The streaks of brief color in the sky throughout such an unforgiving season, even for just that moment, remind us that life isn’t full of all that is unfair and punishing. These illuminations of windswept color pause in my memory and allow me to appreciate what we can control and to endure all that we cannot. In these memories—for time can never erase their beauty and mystery—I can sift through my absences in life, atone for my missteps, seek not perfection but wisdom, and strive to be judged at the end of life by all I’ve accomplished and overcome. Such a story I would love for my pretending fragile mind to tell with pages turned by unrecognizable hands and into the minds of those yet to be disappointed by this unfair world. This, however, is not such a story—and life is fair.
Like northern lights, my life has been unpredictable, and like those many observers, I have been pulled along through it stumbling blindly and at times drowning in its trance. At a very young age I was taught by my father that I will always be fair; fair in the games I play, my interaction with others, and my choices within my world. As much as I tried to understand the depth of this lesson, never was I told that in return life and all of its cruelties would deal me unfairness at my expense. No one is born with the ability to traverse through hardships with the required delicacy and bravery, but sadly it is something learned from having survived such experiences.
At ten years old I learned that love is not the “happily ever after” my Disney movies portrayed but a gimmick of convenience: “It worked for us for a while, but now it’s not working so it’s over.” Not that this was said by anyone to anyone, but the overall message rang clear to me that nothing lasts forever and watching the pain and suffering of love loss was all too much for this young naïve mind. It took years for my father to come to terms with his loss. It took me many more to understand the reasons for his sadness.
Having been raised daddy’s little girl since the day I was born, I always felt a connection with my Dad. He was not only my father but my teacher, my mentor, my best friend and my greatest adversary. There came a time in our debates that we realized that we have nothing left to debate because we agree on 95% of all things in life. He taught me joys of life, wisdom, math, and patience among many other qualities. I can look back and see that I too did some teaching. It’s like those moments in the movies where the music is upbeat and fun times are flowing across the screen and then BAM, the music changes, the mood turns bleak, and everyone is sad and crying and asking why.
That was the wall I hit in my life. My dad died.
Why did he have to die, and what did I do wrong? I listened, I followed directions, I did all that was asked of me and yet my person was dead. Should I have seen the signs, was I supposed to know he was sick when his pride could hide the elephant in the room? These questions haunted me for years; I couldn’t silence them. I was alone, again, and I had to learn my own path, to become acquainted with the miseries of this world, alone.
The little girl standing and staring at the northern lights on a subzero evening in Alaska as a plane flew her father away had to turn around and walk a path not paved with happiness but of sorrow. He never taught me how to handle grief, he never taught me how to handle forever goodbyes, and he never taught me that getting yourself back is a journey without a map.
For years I felt like my dad had much more to teach me, and to have left so soon I was now ill-equipped to make it alone. What will I do now? Luckily I had already signed up for the Navy prior to his death, so this decision I didn’t have to make. And for the next six years I was not responsible in making any life decisions. Every aspect of my life was decided for me as I followed the established path of all Nuclear Operators in the Navy.
One might think this made healing and grieving easier. It didn’t. I still had episodes of depression, the inability to concentrate, and powerlessness with keeping everything that I can control within my comfort areas. Many romantic relationships ended prematurely because they were dancing the blurry lines of seriousness and commitment. I spent many empty, drunken nights alone staring at the bottom of an empty glass, hiding my grief, embarrassed and too prideful to admit I needed help navigating this void in my life.
Fortunately before my life became too damaged, I was saved. Not by a person, but by the pounding of my feet on the belt of a treadmill somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The first day of my second deployment, I decided I would take up running. I’d read about its therapeutic benefits and hoped it would help me clear my mind, and if nothing else, then at least I would be bikini-ready upon my return to the States.
This became the healthy addiction I needed in my life. I was able to turn my brain off and just focus on one thing at a time. I came to terms with my Dads death in those thousand miles I ran. I logged every mile, every minute and every calorie burned for nutrition purposes. After deployment, I would still have my episodes of depression, but they weren’t choking me and demanding my full attention anymore. I was able to smile a real smile and know that I am happy about something.
Running, even though I don’t get to enjoy it as much now, will always be that turning point in my life. I ran my first half marathon alone with no audience cheering me on because my intended audience was myself. I crossed the finish line ready for more: “Damn. Why didn’t I just do the full?”
Seventeen years after my parents’ divorce, I learned that love is what you create it to be, and only you and your partner can define its terms. Was I damaged enough to know to wait it out in life, and not to rush for the fallacies that love tries to present itself as? Or, like the northern lights, was this the path intended all along? After my husband and I started dating, my depressive episodes became rare to nonexistent. On my Dad’s D-day I was fine; I didn’t ask to be alone and I didn’t drain a bottle of Malbec. I guess this is how I knew I wanted to be with my husband beyond the I love you as we moved to Let’s be serious about being serious together.
Like all lives, my life has been quite a journey and at times still is. I don’t think there will ever be a day until the day I die where I won’t miss my dad or where I won’t picture him with me and what he would have said. I still hear his voice if a choice I’m about to make is wrong or if I should have known better. Maybe it is no longer his words but mine disguised in his authoritative tone. Whatever it is, it is with those northern lights that he guides me.He only had nineteen years to teach me, and from my point of view and humble opinion he did a pretty good job. Having the confidence in life to close one career chapter and begin another is not for the faint of heart, but for the will power of a survivor.
Though those northern lights are faint, they dance around my memories of happier, brighter times. And as those northern lights disappear, they remind me that life is only as fragile as the eyes that behold it.