It was his heart.
For sixty years it beat and pumped, fluttered and thumped, unwaveringly steady and constant. Until one day it stopped. It was unexpected and unimaginable. When his heart quit beating, I was sure that mine would too. Somehow it hasn’t, but it beats more heavily now. It pumps blood through- out my body with each pulsing throb, carrying exactly fifty percent of his DNA to my double-pierced ears and nail-polished toes. And with each passing second, I miss him even more.
On November 21, 2011, I came home to find my boyfriend anxiously pacing in the living room. When I asked him what was wrong, he simply shook his head.
My cell phone rang. It was my mom. She said I needed to sit down and take my boyfriend’s hand.
“Honey, I’m going to tell you something, and then I need you to hang up the phone,” she said through my gasps. “When you can, call me back and I’ll tell you more.”
She told me that my dad had died.
For the next few hours, with my boyfriend’s hand firmly clasped to mine, I wept as I processed what had happened.
My father, James, had gone hang gliding with his friends—a common occurrence even at 60 years old. There was never a time in my memory when my father did not hang glide. It’s how he met my mother, who went flying even when she was pregnant with my sister. When I was little, I would hand my dad a plastic baggie and ask him to bring back a cloud for me. Having a dad who could fly was like having my very own super hero.
The day he died the skies were clear and the winds were in their favor—a perfect day for flying. My dad was among the first to take off. While circling through the air, he briefly lost consciousness. Still flying, he woke up and radioed to his chums on the ground: “Boy, do I have a story for you guys!”
A short while later, he landed smoothly in a grassy field, grinning about his in- flight adventure. He unharnessed, stepped away from the glider, and suddenly col- lapsed. No one could resuscitate him.
Nor could anyone explain why he died.
The doctors called it “sudden death syndrome,” a grown-up form of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The death certificate labeled it “probable cardiac arrhythmia.” But none of that mattered to me. No explanation could bring him back.
In the weeks following my dad’s death, I came to question the human heart. I had my doubts about its relevance as an organ—why exercise and eat well for more than half a century if it was just going to quit on you? I became cynical about its place in our culture; it seems like bad ad-vice to “follow your heart” when it’s just going to lead you to the Grim Reaper’s door. Most of all, I doubted its physical and emotional strength—if the
heart is truly as powerful as we believe it to be, why is it so easy to break?
Between the grief and numbness, fear began to steal into my heart. Worry saturated every minute of the day. How would my mother support herself and two daughters on one paycheck? Would I be able to finish school? Who would help me lift the heavy furniture when I moved out of my apartment? Each uneasy thought built upon the last until I was left with a complex tower of anxiety, a morose game of Jenga that threatened to come crashing down around me.
On the day of my dad’s memorial service, I wasn’t sure I could talk to my family’s friends, neighbors, or coworkers without feeling like I was going to scream, vomit, or do something equally indecent. In the end, I simply lent a hand with the decorations.
My father was an elementary school teacher and his students had made one thousand paper cranes for his service, each with an individual message. They were to be hung on a tree near the podium and scattered on tables throughout the hall.
As I placed the folded sheets of multicolored paper on white tablecloths, I read each message. Two of them will be with me for the rest of my life, little reminders constructed by tiny hands that give me comfort as I grieve. The first was a red crane with lopsided wings and a disproportionately large head. On the larger wing was this message: “Mr.Kennedy, you are a great teacher. I wish you weren’t dead.”
Every time I read it, I can’t help but smile. I laugh in the face of death, and I giggle because I can. I look at this unknown child’s oversized handwriting and think about the wisdom behind the words. Beneath all my cynicism and sorrow, one fact remains: I want my father to
Why should I feel prohibited from saying those words? Because they’re too raw? Death is simple, but grief is complicated. But I can say with absolute certainty that nothing is unresolved. I know there’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent his death. I know he would have been happy that my mom, my sister, and I were not there to see it. And I know he loved all of us more than life itself.
This is when I look to my second crane, a blue one that looks more like a paper air- plane than an origami bird: “Mr. Kennedy showed me that things are amazing.”
My father was amazing.
Every summer during my childhood, he would take my sister and me to Whiskeytown Lake, where we would jump off its rocky cliffs. During a trip to Europe when I was 10, my dad woke me up in the middle of the night and asked if I wanted to go on an adventure. We wandered through London until sunrise. When my sister brought home an injured piglet, he bought baby bottles for the motherless animal. My dad taught his students about science by letting them take apart our lawn mower. He taught me how to shoot a potato gun and how to build a mousetrap car.
My dad’s greatest passion was helping others realize theirs. For me, that meant going to college and simply living a life of learning, a fact that my dad understood and encouraged. He is the reason I’m finishing college. He is the reason I’m starting graduate school in the fall. He was my loudest advocate, my cart- wheeling cheerleader, and my biggest fan.
Now that he’s gone, I’m faced with the most difficult, daunting lesson I’ll ever have to learn—living without him.
But I carry “Dad DNA,” so he will never truly be gone. His strength is in my cells. His benevolence is in my blood, running through my veins to bring life to an organ that I still have not forgiven. It’s not just his amazing spirit that I will always carry with me. It’s his heart.