** See family photos at the end of this post **
It’s been a rough few months for me, personally. And while it’s easy to just put on a happy face for business – I feel this business is so personal. You all come into my home, you get to know me as I freeze special moments in time for you with your most treasured loved ones. We talk, we laugh, we share stories of how we got to where we are now. And you tell me about the special people that are sitting in front of my lens. Because it is so personal, I felt the need to be open about my grief.
For those that don’t know… my father died on Thursday, November 19th. My father in law then passed away 6 days later on Wednesday, November 25th (the day before Thanksgiving – aka my favorite holiday). Both were “sudden” deaths in the sense that a month or so earlier – we were praising God for what seemed to be a big turnaround in their health from the year before. In September/ October of 2014 they both had major sudden health issues. My dad had mini strokes and then got really sick, went septic, doctors said he was going to die. At the same time, my father in law found out he had small cell carcinoma (lung cancer). They both fought and against all odds, not only made it to another holiday season but went on to recover and go home and live what was a normal life for several months. Our fears of death were put away, replaced with hope and then praise for their healing! Then somehow they both got sick again at the same time and ended up dying just 6 days apart. My dad was 83 and my father-in-law just 57. Their different stages of life have caused us to grieve for them very differently but very profoundly.
I am the epitome of a daddy’s girl. I was adopted by my grandparents at the age of 7, but they raised me since I was just 6 months old. The story goes that my real mom’s dad (Tom) was upset about his young daughter’s pregnancy and had said he didn’t want to see her or the baby. But when I came home from the hospital – he was waiting to see me. He held me, I grabbed his finger and he fell in love. I never knew anyone else that I trusted with my life as much as I did my daddy. He always provided for me, protected me, loved me. He was a man of quiet strength as I now believe was common in his generation. If he let you into his very small circle of trust – it was a good place to be. A place of quick witted jokes, tear-filled hugs good bye and love enduring. In a world where I try to love as many people as best as I can – I was one of a handful of people my daddy loved and with that exclusivity brings a feeling of honor. I was also one of the few with him when he died and that was an honor in and of itself.
My dad had a heart attack when I was 19 and I will never forget standing on the roof of the local hospital as they loaded him into the helicopter to transport him. My mom, my sister and I were crying and praying. We thought that was going to be the last time we saw him. But it wasn’t. He recovered. Fully. He went on to have prostate cancer and a myriad of health issues over the years but he always recovered. I had gotten used to him recovering. I didn’t even believe he was dying when they told me to get home in November. I didn’t believe it – not really. I mean – it was my man of steel. He always found a way to stay. And as long as he was in this world, I would always be someone’s little girl and that was honestly a bigger thing than I realized. It’s a privilege to be someone’s little girl. And it’s a privilege I shouldn’t have even had. Which made it a double blessing to me – one I never took for granted… at least not once I was old enough to understand the significance of it. While I didn’t get to look in his eyes or talk to him anymore… (By the time I got home, he was unconscious and never woke back up.) I did get to hold his hand and whisper in his ear. I believe in my heart he heard me. I talked to him one last time just moments before he died. I am thankful for that. I am thankful for every single day of my life I got to enjoy saying “Tom Peek is my dad”. And while I am very thankful that my sweet daddy isn’t suffering and thankful that I didn’t have to watch him not know who I was anymore (he had started having major episodes of dementia) – I would be lying to say I thought it was for the best. I guess it’s the best for him – for all of us saved go on to be with our Father. But it certainly doesn’t feel best for my widowed mom who was married to him for 60 years – since she was 16, a mom who doesn’t know what to do now. It doesn’t feel best for my heart. Even at the age of 38, losing that precious gift of being someone’s special little girl – it’s just hard in a way I never expected. I guess had I not been so loved for so long – it would not hurt so bad. I will be forever thankful for that kind of love. I am VOWING to do some big things in my life to honor that love. Don’t worry – you’ll hear about them later. 😉
So that brings me to my wonderful father-in-law, Richard. He was still young and he’d been in my life for almost 14 years. Since he didn’t have a daughter, he called me his favorite daughter. 🙂 I know most people have in-law jokes. And sure – I’ve had my moments, but overall – you guys, I hit the jackpot marrying into Dustin’s family. They are a small family and so very close. Because they are younger, I felt a new level of comfort. I truly said when we married and my dad had some health issues “Well, the good news is I’ve got a great 2nd dad when the time comes to say goodbye to my daddy”. I really believed that. When we had Zoey, I knew she’d be so blessed to have grandparents that would dote on her until she was well into adulthood – probably even a mommy of her own. Because my grandparents adopted me, I didn’t get the grandparent experience (my great grandfathers died when I was young and my great grandmothers weren’t around me that much) I was so excited for her to have it all! We had so many plans, so many dreams. We talked about so many things. And then… And then a scan for acid reflux turns into the C word and all our dreams… all our expectations of the future – just gone. And Z was already SO close to Richard, her “papa”. She called him all the time. She loved him so very much and she misses him. Like really misses him. A 3 year old grieves differently. I’m not sure they understand the permanence. So instead – she just suddenly sees something that makes her think of him and she clings to it with all her might. (like thinking our new cream colored blanket was the one from his bed and having a meltdown when I went to wash it). Or she chatters on and on. She has stopped asking to go see him. But just the other day, she somehow found his contact in my phone (I had taken it off my favorites which is the only way she calls people) and she tried to call him. And was sad when it didn’t work. All that to say – the process of losing him has been a more daily gut wrench than the loss of my dad. My sweet daddy was my daddy and I miss him in all those ways. But my father-in-law was a daily presence in our lives and most importantly – the picture of our future. I never expected my dad would take Zoey to Disneyworld. I never dreamt about him taking her to grandparents day or fishing trips, etc. It’s just a hard thing saying goodbye to all the dreams you didn’t even realize you had cemented in the picture of your future. So you grieve and then you are reminded of another dream and you grieve again.
