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I was estranged from my father when he died. It didn't make the pain of losing him any easier.

Rachel Sobel   

I was estranged from my father when he died. It didn't make the pain of losing him any easier.
  • My parents divorced when I was 21, and that was the start of the end of our relationship.
  • He knew I had remarried but never met my daughters.

As I headed to the funeral home in black leggings and a messy bun to retrieve my estranged father's ashes, my brother called to ask where I was. "I'm picking up Dad," I said and we laughed since we share our dark humor. The funeral home offered curbside pickup, but I couldn't relive this experience every time I did Target Drive-up.

I placed his ashes in the front passenger seat because it felt weird to put him in the trunk with my kid's portable potty.

My father was amazing for the first 26 years of my life. When I was little, I stood on his feet to dance. We went on dinner dates. We traveled a lot. We grew up backstage at the Bob Marley Festival because of the relationships he fostered with the family. He was in the garment industry, probably the origin of my love of statement tees. I grew up feeling insanely lucky.

My parents divorced

My parents divorced when I was 21. That was the first shift in our relationship. He went into a downward spiral, which led to our estrangement. It was hard not to take sides as I watched my mom's car get repossessed because he stopped paying. I tried to maintain a separate relationship and compartmentalize the complications of being a child of an acrimonious divorce. I bounced between anger and nostalgia.

He knew I divorced and remarried but never met my daughters. I'd rather them not know him, then love him and risk the torment that came with the territory. He lived in a dilapidated assisted living, was missing teeth, and couldn't stand. I kept him at bay to avoid the inevitable heartache that came with being his daughter.

His health declined, and I got good at tracking him down. He frantically slurred from the hospital room landline that they were "trying to kill him." The doctors called it hospital-induced delirium. His face was gaunt, with a long gray beard. He was heavily sedated to keep him from ripping off all the tubes. I sat in the chair sobbing.

His health declined

A year later, another doctor found my brother online. My dad couldn't communicate and was breathing with a ventilator. She urged us to say goodbye and sign the DNR. My mom and stepdad picked us up, and we all walked into the ICU in white paper gowns and masks. One big modern family. He looked like a feeble stranger. One eye was stuck open. It was evident that life was not kind to him.

I was the first to lean over and talk to him. I told him I loved him and it was OK to go. His blood pressure spiked, and a single tear fell from his eye. It undid me. I thought I was already emotionally disconnected enough over the last 20 years, and it wouldn't be as painful. It was excruciating.

Everyone thought he would die that night. He didn't. I fidgeted at the security desk for my picture. Do you smile when you are visiting your dying father? I went every day and played Bob Marley's Three Little Birds — "Every little thing is gonna be all right." He spent the last decade in shitty nursing homes accruing bed sores from neglect. He burned bridges with everyone, made unfortunate choices, and was catfished by someone in China, sending them whatever money he had. I searched his face for evidence of the good parts.

I fell apart when he died

Days were consumed with the heaviness of impending death. I cold-called cremation facilities from the carline and ogled urns at my kids' dance lessons. The one day I needed a break from visiting was when the call came. I fell apart, and if my husband hadn't been there, I probably would have hit the ground and shattered.

We opened the cardboard box that could easily double as an Amazon package for our impromptu funeral at my grandparent's graves. White ashes scattered from a plastic bag with an industrial-strength twisty tie. I did my part as a loving daughter, despite years of heartache, to end it with dignity and love, regardless of the past.

I learned that it doesn't matter if your parent was estranged or at your table for every holiday. It's a loss, it hurts, and it changes you. He was my greatest lesson in love, loss, resilience, and the non-linear nature of grieving. Also, nobody at the funeral home mentioned my leggings, so I guess anything goes when death is the backdrop.

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