Struggling to Breathe

Hurtling through space, high above the earth, I felt like the tiniest speck of a pebble floating in a powerful, cold and heartless river. Aimless. Helpless. Lost in the water’s mighty force and silently drowning. I peered out the tiny window to see the twinkling lights of the city below; soothing, somehow comforting. I felt vast and empty, but at the same time full of the universe and the indescribable low hum behind It All softly whispering in my ear: It will be all right.

Yet everything had changed. Even the sky, the clouds and the mountains would never be the same.


“Are you sure you’re okay, miss?” the flight attendant asked again as she smiled and rested her hand on my armrest.

I snapped out of my reverie only to notice my neck cold and dripping wet, my face covered with tears. My hands shook as I carefully wiped my eyes with a napkin.

“No.” I croaked and gasped for air. “No, I’m not.” The tears continued to spill like a leaky faucet despite my attempts to stem them.

I turned to press my face into the small window, the plastic separating me—from what? Certain death? Endless space? For a moment I imagined myself outside of the plane, plummeting into an unknown abyss, screaming voiceless into the deafening silence. “Where is he?” I pleaded into the darkening skies and the lights below, glittering like jewels in dark velvet. “Dad? Where are you now?”  I frantically searched for him in the sky. “Please, dad. Tell me.”

Only the steady drone of the airplane answered back.

Alone on that flight from Seattle to Portland, Maine, only one thought sliced through my mind. “Dad is dead.” I was 21 years old. I had just settled into college when the phone rang earlier that morning, jarring me out of a restless sleep. My mother’s voice on the machine, a flat monotone, bordering on frantic. “Please, Darla. You need to call me. Now.” Hours later as I boarded the plane, my roommate hugged me and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy the trip, but funerals are no fun…” I laughed, and then began to cry.

Back at my childhood home, everything was cast in a suffocating gray color. My brothers and I sat at the kitchen table, the clock on the wall relentlessly ticking away above us. Stone-faced, my 18-year-old brother informed me that our father had suffered a massive heart attack the night before. “He said his stomach hurt and he couldn’t breathe.” He and my mother followed the ambulance to the hospital, where doctors and nurses stabilized him long enough for my dad to smile weakly and mumble, “I’m okay. Go home and sleep.” A few hours later, at around seven in the morning, while my mom made a pot of coffee as they prepared to return to the hospital, the doctor called to say Dad was gone.

Gone.  I refused to believe it. How could he be gone? How could he leave us just like that? Traces of him were everywhere. His TV remote still waiting for him perched on the couch’s armrest. His office football pool sheet, with a list of the teams he predicted to win that Sunday highlighted in yellow the night before, still lying on the coffee table. His L.L. Bean chamois shirts still hanging in his closet, his watch still on his night stand, his Chevy Blazer still parked outside.

For days after his death, every time the back porch door creaked open, I fully expected my dad to walk in wearing his Patriots cap, his blue eyes twinkling. He’d laugh and say, “Hey Punky! It was all a big misunderstanding! I’m here!” I waited, but it never happened.

Even now, nearly twenty years later, part of me is still waiting.

This post edited by Charles of Mostly Bright Ideas. I would like to thank him, Priya of Partial View and Lenore of Lenore Diane’s Thoughts Exactly  for encouraging me to not be afraid to let those words out that have been buried for so long. This is the first post of many about my dad, the amazing, loving man he was and how much he’s shaped my life and the person I am today.

33 thoughts on “Struggling to Breathe

  1. Oh Darla. Though I knew a post was pending, the story sneaked up on me. I was reading with great anticipation, thinking you were in the midst of a novel or a dream. If only, eh?
    This post is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Though I wish your Dad was still with you, I do look forward to reading more about who he was – how is he remembered – and how he lives through you. He does live through you, you know. I see my Dad’s mannerisms in me sometimes (even the ones that annoyed me), and I laugh.
    I want to also say, my heart skipped a beat and I gasped (literally) when I read about your Dad’s LL Bean chamois shirts. One of my Dad’s LL Bean’s chamois shirts hangs in my closet – I wear it through out the winter.
    Thank you for sharing. With your story, I was able to remember my Dad. I appreciate you sharing this with us. ~ Lenore

    1. Lenore, reading what you wrote has brought me to tears, especially, “He does live through you , you know.” I like to think of him as still around (I know he is!) and I feel his presence all the time. I had chills when I read about you wearing your dad’s shirt. A week or so after he died, I had to go back to college and finish out the year (he died days before Thanksgiving) And the one thing that got me through it? I wore his chamois shirt every chance I got. Thank your for nudging me to write this, it’s been so difficult just to get out this short post. Went through a lot of kleenex! But it feels good.

  2. The funny stuff, which you are very good at doing, is easy to write compared to these heart wrenching posts in which one bares a darker part of their soul. It was so well written and so touching. I wonder what you will share next.

    1. Your reply says it all. I haven’t had the nerve to write about my dad’s death even in a private journal, so to put it “out there” was very frightening to say the least. And I’m just getting started. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, I do appreciate them.

