University of Illinois, Chicago, United States (Spring 2011)
My father died in an electrical accident. He had always been a skilled handyman, and he was beginning a major renovation on our new house. One Saturday afternoon, he was in the attic trying to get the sconces and the ceiling fan in the family room to work at the same time. We had just finished lunch together, and I was working on science homework. All of a sudden he began screaming. It is still the worst sound I have ever heard. I don’t really remember when it ended, but soon everything was complete chaos. My mom ran downstairs to turn off the electricity and started screaming for someone to call 911. Our mailman ran to our neighbor’s house to make the call.
Emergency vehicles soon lined our street, and my brother and I found ourselves with all the neighbors who had gathered worriedly near our home. Minutes ticked by like hours. I didn’t even know what to think, but deep down I knew that nobody who screamed like that would end up okay. Someone must have called my uncle to drive us to the hospital because, as soon as the ambulance took off, I vaguely remember stopping at my aunt’s house before following suit. But everything is sort of foggy. At the hospital, the doctors ushered my family into a small room, and that is when they told us the terrible news.
When we went in the room to see his body, I was completely unprepared. Everything hit me as such a shock. It was so terribly sad to stand next to his lifeless body on the hospital bed. He almost looked the same as when he was sleeping. I remember touching his hair and holding his hand, wishing with all my might that he would open his eyes and wipe my tears away. Only a few hours before, we were eating lunch together and joking around. How did this happen? My family spent most of the day in that hospital room trying to say goodbye, trying to understand what had taken place. The doctors believed that he must have somehow touched a live wire. We could see a few burn marks on his body. It devastated me to think about him dying in excruciating pain. The sound of his scream still echoes in my head.
When we finally left the hospital, nothing was the same. We weren’t allowed in the house until electrical inspectors had determined everything safe. When we returned home, two huge holes in the kitchen ceiling remained from where the firemen had cut my father from the attic. Insulation had fallen everywhere, and the lights would not work—it was like a ghost house. The jeans that my dad had worn to work the previous day were sitting in my parent’s bedroom exactly as he had left them—change in the pockets and everything. When I saw those pants, I had an absolute breakdown. My mom let me keep that pair of jeans, and to this day I have them in a box in my bedroom—change in the pockets and everything.
All of this happened almost eight-and-a-half years ago. When I was in grade school, I used to get up every morning very early to have breakfast with my dad, watch the morning news, pack him a lunch, and give him a goodbye kiss before work. He joked about how he would not be able to live without me when I left for college. Now, I was the one living without him, the person who was always supposed to be there to protect me.
I struggled for a long time. I still have difficult days, but things are much better. A few thoughts will always haunt me. I have a hard time accepting that he died in so much pain—it is one of my worst fears about dying. I wish that I could have said goodbye, but through the years, I have learned to say goodbye in my own way. I have come to realize that maybe it wasn’t the goodbye that was important, but everything about our wonderful life that existed before that “goodbye.”
I now look back on my memories and laugh, and sometimes cry, because the pain has never fully gone away. Sometimes I write him letters to tell him about the events that I wish he could have experienced. Even though I know he’ll never read them, I feel so much better after I write them. He is physically gone, but he has not left my life completely. Writing these letters keeps part of him alive and allows me to share my changing life with him. So although I wish I could have had one final goodbye, I can finally look back and laugh and, more importantly, look ahead and smile.
ERIN BRADY will be graduating May of 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Following graduation, she intends to work as a mental health nurse. Next fall, she will be returning to UIC to earn a master’s degree in order to become a mental health nurse practitioner.
Read the introduction and accompanying essay in this issue:
Desert blooms, an introduction by Geraldine Gorman RN, PhD
My mom’s death by Kristen Erickson