I Didn’t Realize I Lost Time with My Dad — Until We Made Up For It This Year

published Jun 17, 2021
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Courtesy Sam Zabell
Credit: Courtesy Sam Zabell

My dad disappeared when I was 16.

No, that’s not quite accurate. He was disappearing before our eyes for a long time before that — skin sinking onto his skeleton, eyes seeming to widen as his lids retreated, all while his heart slowly betrayed his body. 

But I was 16 and I didn’t know what it all meant and prom was suddenly a possibility and I just wanted to drive to my friend’s house and pretend things were normal because at the time the most important thing in the world was to be normal. And that August, days before I began my junior year, my dad told my sister and me that he was going to stay in the hospital indefinitely while he awaited a new heart. I felt blank inside. It’s hard to wrap your mind around what it will mean to have your father live in a hospital bed, and we had no way of knowing that it would be nearly a year (“Eleven months and three days,” I hear him saying) before he came home again.


The theme of this last year has been loss. Absence, grief, and fear took root in place of the mundanities of daily life that we took for granted. Like many New Yorkers, I was scared to tears when the virus claimed a temporary epicenter. The uncertainty of what this virus could do to the world, with the mixed guidelines of whether or not I needed a mask,  washed over me while I FaceTimed my family back in Cleveland. My boyfriend and I took off for my childhood home after a week spent panicking each time we left the house, wearing latex gloves and surgical masks and sunglasses to protect our eyes and hand sanitizer at the ready. We wiped down the rental car with Lysol wipes and drove straight through. It was early days then. We worried that bathroom breaks would put us, and the people we loved, at risk.

Normally when I go home, there are things to do. People to see, errands to run, debates about which hometown favorites to dine at for dinner. But this time, there was nothing. Nowhere to go, except for my mom who qualified as a senior and could grocery shop at 7 A.M. in a nearly-empty store. My sister, a fourth-year medical student, wasn’t allowed in hospitals for her rotation, and my dad, our immunosuppressed patriarch, certainly was not going anywhere. His doctors were clear: The safest place for him to be was inside, at home, no matter what. 


When I think of my junior year of high school, I don’t really remember what my dad missed. I suppose he missed college visits, though I only went on one. He missed junior prom, which was okay because my haircut was horrible and my date was a dud. But it was during the pandemic, that I realized he also missed the little things that make up a family all those years ago: he missed Sunday dinners, and grilling on the Fourth of July, and weekend breakfasts, and afternoon walks in the neighborhood, and trips to the car wash (his favorite), and time with us, on the couch, arguing over which movie to watch.

He was absent for the little things that are so unremarkable, that people might take for granted until it is too late.

Until 2020, when the unremarkable became what I longed for — when all I wanted was to hug my loved ones or sit with friends on the couch or walk outside and breathe in the fresh air.

Upon arrival, the Cleveland quarantine arrangements were: My boyfriend and I would have our own bedroom and bathroom, we’d eat in the dining room, and we weren’t allowed in the kitchen. We were home, but not really; we were ghosts hovering around the family, tip-toeing around my dad and asking politely if someone could get us more shampoo for the shower. My sister was good-natured about the rules, but as our two-week isolation winded down to its final days, she was looking forward to us clearing our own dishes, thank you very much.

Once we were deemed virus-free, we re-entered the household. A new family tradition, one that I don’t remember from growing up, included watching Jeopardy at 7:30 p.m. after dinner (it started at 7 but if you waited, you could fast forward through commercials). We took walks in the afternoon as a family, my dad noting who hadn’t brought in their trash cans in a timely manner. We cooked dinner more nights a week than ever before, digging into cookbooks that had sat unopened on our counter for years. We got to know each other, again, as adults. The “kids” played a heated game of Monopoly. And I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with my dad.


These are my dad’s house rules: Close cabinets and drawers, turn off the light in the front hallway, don’t leave your socks in the living room, and keep the house five degrees warmer than is comfortable for anyone else. His spot will always be the big armchair in front of the TV, and if you’re not listening on surround sound, then why bother watching? 

When I was younger, I couldn’t be bothered, for any of it. But when I returned home as an adult, I felt relieved to fit into a space I knew so well. To come downstairs in the morning and see my dad in his armchair felt like releasing a pressure valve in my chest. I realized I just wanted to be in the living room with my family. Those same house rules that were inconvenient quirks to my teen self became pieces of my dad that prove I know him, I love him, and I grew up in the home he built for me. 


I never realized that I lost a year with my dad until I made up for it with another one. That a year of conversations over the phone or brief visits to his hospital room could not replace being together, in person, to talk about… well, nothing. To talk about anything. To have low-stakes conversations about a show he watched or a work issue I was having or a funny video he saw on Facebook. We had space and time to run out of things to talk about — which sounds sad but is actually a luxury, to finally feel caught up again. We started cooking together. He took on a lot of the tasks I hated, like draining pasta and grating cheese, and we shared techniques and tricks we’d learned in our respective kitchens. He and my boyfriend watched “The Last Dance” together over several evenings while I read upstairs. I felt, and I was, incredibly lucky. 

I lived my own “new normal” in 2009. It was a year of loss and separation and isolation and anger. A year where we had important conversations about death and leaving, and how we would take care of each other. A year of waiting, not for a vaccine, but for the perfect heart, for the surgery to be over, for him to get strong enough to come home. A year of waiting to see how much time we’d have left.

Things I got good at in 2009: Finding a parking spot in the hospital garage. Navigating the hospital hallways to find his room. Pushing his artificial heart — a huge, cumbersome machine — through the hallways so he could walk and get stronger. Telling people I was fine. The math section of the SAT. Doing homework with the beeping of an IV drip in the background.

Things we got good at in 2020: Handwashing for the appropriate amount of time. Opening doors with elbows. Baking. Changing the filters in our masks. FaceTiming and Zooming. Keeping in touch. Bearing with the unknown.


I eventually drove back to New York at the beginning of June, but I just as quickly planned when I would return home. With a little more knowledge, we landed on our safest routine: Quarantine, test, and drive. I spent a month in Cleveland in July, then a few weeks in September for his 75th birthday, then a month around Thanksgiving with just our family, and then most of December and January. My boyfriend and I got engaged in our front yard. Each visit felt simple, yet special. Ordinary, but with that underlying sense that we’ve been granted a mulligan on the endless sadness of 2009. 

A few months ago, I was home weeding the backyard with my dad. March, he explained, was the perfect time to pull up the intruders, because they hadn’t had time to root. My mom and I moved through the dirt on our hands and knees, pulling up leaves he pointed out and chucking them behind the row of evergreens that lined our yard. I remember 2009, when my mom cared for my dad’s garden all by herself, learning what to prune and when and how to keep everything blooming, watering hanging plants and the hydrangea bushes in between a full day of work and a drive down to the hospital. The plants may not have known the difference, as long as they were watered. But we did.

Now vaccinated, my world is beginning to look like “before.” My calendar is filling back up and my office has set a date for reopening and I realize I may never get uninterrupted months at home again. But I’m going to take some things with me: Memories of grown-up family dinners and Scrabble games, reminders to FaceTime my dad more often and always prioritize the people you love.

I am one of the lucky few who received the gift of time. Twice.