Lost and Found


September 20, 2017

When my dad died and we started to receive such a lovely outpouring of support, I told a friend that the phrase, “Sorry for your loss” struck me as odd. I mean, I have said it to plenty of people who have lost loved ones (there I go again, “lost” loved ones), but putting it in context of my dad dying, it rang strangely in my ears.

It didn’t seem hollow, for I know those who were saying it truly meant it, as I had all the times I had said it to others. It was something about the word “loss” and “lost” that got me. He isn’t lost. I have lost a lot of things in my life. In fact, losing things was a defining feature of my relationship with my father as I was growing up.

My dad always fixed his hair the same way. The earliest photo I have of the patented Phil McKinney hairstyle is from 1967 and is, luckily, in color.

To achieve this hairstyle, he would shower, dry his hair carefully with the hairdryer on the lowest setting both for power and for heat, use a thick-toothed comb with a full handle, and finish it off with some ozone-depleting White Rain hairspray from an aerosol can he kept perched on top of his tall dresser.

As a child, I found that his thick-toothed comb was the perfect implement to comb through my freakishly thick hair. When my parents could convince me to bathe, I would screech and scream if anyone tried combing my wet hair out. Frequently, I would sneak in the master bathroom where my Dad kept his blue comb on the back of the toilet tank and take it. Inevitably, it would end up inside a toy box, on the living room floor, in a closet, somehow in the car, on the dining room table, or anywhere else I happened to be standing when combing my hair began to bore me and something else caught my attention.

Plenty of times growing up, I heard “Where’s my comb?” The answer, obviously, was wherever the last place I had left it. The tricky part was remembering where that place was.

I knew losing things was an inextricable part of my personality when, two Christmases ago, I received not one but two Tile key-trackers as gifts. I got one from my sister and one from ex. He had fresh memories of adult Heather rifling through her purse, late to functions because of missing keys. My sister, Shannon, probably had hazy visions of a chubby little sister with a dark blonde bob being chastised by Dad: “If you would put it back where it goes, you would never lose it.”

So when folks were saying “Sorry for your loss,” it threw me. Because I didn’t lose my dad. Although I have before. 

At the State Fair of Texas, he would stop to buy a beer or a sausage-on-a-stick and the rest of us would keep walking. Sometimes he would wander over to a show or to watch a salesman putting on a pitch. (My mom called this behavior “Mr. Magoo-ing” where my dad would wander off like the blind cartoon character Mr. Magoo and end up in zany situations.)

One year he Magooed away from the pack. After we had stopped to buy a Miracle Broom from one of the showrooms, he offered to carry it for us. The broom had a long yellow metal handle with three rows of rubber bristles on the end. As the sun got hotter and the crowd got thicker, somehow we lost Daddy in the hustle.

Looking over my shoulder through the swamp of people, I saw over the tops of ball caps and cowboy hats the long yellow handle and the rubber bristles sticking up tall, bouncing up and down as he signaled to us like ships on the sea. 

So even though I had “lost” him before, I had also been completely comforted by knowing where he was, even if not exactly where. That day at the fair, we knew he was still at the fair (mom had the car keys in her purse). Weekdays, I knew he was at work. Around 11AM he was watching YouTube videos at his desk eating his scrambled egg sandwich or some leftovers from dinner. Between 5PM and 6PM he was driving home in his tiny blue egg of a car (dubbed Baby Blue after the Seinfeld reference - “This is Golden Boy’s son, Baby Blue.”) 

Friday afternoons, he was out with mom, probably having a very early dinner somewhere using a coupon. Friday nights, he would be in the brown recliner, placed just so in the exact spot in the living room as the two recliners before it, watching old movies or flipping channels because “there is nothing good on TV.” Sometimes late Friday or Saturday nights, he would call. “I’m sorry to bother you. I just wanted to hear your voice.” He would talk about the old days, when we were kids, and tell me how proud he was of us. Sundays he would be watching football. 

When people started telling me they were “sorry for my loss,” my initial reaction was, “I haven’t lost him. He is dead. I know where we last left him.” 

But that’s not entirely true. Because now I am realizing that I have lost him. And it’s worse than any other time before because right now I don’t know where he is. I think that’s an important part of grief. Someone you loved was here, in the same bubble as us, where you could call them or drive to them or send them a text message, but now they’re gone.

Yes, I know there are a million religious/spiritual beliefs that would tell me “where” he is.  But in terms of being unable to create or destroy matter and energy, I think maybe when we die, we splinter off into a million tiny pieces. Some of those pieces hang on to the loved ones we leave behind, and our loved ones become stronger as a result. 

The truly painful part in the interim is the unknown. Will I feel better tomorrow? In a month? In a year? In ten years? I can tell you those folks I know who have lost a parent seem to me, although completely put together and reasonable to the general public, to love and miss their parent just as much today as when it happened. I at least know enough about myself to know I’ll be the same way.

So now I guess I understand what someone means when they say they’re sorry for my “loss.” It’s more than my keys. It’s more than the panic I felt as a kid when my mom turned down an aisle unexpectedly and left me untethered standing under fluorescent lights on some dirty grocery store linoleum. It’s that nagging feeling I have had since he died; the feeling that when I get real quiet, I can feel the world is emptier without him.

Heather McKinney