  3. “Time heals all wounds.” What a crock! As you so beautifully wrote, time has no meaning in sadness. Both my parents are gone, and I still an will always miss them dearly. Beautifully, touchingly written.

    1. Thank you. I am sorry you know the pain of losing your parents. A friend of mine who lost her dad sent me the perfect quote: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.” – from a headstone in Ireland. It’s true that no matter when or how you lose a parent, we all experience indescribable pain and we all continue to grieve in our own way.

  4. Hi,
    You have brought tears to my eyes, so well written, the tears are for my Mum who passed away back in 1989 she also died of a hear attack.

    1. Mags, I am sorry your mom passed away. My dad died so suddenly, I think back to the last time I saw him, it was at an airport, I was leaving for college. I try to remember, did I tell him that I love him? Did I hug him? Very hard to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t get to say goodbye, but I know he’s watching over me and understands. I love him and he loves me and that is all that matters.

    1. I appreciate and understand your feelings. In a strange way, coping with his death at such a young age has shaped my life in positive ways. I sometimes dwell on the fact that he never saw me graduate college, never walked me down the aisle, never met any of my kids. But I tell my kids about their grandpa a lot. My dad is still a huge source of strength for me every day. And I certainly try not to take my loved ones for granted.

  5. Priya

    Darla, you have put everything in these words. Every part of your life, all the experiences, everything. It isn’t just necessary to tell or know the details, you know. You have succeeded in giving him life through the descriptions, these emotions you’ve typed in so well.
    Congratulations, for I know that it would’ve been immensely difficult to even begin drawing these words out. Not only did you draw them out, you’ve succeeded in allowing us to see and know him; just a little bit, but know him well.
    I hope you keep us posted! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Priya. He meant the world to me, so it’s incredibly difficult to describe the father he was and the man he was and how painful it is to miss him. I feel like no words can do him justice. I tried anyway. Hopefully next time I sit down to write, it’ll flow easier. Thank you for your encouragement and always kind words.

  6. What a beautiful, heart-wrenching post. I’m sorry for your loss; no matter how much time has past, losing a parent is unfathomably difficult. Your love for your Dad comes through your writing so clearly. I know he’d be proud of you, now, just as I’m sure he was proud of you then. Thanks for sharing such a personal memory- you’re so brave!

  7. As I said when you first sent it to me, this post was beautifully-written and ready to be published. My editing involved little more than a word or comma here and there. The story you told is universal, Darla, yet it touches everyone in a personal way. What you captured so perfectly is the impossible transition between a life we’ve always known and a life that’s changed forever. Your ability to do that comes from your skills as a writer, and your love as a daughter.

    1. Charles, you are way too kind. Coming from you, that is a big compliment. I really do have to thank you for taking the time to read it and give your very helpful suggestions. And giving me the courage to write about him. It’s helping me reflect more and process all of those big issues about life and death and family that seem to be cropping up again lately. Your kindness and support are much appreciated!

  8. Pingback: Keeping up with the Comments | Lenore Diane's Thoughts Exactly

  9. Thanks for sharing. A week ago today I lost my cousin Wayne in a tragic fishing accident in Alaska. I still cannot truly believe it. He was 29 years old. Doesn’t seem possible that he could die. I haven’t written about it yet. Not sure what to say. I haven’t seen him in over 10 years, but it still hurts, and it is still shocking and so hard to believe. Death is certain for all of us, but so strange to lose someone so quickly.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss. It is incredibly difficult to find the words to convey the pain of losing someone so suddenly, especially if it is someone very young. I struggled just to write this short post and don’t know when I can bring myself to write more about it.

  10. Val

    This is a beautiful post and a beautiful tribute to your father, too. I’ve written many times about losing my parents, including a post that’s nearly ready to come out of the draft stage for my own blog, and it’s truly never easy.

    You conveyed the emotions very clearly. Loss of people so close to one as parents, is something that nobody can possibly understand unless they’ve been through it.

    I’m sorry that the pain is still with you after all these years… but as well as helping you to bring the feelings out in the open, you’ll have helped other people who’ve suffered loss, to feel less alone.

    1. Val, thank you so much for your comments. I didn’t think it would be so difficult to write about him, even after all these years the memories are very raw and fresh. My dad was like a mother to me in a way, as my own mom was fairly neglectful and mentally abusive at times to us kids growing up. My dad was my rock, so to lose him felt like I lost the world as my mom was pretty absent. I’m sorry that you know the pain of losing both your parents and I look forward to reading your post.

  11. I’m glad I read this today. It takes me back to 1989 when Daddy also, died of a massive heart attack. Thank you for sharing these words that are so true and terribly familiar. I write a lot about him now…if you surf my posts…many of them are about him. Today TMiYC will post “The Clock”…still another memory about him.

    1. Oh, I am so sorry your Dad died so suddenly as well, Georgette. I suppose my greatest sorrow is I never got to say goodbye to him. I loved you post “The Clock”. I want to write another post about my dad but am finding it hard to do so without crying. Maybe someday.

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