With my dad, I grieve memories. Recently I woke up to a dream of my dad walking in to my childhood home / my parents house. It was raining outside and he was wearing this hat and navy blue snap up jacket. I had seen that hundreds of times but never paid attention to it before. Suddenly, in my dream – I could tell you how that jacket sounded as he walked towards me, how it smelled with the fresh rain on it and how the nylon felt against my skin as I fell into my daddy’s nook for a big hug. I woke up in a panic because my mom had recently given away a lot of my dad’s clothes. I called her a bit hysterically asking if she’d kept it. I already have one of his favorite sweatshirts and one of the white coffee mugs from the set he’d drank out of my entire life. (I’m not kidding – apparently it was his dad’s and maybe granddad’s.) If you offered me a million dollars, I wouldn’t give those 2 things up. They are pieces of memories I can hold on to when I grieve.
With my father-in-law, I had lots of great memories myself. But I have found I’m grieving the future much more than the memories. I also have to watch my husband’s grief and my daughter’s grief for him. That makes mine, while deep – seem a little menial compared to theirs.
Then there are our sweet mothers and their grief. In an ironic twist, my parents were married 60 years last year. Dustin’s parents were married 30 years last year. And Dustin and I were married 10. I just thought that was odd. It’s a long time to be together at 10 years+. But 30 years? 60 years? It’s so hard to see them so hurt and not be able to help them. All we can do is make sure we spend time with them and answer the phone when they call. My mom is in Illinois and Dustin’s is in Kentucky so we are purposeful in making sure we Skype more and visit more than before.
And so for the past few months, it’s just been a lot of adjusting. Trying to function in daily life (because shockingly the world doesn’t stop for your grief -not even for a moment!) while being surprised and at times, overwhelmed by new levels of grief we weren’t aware would come. I recently did a fasting prayer period that helped bring me out of the darkness I felt I was swimming in. Up until recently – I desperately tried to talk myself out of grief. I’d tell myself things like “It’s not my child I lost. People have parents die all the time. I should be okay! For goodness sakes, I’m 38 – it’s not like I’m an orphan! Get over yourself!” But as it turns out – you can try to run from grief, but then it will find you and knock you down on your proud little rump. So we began to accept it and let the waves come over us. And then we found through prayer and counseling a way to swim when the waves would come. We see light now. There are days when it’s still dim, but the light is back. And now what pushes me forward… It’s not the determination to stop grieving or to get past it. Instead, it’s the complete acceptance of it. It’s the realization that I have only grieved such a huge hole in my heart because I was loved in such a vast way from 2 men I was fortunate enough to call “Dad”. For a girl who came into this world fatherless, that’s a pretty big triumph. In fact – I’m going to wear these tears with pride. With the help of God, they are creating in me a new thing. A new vision for the future, one that can honor our dads’ legacies and keep their love alive for years to come.
So I feel like I’m back for you! I’m back to being excited about photography and all that it represents. I’m excited about the future. It’s a new season for us. It’s fitting that Spring is on the horizon as it feels our hearts are entering into a warmer season of hope. And I pray that I can continue to use my gifts and capture beautiful images of you and your sweet families – because in the end, those photos will mean more than you can imagine.
Me and my daddy – wish I had professional photos of us when I was small. But this is treasured, pixels and all
Me and my daddy – at my wedding. I will forever be grateful to our wedding photographer, Laurie Carpenter, for listening to my instructions “Please get lots of photos of me and my daddy!” She sure did and I treasure them all.
Meeting Zoey for the first time…
Had the tremendous honor of being able to photograph my family for my parent’s 60th anniversary last January.
Aren’t my mom and dad the cutest? There were other photos but this one they were both laughing. 60 years…
Dustin and his dad were so very close. FYI: His dad adopted him too! He was honestly 100% Dustin’s best friend in the world.
And then a new love was born…
After we found out Richard had cancer, we went for a visit. She hugged him like this for about 30 minutes, eyes closed tight to the rest of the world.
They had a lifetime of love shared in 3 short years.