Grieving the Death of Her Father Has Taught Journalist Victoria Oldridge to Live Life to the Fullest
In April of 1983 in the southwest of England, I was a little girl of five years, solemn and intuitive as I knelt on the floor next to my father while he lay on a bed battling a wave of fatigue and discomfort; the rest of my family waiting in another room for the ambulance to arrive.
It was routine back then for emergency responders to transport a patient from the home to the hospital even for potentially minor ailments, but we would soon learn that the silent war coursing his body was anything but trivial. My eyes strained to follow the ambulance as far as I could from the upstairs window and I never saw him again.
That afternoon I took half of a cardboard box and taped letters to my dad from each family member, hid it behind the sofa and wished its arrival to him in heaven like a letter through the chimney to Santa. When the box was missing the next day I inquired, and my mom said it must have reached him. I took solace that although he was physically robbed from me, the ability to communicate with him was still alive, but it was a one way street, and soon anguish consumed me.
A few years later I put a pixie keychain in a small box and covered it in potpourri; one of a flurry of nonsensical shrines and rituals that I hoped would tether me to him, teleport me for a few seconds back on his lap where I could sense the sweat on his face from a long shift as a firefighter or sitting at the family table in the morning eating a bowl of porridge he made for me.
Every time I saw a clock strike 10:10 or 11:11, I’d make a request that he would visit; a superstition that for decades to come would hold, next to throwing coins in wishing wells and blowing out birthday candles. It’s only been the past ten years since I started my own family that the desire for him to come back has been contested by my hopes and dreams for them now, with an appeal for world peace and an end to hunger as a close second. It’s taken most of my life, but perhaps the Acceptance stage of grief is a chapter that has finally closed.
One morning when I was 21 and a few months from college graduation, I awoke in a state of shock. The years spent grasping for one last encounter with my dad came to life in a dream so powerful that it left me in a perplexed state of paralysis, wading in an uncontrollable current of tears and scrambling to assemble a mental puzzle about where the frames of the dream ended and my present day life began.
The vision itself was surprisingly simple in its landscape and silence. He was next to me in the middle of a street in a small town in England, sometimes holding my hand, sometimes just close by. His presence was so dimensional and real, it was as though the sixteen years since his passing were temporarily erased by a dreamlike shawl of pure comfort and reassurance; a pivotal point in my healing.
My father was born with a bicuspid (two flaps) aortic heart valve opposed to tricuspid (three flaps) but was never aware of the defect. When, at thirty-four years of age, he went for routine dental work, the bacteria seeped in and took his life. He’d likely be here today if he had taken antibiotics prior to the dental visit. My mom told me that my dad once casually said to her before his death, “I don’t think I’m going to see the children grow up.” It’s true that his profession carried higher than average risk but his confession was a startling premonition for an otherwise healthy young man with his whole life ahead of him.
Throughout high school and college I volunteered in various wards at hospitals but nothing enraptured me like the ER. The closer I was to witnessing and understanding life when it was on the brink of death and having a handprint in helping to prevent someone else’s loss and agony became my own medicine.
I worked as a consultant in cardiac surgery for years, watching hundreds of patients’ exposed and weakened hearts beat while they were being repaired. When I heard the words, “code blue” sound over the hospital speaker for a neighboring patient, a tear would topple into my surgical mask as I knew another heart would stop that day.
Sometimes I look for my dad wherever I hope he might show himself: In my children, through research of his fire brigade, staring at his remains that sit in a bubble-wrapped container on my shelf, or within myself. Oftentimes, I can’t see what I’m looking for and realize perhaps some signs aren’t obvious because I hadn’t known him long enough to recognize them.
I thought once my age surpassed that of my father’s at the time he died, it would confirm that my story didn’t have to echo his, but even though I’ve now lived six years longer than he did, I have yet to leap across the serenity chasm because in my mind, I’m still living on borrowed time.
Seeing a parent vanish before my eyes at the tender age of five left me somewhat adrift as a young adult, wondering if I too could be destined for a shortened life; many of my years, days and even hours I’ve lived an exhausting but thrilling and vibrant race against a phantom clock — an anxious mission to pour as much love into my family and friends as possible, travel the world, challenge myself and leave as much of an impact on those less fortunate as possible, not taking any moment for granted.
Once my foe, grief has become my friend. The pressure from the weight of living each day as though it could be my last is at times unbearably heavy but it’s buoyed by a gift from my dad, who taught me in his death that living with intensity is fulfilling and meaningful — that it’s possible to view each day as a lifetime.
I haven’t physically seen my dad since 1983 but I can now recognize that he’s been visiting me all along, guiding aspects of my career and passions, influencing some of the qualities I’ve sought in a life partner, impacting my philanthropic interests and magnifying the occasions with my children. I’m no longer in the seat of the little girl gazing up at her dying father, but a grown woman observing her younger self, proud of the distance she’s traveled.
When I told my daughter, seven, that I was preparing to write this piece, she placed her small hand on top of mine as her lips quivered and her voice cracked. Tears rolled down both of our cheeks and she said, “Mom, even though I didn’t know him, I feel connected to him.”