We’re hiking along a trail in the south island of New Zealand when the thoughts start to come. New Zealand had been a bucket list destination and the scenery, outdoor activities, and people did not disappoint. We were hiking on Hooker Valley Track, a must-do from our Google searches and also one my out-of-shape self could do without my mood nearly ending our marriage. We were surrounded by snowy mountains and clear running water, trekked over multiple suspension bridges, and ate lunch overlooking a lake with glaciers peaking above the surface. It reminded me of so many places we’ve been - mini Swiss mountains, rugged Scottish highlands, and the rivers and trees of the Columbia River Gorge. It’s no wonder to me that my thoughts turned to my dad.
He would love this, I thought, in a context that felt both past and present. It was enough to make me halfway forget for the tiniest of moments that he died in 2014. I indulged myself by playing out the scenario of taking my dad back to this exact trail.
Kaitlyn and I would get back to the U.S. and tell him he had to go, that the PNW had just been his training grounds. My dad absolutely loved the outdoors - walking, hiking, backpacking, camping. If it involved landscapes, solitude, and a car full of “ultra light” REI gear, he was in. He was a walking encyclopedia for the Columbia River Gorge and could give recommendations based on view, distance, and incline (though sometimes he undersold the difficulty).
“Did you go camping a lot growing up?” Kaitlyn once asked.
“It felt like more than I did,” I replied. Not because it was bad or that I was suffering through, but because it was memorable. He took my older sister and me backpacking at Blue Lake, and there were at least a couple summer trips to Takhlakh Lake. I remember several hikes in the gorge, him leading the way with his heavy backpack of camera gear and walking stick that doubled as a tripod.
And on the trail to New Zealand, I imagined what it might be like to be his tour guide (I mean, I had been there a whole week by this point). I thought about convincing him to come and us hiking more in preparation. So quickly I fell into the details of warning him that customs would take forever with camping equipment and reassuring him that Kaitlyn would do all the driving since it’s on the opposite side of the road.
I’m not exactly sure why I let myself get so deep into the thought. Maybe it was the peace of the trail or maybe it’s just a manifestation of my desire to plan everything, but it was like one of those dreams where he was alive again. In those dreams there’s still a cognitive dissonance I can’t escape, even in my subconscious, but still it feels rationally unexplainable and I carry on. This is the journey my mind went on halfway across the world.
What’s interesting is that I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t have had the same planning thoughts if my dad was still alive. Like, I can’t actually imagine Kaitlyn and I ever going on a trip with just my dad. And aside from the initial report back on our trip, or maybe even a casual recommendation that he should go (not with us, to be clear), I wouldn’t have anything else to say. I was never super close with my dad. I remember both the super awkward conversations and also the lack of conversation. He was hard to read, quiet and reserved. Particular. It was honestly more complicated than not and the thing is, that complication persists through grief.
I was seeing a therapist during the time my dad died. It came out of nowhere and was nothing short of traumatic. My dad was in the hospital 10 days before he died, and I had a therapy session in those 10 days. It was the very beginning of my grappling with what was about to happen. I didn’t even know where to begin processing and it was further complicated by all my feelings being tangled in a web of shock. But as I tried to start talking through what had happened, the conversation naturally evolved to the relationship itself.
I had regrets. I had unfinished business. I had frustrations and discomfort. I had core parts of myself he didn’t know, that I wasn’t sure he would accept. I didn’t get closure, and I’m not even sure what “closure” would’ve looked like.
“Don’t you think he has regrets too?” my therapist asked.
And the thing is, it’s so common when people die to put them on a pedestal. To never speak ill of them, to only remember the good parts. As if they were perfect. And I think my internal struggle was that I didn’t want him to be on a pedestal. That didn’t feel authentic, didn’t feel representative. Most people don’t talk about the cognitive dissonance that comes with being overwhelmingly sad and…confused? Frustrated? Unsettled? Nobody told me about the “and” situation.
I miss my dad. I wanted him at my wedding. I wanted him to help with projects when we bought our house - to coach me through built-ins and teach me about woodworking and help me set up a little workshop in our garage. I wanted his advice on the best gear to get (and maybe borrow) when we went backpacking. I wanted to talk coding with him when I got a job in tech.
“You can plan for the typical events,” my friend’s mom said to me once when we were talking about grief. “The anniversaries, the birthdays, the holidays. It’s the little moments that are so hard. The ones that catch you off-guard, that hit you when you’re unprepared.”
New Zealand was one of those moments. And as time goes on, I’ll keep having these moments. Keep remembering that grief isn’t linear and it doesn’t have an end date. Which is how I could end up in New Zealand, randomly imagining a trip that would never happen both because it’s physically impossible and also because relationships are weird. It also helps explain why my dad’s number is still in my phone when I don’t remember ever calling him up just to chat. I'm learning to hold space for both truths, learning that feelings are as deep as the experiences that bring them, and grief is as complex as the life lived before.