Fatherless Woman, Phenomenal Woman
I lost my father to pancreatic cancer at the age of 10. To be precise, exactly one week after my 10th birthday and a week before my sister’s 17th birthday. Although my father was terminally ill for over a year, I prayed (and believed) every single night that he would get better. That he would start work again and our lives would get back to normal. That we’d move back into our five bedroom house in the Ivory Coast instead of squeezing in a two bedroom apartment in Virginia. That I’d be able to invite friends over, without the fear of having to field questions about his condition, or even worse the looks of pity and embarrassment I was certain they’d give me if they found out.
So when he died, fearing even more of an imbalance and lack of normalcy in my life, I did everything I could to rationalize my situation. I looked up statistics on single parent households and told myself I was no different. This happened all the time, and if they could cope so could I. I didn’t let myself mourn, and I didn’t let anyone mourn for me. When I returned to school after the burial in Uganda, I walked into class with a smile on my face and a joke on my tongue, ready to challenge anyone who thought I was any different. I closed myself off emotionally from everyone, including my family and set up incredibly high standards for friendship as a way to ensure that I wouldn’t get hurt.
However as I grew up and became hyper-aware of men, in a way I also became hyper-aware of this void in my life and began looking to others to fill it. I felt terrified being a young woman alone and looked for male figures, in my teachers, coaches, friends, and romantic interests, to make me feel safe. This need for a male anchor in my life severely weakened my self-esteem as I was acutely aware of what men thought of me. Desperately wanting to impress, I constantly questioned my own needs, and placed those of others before mine. When I got to college, the pressures of academic success merely added to stress I was already feeling and by the end of my first year I felt more vulnerable than I ever I had in my entire life.
Yet once again I remained silent. Having three incredibly successful and independent older sisters and being the daughter of my mother, a staunch feminist and the strongest woman I know, I felt ashamed of my insecurities. Living in the shadow of their successes how could I struggle in this way? Additionally, having kept up the façade of normalcy for so long with my friends, I felt incredibly scared bringing up anything that might force me to open up about these fears and my dad’s passing. So I smiled more and joked more, to hide the occasional nights I cried myself to sleep and the growing apathy I felt at school.
When I started to develop a fear of crowded spaces and flying on planes (two fears I’ve never had before) I began to realize just how damaging silence can be. Shouldering the emotional weight of my father’s death alone while trying to be the successful woman I know I’m destined to be did not make any sense.
So little by little, I started to open up, first to family, and later a few friends. It’s been nearly twelve years of silence so it’s still hard, and I can’t even count the number of conversations I’ve started with the intent to open up then backed out at the last minute. But what I have noticed from these few encounters is that I really have nothing to lose. For so long I thought I knew how to deal with everything; I thought I had the answers (sway). But opening up in recent months, I’ve learned so much more than I did in the past decade.
So I’m writing this as a step in the healthy direction, as I learn how to mourn, heal, and move on, openly.
'Cause I am a fatherless woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me.