Today is a tough day for me. Sure, it's the last day of May and the first sunny day we have had in I don't even remember when. All good things. However, it is also an anniversary. And not the good kind.
I still remember the phone call like it was yesterday - May 31st, 2007: Me, calling home to my mom on a calling card from my dorm at Regent's College in London, England where I was staying on a month-long course in International PR with 15 or so other students from the US/Canada. I was set to get up at 4 in the morning to catch a bus and then a train to Paris on a solo 2-day tour (with a group bus component on Day 1) and wanted to call home to say "hi" one last time before taking off.
I knew something was wrong as soon as Dawn picked up (a co-worker of my mom's at the time). Why would Dawn be answering mum's phone? Mom came to the phone anyway though and I assumed, in that case, that I was worrying too soon (as I often do). However, the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach still sat there with a numbness. Like a toothache. I could tell she was upset about something only a few minutes into the phone call. She didn't want to tell me and begged me not to press her, but I had to know. How could I go to Paris knowing that something was wrong? I wouldn't be able to get it out of my mind.
And then she told me. And it was almost as if I knew it had happened before she told me. It was a thought that passed through my mind as a possibility, but quickly dismissed as overreaction (that couldn't possibly be what happened). So, it really did happen. The thing that I feared the most, but easily dismissed. It's a very strange moment and a shock to the system when the worst thing you could imagine turns out to actually be true.
Phil, my mother's boyfriend of 10 years (and basically more of a father to me than my own father) was gone. He had been out walking and collapsed. Not really an impossibility for someone with serious heart problems, but the last thing you would expect just to look at him - a tall, husky, strong man with huge arms and long strong legs. Like a huge tree - roots deep into the ground. How could such a strong, stable object fall down and crumple so easily?
I had no idea what to do. I didn't want to go to Paris anymore. I wanted to go home. I wanted to hug my mom and tell her everything was going to be ok and cry with her, but I couldn't. I couldn't even get in a cab and cross the ocean. I have never felt so helpless and alone. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, kick the walls, tear out my hair. I felt like my brain had separated into several pieces and were scattered around the room. Luckily, my roommate was gone for the weekend by that time so I was able to grieve into my pillow without someone who wouldn't understand looking over my shoulder, but I think even if the dorm were full of people I would have felt alone. In the end, I decided to go ahead with my plan and go to Paris. He would have wanted to me to (mum agreed), I had already paid the money, and there was no way for me to get home that weekend. Besides, escaping seemed like a great idea in that moment.
I have never been prouder in myself than I was in that moment. I am so proud that I had the strength to pull myself out of bed, walk to that bus stop (even though I got sick on the way, and was *thisclose* to turning around and going back), and board that train alone. To venture to a strange city where I knew no one and not even the language and follow through on a commitment I made to myself. I realized in that moment that I am a tough person. However, under the tough coating, I spent most of the weekend in a kind of fog, with a million thoughts and none flowing through my brain all at the same time, and feeling completely lonely in a city of millions. I felt like I had spent months tethered to a wonderful island and someone had come along and cut my moorings and I was floating in the middle of the ocean - alone, with vast expanses of water between me and the land, which I could not even see.
As anyone who has lost someone close to them knows, the pain does not stay so acute forever. Slowly, your body and mind recover and you start to smile and laugh again. You have whole days where you never think of the person and don't need to talk about it anymore.
But (at least in my case) the person is never completely gone. He is always with me even though he's no longer here. I see him as a small figure - a kind of spirit - that lingers somewhere near the back of my brain and my shoulder. I think of him often - Phil would have said this, Phil would have gotten a kick out of that, Phil would have been able to help me with that.....etc. Whenever I see fish cakes on a menu (whether I order them or not), I can hear him laughing and feel him winking, knowing that he promised to make them (his specialty) for me when I got home from England, although he never got that chance. I can eat dinner with Phil whenever I want just by ordering fish cakes.
Sometimes I think of all the things I didn't get a chance to say and I cry. Some days it seems like only yesterday that that horrible phone call happened, and sometimes it seems like 10 years ago. Sometimes it's tough to focus on the positive, but I try to do that every day. As tough and sudden as his passing was, it taught me incredible lessons and I count us lucky to have had his positive presence in our lives for as long as we did.
Most of all it taught me immense amounts about myself, and brought me closer to my mother than ever - enclosing us in an invisible bond, leaving a special knowing and shared experience linking us together forever. I know that I can get through whatever life throws at me now, because I made it through this. The worst thing. I'm a different person because of it - a little more worn, a little rougher around the edges - but I am still me. Just a stronger me. Stronger because I can be, but also because I know wherever I go that he is holding me up and pushing me.
Holding and pushing me with those huge, strong arms.
*I should mention that this post is not meant to garner sympathy or comments. I am not normally one to talk about my personal life in-depthly on this blog, or ever in my "real life" either but writing about it helps me feel better, helps the painful memories I have associated with this day less acute. I also feel I owe it to Phil to keep remembering him and what happened. I hope that others who have lost people close to them can read this and take solace, too*