I remember it so clearly. He was sitting on his hospital bed while I stood beside him. He was slumped over and looked so very tired. I’m not sure how we got on the topic of me and my current attempt to work towards a university degree in Political Science, but I will never forget the moment when he looked up, his eyes staring straight in to mine, and made me promise I would graduate; “even if I’m not here, I will be there”. That man was my dad and one year later the cancer that he’d been diagnosed with a few days before that conversation took him from us.
The decision to go back to school over a decade since I had gotten my social service worker diploma hadn’t been an easy one, but the support I received, especially from my dad, had allowed me to find the strength to commit to it. All through my dad’s illness I stayed in school, completing essays and taking exams. Dad had always called me his “political animal” so pursing a degree in Political Science was a real no brainer. I loved this stuff and having my dad around to talk about what I was learning and sharing the experience with him made it really special. Then, one day in May, he was gone and I lost all that motivation and drive. Something else was going on during this time, which no one really knew about. I was experiencing true grief for the first time in my life, rather than loss through the fog of depression and anxiety that I had lived in since I was four years old.
When I opened up to my family about being diagnosed with mental illness, it was my dad I remember embracing me first. He read books I gave him to try and learn and understand more about what I was going through. I don’t want to discount or diminish all the other love and support I received from family and friends, however there had always been a special bond with my dad. I was his little girl and he was my daddy. By the time he had become ill, I was well in to working on my recovery but was so scared to really feel what was happening; to let it all in. My amazing social worker at the time said to me that “we are gonna get you through this without falling apart”. I was pretty skeptical because other losses hadn’t gone so well and for fuck sakes this was my dad!! But, like the example he had always shown, I worked hard and pushed forward because I knew that he expected it of me and I needed to stay strong for him and my family. Having school to focus some of my attention on was a blessing in disguise. When Dad breathed his last breath I was there and, in that moment, grief engulfed me. The next year was a struggle but, to my surprise, I didn’t fall apart.
I feel like my dad gave me an incredible gift in his life but also in his passing. I had had the support to work on getting mentally healthy, even though the side effect was not having that numbness and disassociation which in many ways was a saving grace at times. I really and truly felt the pain and emotions associated with a loss and despite how hard it was, I grew and became stronger because of it. The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to do however, was finish school. The thought of going back to my studies came with anxiety and an emptiness……I no longer had anyone to share the experience with me. The strange thing was I didn’t feel guilty about not keeping my promise as something in me knew I would go back but that the timing had to be right.
So here I am, a decade later, staring at the list of classes I have signed up for this coming year. I only have two credits left to get my degree and I’m feeling ready to finish. I’m scared shitless to be certain, however I also know that everything has fallen in to place to get me to this moment. Not the least of which is a promise I made so long ago. While my dad won’t physically be there when I graduate, I know he will keep his promise to me too and be with me that day. I hope I can make him proud.