I grew up a child with a mythological father.
My father passed away when I was two months old, just two weeks before the Christmas of 1978. His long-time friend from the Navy had come into town and the two of them, young and just 21 at the time, went out to grab a few beers and catch up.
It had been a very busy year. Some might say it was a full lifetime smashed into 365 days. From January to December, my parents had moved in together, bought a new house, became pregnant, bought a brand new van, gotten married, my mom turned nineteen, had me, and they were now starting their own family as a young couple.
And then on December 11th, my dad never returned home. After putting up our first family Christmas tree, he had left with his friend with the promise of being home within a couple hours. By 11 PM, my mother became awfully worried. It wasn't like him to not keep his word.
With no cell phones or technology to investigate his whereabouts, and a newborn baby sleeping in the other room, she paced until there was a knock at the door. It was a police officer, accompanied by my mom's parents and her youngest sister. My father had flipped his friend's car while driving too fast around a curb — or at least this was the story the surviving friend reported to the police.
Once an adult, I was told there were conflicting stories on the accident details, but my mother never had it fully investigated. I grew up a child with a mythological father, a daddy I would dream up and think about but never personally knew.
There's no question that this catastrophic event impacted my life, probably in many ways I won't ever be able to fully conceptualize, and then in a few ways I can acknowledge. So let's get to it. This is what a woman who grew up without a father wants you to know.
1. Gender roles didn't exist until I was an adult.
Growing up, I watched my mother do it all: work, clean, cook, provide and do anything necessary for us to survive. So the typical societal restrictions placed on women was lost on me until I was old enough to see something different. I still have trouble logically understanding why traditional gender roles exist, because preference and capability are two different things in my mind.
2. There's no easy way to teach independence.
My mother was left with such a great responsibility when my dad died: a new car payment, a new mortgage and a two-month old baby. Her grief and having to do things as a single mother pushed her into a practice of tough love, even at a very young age.
I always thought she was emotionally inept or didn't care about my feelings until I was brave enough to challenge her methods one day. "It's important to me that you be independent so you never are left the way I was when your father passed," she explained.
3. It takes a long time to open up to love.
When my now-husband came into my life, I wasn't ready emotionally, at least not as prepared as I thought I was.
It happened back when we had agreed he should move in to my place. I had a regular doctor's check-up, so I dropped into his office excited, happy and nervous about the news.
"How's everything going?" my doctor asked, sitting next to me in the small evaluating room. I responded by bawling uncontrollably. I had no idea where these sudden tears were coming from or even why they were necessary. They just started falling, hard and fast.
My doctor asked me a round of questions. Once I assured him there was no domestic violence or wrong doings, he smiled and gave me his best diagnosis.
"You're going to be fine. Good stress is still stress. And let me guess, this is probably the best relationship you've ever been in?" I shook my head yes. "And you're scared that now that you have something special like this man's love, you might lose it?" I shook my head yes again, this time wiping away the tears.
Clearly, I had never received this kind of love from any man before and had no idea what to do with it.
"I can't predict the future, but I do know that this feeling is something you're going to have to process in order to move forward with your life. If you like this man and you trust this man, you might as well try to process it with him, no?"
I realized it was going to take some time to understand what it meant to be loved and then figure out a way to accept it. I'm still learning how to love and be loved more freely. It's something that takes patience and practice.
4. Every day is a gift, so appreciate it.
Having a deceased parent at a young age exposes you to the fragility of life. While most people feel death is far away, I've always felt like it could be waiting for me around the corner. That's why I remind myself to be thankful and appreciate each day, just in case there is no tomorrow.
5. The pressure of legacy can be overwhelming.
Since my father died when we both were so young, I'm living for both of us. Sometimes I think, "Maybe his whole life purpose was to bring me into the world." And then I become overwhelmed that I'm not doing a good enough job. It's a motivator and also a burden.
6. There's a strange sense of comfort always dangling overhead.
I don't believe in organized religion but I do consider myself spiritual. It seems kind of cheesy to say aloud but I've always felt his presence. It's what's given me the strength to be self-confident and have the gumption to live the life I want.
7. There are no rules for grieving.
My story is mine, and mine alone. My husband's mother passed when he was 18. Sometimes we talk about which situation is less traumatizing: never knowing your parent or knowing them and then having to say goodbye too early. We've agreed there's no right answer; both situations are devastating.
We've also recently decided to do a better job remembering and memorializing our parents' deaths. So, know that it's OK to change your mind and update your practice along the way. Dealing with death is a viable living thing that fluxes and changes as we grow and age.
8. Getting to know your DNA is a wonderfully eerie thing.
Many people say I look like my mother, but my mother has always said "People only say that because they didn't know your father." I had no idea what this meant until my aunt sent me a childhood photo of my father (which wasn't until my thirties). Upon seeing it, I became emotional.
It was as if I was looking at my own childhood photo, except the boy version of me. The smirk, the head tilt, the posturing was eerily too close to home. I finally understood and had a visual cue to what she had been telling me my entire life. I would learn more and more about myself through stories from the past and think, "Maybe I'm not such an outcast after all. I just haven't been connecting with the DNA side of my family."
9. There's a great family divide.
I don't think it means to happen, but over time the visits with the deceased's side of the family become fewer and far between. In my case, there was barely any time to establish a family relationship before the divide started creeping in.
Maybe it becomes too painful. Maybe it's a consequence of inconvenience. I often imagine what holidays would be like if my father were still alive. Not that it would be better or worse; it'd just be different. Different relationships. Different locations. Different traditions. Different person.
10. You're in control of creating your story.
I've never seen any video of my father. Heck, I barely have any photos. So it's like he's a mythological figure, a person that once was real (because I'm evidence of that), but now just a legendary collection of stories. Over the years I've created my own narrative of what he might be like now based on the stories from back then. I've even tried to fathom what I'd be like if his death never happened, and it's hard to imagine.