after we lost my mom. I grocery shopped, cooked, cleaned, parented my younger sister, and maintained my own busy life of school and an over-commitment to extra-curricular activities. All of this was a lot for a seventeen-year-old girl to manage, and I became resentful that my dad refused to emotionally “muscle up” and take care of us in the ways that I wanted.
Looking back, though it was painful at the time, I am glad that my father was authentic in his suffering. Had he “muscled up”, I know that he would have been unable to authentically heal, and that would have been far more damaging to my sister and me than the added responsibilities that we faced. As things are, my family is very open and comfortable with all topics: all of us have dealt with mental illness, and so this is not a taboo topic, and there is ample space between the three of us to be authentic with each other about our emotional health.
Conversations about depression, anger, and loneliness are part of our quotidian dialogue, which effectively robs them of their power to isolate and increase anxiety. For this, my dad deserves full credit. His willingness to be honest about his journey towards healing set the standard for our family and defined our new normal, based in transparency and mutual support.
Years ago, I was angry when my dad couldn’t accomplish something that I needed, and would offer me a sad, “Bud, I’m doing the best that I can.” Now I see that he really was doing the best that he could, while he dealt with severe emotional pain and a shocking new set of circumstances from which he had to rebuild his life.
My dad taught me that it doesn’t make sense to act strong for the sake of proving your worthiness—whether that be your status as a parent, adult, or the cliché stoic male that has never shed a tear. As well as a great parent, he is now one of my closest friends, and I don’t believe that this same level of trust and honesty would have developed between us if it weren’t for his vulnerable honesty in an extremely difficult time of his life. I’m thankful for everything he continues to teach me about humility, love, and personal growth, and I hope to someday recreate these conditions when I have a family of my own.
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