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Image of Love and Loss in My Daughter's Life

January 6, 2024
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My daughter was the last person to talk to her dad before he died. 

Haley, then 10, and Ryan, 15, were at my former husband’s house that day. They lived with me for ten days and then with Erik for four more, every two weeks. We’d agreed to the custody schedule years before, and had fallen into a good coparenting groove. Our divorce was working better than our marriage had. 

Erik had been home, recovering from a heart attack, when Haley called me from his house one afternoon. 

“Ryan thinks Daddy’s dead!” said Haley when I answered the phone and I was on my feet before I realized it, gesturing at my boyfriend, Walt, to get in the car. I sped to Erik’s house, making the mile-long drive in less than two minutes. 

My daughter clung to her father’s t-shirt. (Photo credit Kelly K. James)

I could not find a pulse

Walt helped me lower Erik off the couch to the ground, and I checked for a pulse, found none, and started CPR, pushing my closed fist against his chest, hard, over and over, the way I’d learned years before. I heard Walt take the kids out of the room and then, a police officer was kneeling next to me, telling me not to stop, and the room was full of EMTs, busy and purposeful, who pushed me out of the way and tore open Erik’s shirt and slapped pads to his chest and put an oxygen bag on his face and charged the AED and tried to restart his heart. 

They took him to the hospital, and I followed, after calling my best friend, Cindy, to come stay with the kids. Then I came home. 

Ryan knew as soon as he saw my face. Haley did not. Erik had gone to the hospital before, for his appendix, for gallstones, for a pulmonary embolism, for a heart attack. He always came home.

I held my daughter close as I told her her father had died

I got on my knees and put my arms around my daughter. “They gave your daddy special medicine, and they used special machines and they worked really hard to try to get his heart started,” I said. “It didn’t work. He died. I’m so, so sorry.” And I held her while she sobbed, wishing her pain could bleed into me. 

The next morning, we drove to Erik’s still, quiet house to gather photos for the funeral. Erik’s bed was made, stacks of shirts, jeans, and shorts lined up neatly in his closet. 

“I want Daddy’s shirt,” said Haley, pointing to one stack. They’d joined a dads/daughters club after we got divorced, and had gone on camping trips every summer. Haley slept in Erik’s “Happy Camper/Camp Tecumseh” t-shirt that night, the shirt reaching her knees. 

Those first days were a blur. I let my kids’ teachers know what had happened, set up therapy appointments for my son and walked the quiet streets of my neighborhood in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I made sure we had something to eat for dinner and started to clean out Erik’s house, shocked by the endless boxes he’d stashed in his basement.

I began to dismantle my late, ex-husband’s life

I found birthday cards I’d given him decades before, our kids’ report cards, crayon pictures Haley and Ryan had drawn as preschoolers. He’d kept everything. I gathered everything I thought the kids would want, and did what I could to help my brother, his executor, start dismantling his life. Haley still wore the shirt. 

 A month after he died, I tried to put it in the wash. 

“Nooooo!” Haley grabbed the shirt and cradled it protectively. “No, Mom. It smells like Daddy.” She held it tighter. “Promise me you won’t wash it,” she said. “Swear.” 

And I promised. I raised my right hand and swore I wouldn’t wash it. 

I overrode my sanitary-related objections and tried to put it out of my mind. Three months passed. Four. Five. Six. She still wore the shirt. Which I could now smell when Haley walked by. 

It was time. “Haley, I’m sorry.” I sat down on her bed. “I have to wash your dad’s shirt.” 

“Nooooo! It still smells like him!” 

“It doesn’t, honey,” I said. “It smells like BO. It smells like stinky 11-year-old. It’s full of bacteria at this point. I have to wash it. I’m your parent. I can’t let you wear something that could make you sick.” 

“It was Dad’s.” 

“I know. But do you think your dad would be okay with you wearing his shirt for so long? Without washing it?” 

Haley started to laugh. “No,” she said. “He’d think it was gross.” 

“Well, it is gross!” I laughed, too. “I cannot even imagine what is growing or living in that shirt by this point.” I looked at her, and took a breath. 

When I tried to wash the shirt, a memento I had given my daughter she balked

“Haley, will you tell me again what happened that day?” 

She nodded. I waited.

“I asked if I could use his iPad,” said Haley. “He said ‘yes.’ He said he was going to take a nap. And I said, ‘thank you and I love you’.” 

“And what did he say?” 

“He said, ‘I love you, too.’”

I reached over and held her hand. “Your dad knew the two people he loved the most in the world — you and Ryan — were in the house with him. I think he was happy, and he closed his eyes, and fell asleep, and his heart stopped. It’s still really sad, but I’m so glad he wasn’t in a hospital, by himself, or alone, or scared.” 

She sat, listening to me. 

“You’ve got so many good memories with your dad. Cooking with him. Going on campouts. Driving around in the Jeep. Playing on the zipline in his backyard. Those are all in your heart. You can still wear his shirt every night if you want! You can wear it in college. But you have to let me wash it in the meantime. Okay?”

She handed me the shirt, and it (washed twice, in hot water, with extra detergent) was waiting for her to climb back into that night. 

His scent may have faded. But I hope the memory of his love for her will last forever. 

More Great Reading:

Navigating Loss is an Important Life Skill That Every Teen Should Learn

Kelly K. James is a widely published freelance writer and the author of books including The Book That (Almost) Got Me Fired: How I (Barely) Survived a Year in Corporate America and Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money. She lives outside Chicago with her son, Ryan, a college freshman; her daughter, Haley, an 8th grader; a rescue pup; and a very spoiled cat.  

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