The Art of Losing by Maura McDanel
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
-Elizabeth Bishop (One Art)
I lost my dad. He’s not dead, just to me. I searched for him like a set of lost keys looking for the version of the man I knew behind couch cushions, in old memories, and under beds. But no luck. The man I knew was gone, so far gone, I wondered if he had been real at all.
The dad I knew made me breakfast everyday before school, would come to all my dance competitions, acted like me calling him was the most exciting part of his day. The joking voice, a gesture I love. He was my ultimate role model, I wanted to be exactly like him. He taught me how to be an athlete, an entrepreneur, and a world traveler. We liked the same foods, the same activities, and every year we would train for a triathlon to do together. Hell, we’d exchange podcast recommendations! Think of Chris from Parks and Rec and that’s pretty much my dad (Literally!).
No one thinks they will lose their parent early. My dad was the healthiest person I knew, I thought I wouldn't lose him until I was an old woman myself. Then last August I got a call from my mom. She found out my dad had been leading a ‘double life’ for the past five years - maybe more. In the midst of my parent’s divorce my mom accidently found hard evidence of what had been going on. So my dad didn’t die, but when I found out, everything I believed him to be did.
My reality crumbled around me and turned into a hellish nightmare within the cage of the legal system. My body went into deep grieving before my mind could even process what was happening. The worst of it was I couldn’t even confront him to say I had found out because of all the legal work. It was only after 6 weeks of ignoring him (because I had to) and googling “what do you do if you hate your dad,” that I could write a letter to him to say how I felt, then give it to the lawyer, to then pass it to him. I told him that my biggest fear was that he wouldn’t try to mend our relationship and that he wouldn’t be in my life anymore. People make mistakes, big ones, HUGE ones, but sometimes it’s more about how they respond to their own mistakes that hurts us so profoundly.
My dad never called or responded to my letter. After two weeks and too many gin and tonics, I knew he got my letter so I called him. He acted as if I had no reason to be upset. He never acknowledged my feelings of deep hurt because of his actions. Maybe he said he was sorry but it was an empty passive gesture. We continued this dance for months, of me pouring my heart out in an email every couple weeks asking how could he do this to us and him only responding when he got around to it and completely side-stepping my desperate outreach. If I did get a response it was very brief, and I quote, “I’m not one for lengthy emails.”
Losing my dad spun me into a different person. I lost all my confidence, I didn’t want to be around people anymore, I had absolutely zero energy to do anything but to try and heal. I felt like an empty shell of a human filled with heavy, sad sap. For weeks at a time I face planted myself on the couch and watched spy shows in Spanish. The only person I’d interact with was my best friend who lived down the street from me since my boyfriend was on tour. I guess I’m proud of myself for not going binge drinking every night but in my deep grieving trance I stopped working, or really doing much of anything.
Other weird things started happening that were out of my character. All of a sudden I compulsively wanted male validation. Turns out the stereotype about a girl having “daddy issues” exists for a reason. I also became suspicious of everyone, thinking maybe they were never who I thought they were either. When my boyfriend would go to work I’d think “is he REALLY going to work or…” and then I’d quickly have to talk myself out of it. Trust issues kept bubbling to the surface and I kept trying to pop them. It wasn’t only my trust of others that had taken a hit, but for myself as well. How could I trust my own judgement of people? I had been duped for so long and didn’t even know. And would I turn out like my dad? Though it may look like disaster.
A lot of internal personal work had to take place for me to feel like a functioning human again. Going to therapy was the healthiest decision I made. I had to set aside time to start processing and adjusting my life accordingly, not just sitting in my own soup of despair writing sad poetry (but like, feel free to buy my chapbook). My therapist and I started unpacking what it meant to move forward. Could I continue the relationship with my dad with the way he was treating me, my mom, and brother? Could I accept that he may never give me the response I so deeply needed? Eventually my answer was no, I couldn’t. I decided to cut off all contact with my dad. It was like a break up. If you keep thinking you’re going to get back together with someone, you’ll never heal. You have to treat it as if you never will in order for healing to take place.
I put up those boundaries in order to protect myself. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done because I desperately did NOT want to do it and I’ve done triathlons where I have been so tired that I wished a car would hit me so I could stop running. I didn’t want to cut my dad out of my life and I didn’t want to give up on our relationship. However, I felt like I did everything I could do but he just kept coming at us with responses that put his reputation and money before what his family was feeling. The dad I knew was gone. Even losing you.
Unknowingly, I wrapped so much of my identity within my dad. Now that he was gone I had to start re-figuring out who I wanted to be moving forward. Did I actually like the stuff I thought I liked or did I like it because of my dad? My therapist also helped me redefine who my family will be now. Knowing my dad lied to us for so long made all my past memories with him seem like absolute bull shit. Like none of it was ever real. The foundation of my family had crumbled. I started editing my speech when I spoke with people about my family, saying “my mom’s house.” Cropping my dad out of memories as if he wasn’t there to begin with, and avoiding topics that had anything to do with dads. I shan’t have lied.
One of the most frustrating things about this process of healing was that it felt SO SLOW. I’m the kind of person who sets goals, makes a list of steps to do, and then reaches those goals. Healing is not like that. It is not linear. I had to take slow, tiny, ego-crushing, BABY STEPS; so small you could barely tell I was moving forward. I started taking classes of things I thought I might like. I started making jewelry, writing poems, joined a new improv program, and started producing my own show called “Daddy Issues.” I even let my crossfit coach sign me up for a Powerlifting competition and trust me, I do NOT look like a powerlifter. Doing those things was like medicine for me. It made me get out of the house and stir up my stagnant, sad energy. Those were just some of the concrete baby steps I took over the course of this year. I still felt like I was doing nothing with my life, but that is what healing is. Healing feels like nothing until we look back and see how far we’ve come. I miss my dad and think of him every damn day but for now I am a healthier person because I stood up for myself and said goodbye. The art of losing’s not too hard to master, although I may (write it!) like disaster.
By Maura McDanel