My dad died in 1970. He was 26-years-old, married to his high-school sweetheart, and the father of three little girls, ages four, three, and one. He played football for the Chicago Bears and that team and the city loved him. In fact, from what I can tell almost every single person who met him, loved him. He was big-hearted, funny, and warm, the kind of person most people want to have in their lives.
His death, after a seven-month battle with cancer, was devastating. His friends and family wanted to make sure that he would be remembered and that something good would come from their pain. The book he started writing in the hospital was finished by Jeannie Morris, a long-time friend of my parents, and published as “Brian Piccolo: A Short Season.” Around the same time, “Brian’s Song,” the movie based on his friendship with Gale Sayers, was released. Millions of dollars have been raised for cancer research in his memory; a park and a stadium in his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and a school in Chicago are all named after him; and there are scholarships in his honor, among so many other wonderful tributes.
I know that in some ways I am lucky. All of this public recognition and sharing of his story, has kept his memory very much alive for me. My mom, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, and his friends have given me a treasure trove of stories and pictures. Because I was four when he died, I also have my own precious recollections of time spent with him. I remember leaning up against the iron fence that ran alongside our house in Chicago drinking lemon-lime Gatorade with him after he finished working out. I remember him running down the hill in front of our house one Halloween to retrieve an apple that had fallen out of hole ripped in my trick-or-treat bag because I had to have it back no matter how beaten up it was. I remember my sisters and me dancing with him to “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” in our basement. And I remember the last time I saw him, sitting in a chair in my grandparents’ living room in Atlanta, too sick to play with us and me not fully understanding why.
Only as I’ve gotten older have I come to understand that the public nature of his short battle with cancer and his death, and everything good that followed, actually made it harder for me to let myself grieve my own loss. Maybe that sounds strange, but for me, there was always a battle between the public face of my grief—which was, yes, I lost my dad but look at all the good that has come from it—and the private face of that grief, adjusting to my world without my dad’s light in it. I remember my grandma telling me that the first words out of my mouth after learning that my dad died were, “You mean I’m never going to see my daddy again?!” Those 10 words out of the mouth of a four-year-old convey the anger, confusion, pain, and sadness that a loss like this one has and are as much a part of me now as they were when I said them 49 years ago.
Loss like that changes you. Loss changed me in ways I didn’t even realize, especially not at such a young age. It caused me to re-order my world without even knowing that I was doing it. I understood that life can change in an instant and even though I’m not always aware of its presence, wariness is a constant companion.
I am not a grief expert, not by a long shot. I can only speak to my own experience. I know that grief is a journey and the process is a little bit different for everyone. For kids who have lost a parent or a caregiver, I will tell you that there is no wrong or right way to grieve. It’s ok to let yourself feel every single thing that you’re feeling. When you’re sad and really don’t want to talk about it, it’s ok. When you want to yell, scream, or cry about it, that’s ok too. It’s ok to share memories, laugh, and carry on with family traditions. It’s also ok to be happy again. It is all part of healing.
I know that my dad would have given anything not to have left his young family when he did. We’d also give anything to have had him for a lot longer than those few short years. But life moves forward and I appreciate each day so much more because I know that time is not a given. I try really hard to live for today, not sweat the small stuff, be kind, and make time for the people who are important to me. I carry my dad in my heart now, and I think that I’m just a little bit stronger for it.