My Dad Died Unexpectedly—Fixing Up My Apartment Helped Me Grieve

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I’m a little girl sitting on the floor next to a pile of insulation at a construction site in a tiny town in central Minnesota. My dad was in the process of flipping a home, and I was tasked with keeping him company as he drilled, hammered, and demolished. This wasn’t his profession—he worked as a pharmaceutical technician—but renovating an entire rundown house was something he’d decided he wanted to do. And so he did it. I don’t know why this particular memory has lived in my brain for all these years (I don’t remember anything else about that house), but perhaps it's because it shows exactly who my dad was. He would think of a skill or subject he was interested in, and then he mastered it, whether he had prior experience or not. My dad could fix, learn, or do anything he wanted, and I’ve loved that about him for as long as I can remember. For that and so much more, my dad’s been my hero all my life.

I’m 28 and have my hands pressed up against the glass of a hospital room while my dad takes his last breaths, the 20 feet between us a cruel barrier that I can’t wrap my head around. Thanks to COVID-19-era hospital protocol, he’d spent the last 10 days like this—completely alone—battling a newly-diagnosed cancer that the doctors weren’t sure how to treat. It took his life before they could even finalize the specifics of the diagnosis, let alone outline a treatment plan. For me, this was my absolute worst nightmare realized, something I had feared with my entire being even before I fully understood what death meant. As a very emotional person, and as someone who’s always been very close with both parents, I always thought that I wouldn’t be strong enough to handle losing one of them. And I was right. In the weeks that followed my dad’s death, I felt myself spiraling, losing my grip on any kind of desire to continue living now that my dad was not.

After a few weeks, I finally sought therapy. As it started to work and the fog began to clear, I became really motivated to do things that my dad would be proud of. I felt so compelled to find at least some kind of silver lining through this whole mess, and that came in the form of pursuing any path that had a connection to him. First, I enrolled in a virtual sommelier course, determined to add tangibility to the love of wine I had shared with my dad. I was so relieved to have something new to focus on and distract me from my trauma that I then felt a foreign excitement at the prospect of decluttering and organizing a workspace for myself. I did the same for other spaces around my Brooklyn apartment in an effort to forge calm, intentional environments for studying, reading wine books, and participating in assigned tasting activities.  Thinking of how organized my dad had been about his work and life, I was horrified that I’d spent so much time not caring more about making space for myself until now.

I ordered a few seagrass baskets for my study materials, and then I ordered more for other random things around the house. As I filled each with objects (after binge-watching the entire Marie Kondo series on Netflix), I found a putty knife in my kitchen junk drawer. I looked up at the switch plate next to the fridge, its edges smeared with paint from a haphazard coat likely slapped on between tenants, and I scraped it off. That was surprisingly cathartic, I thought to myself. I wandered around the apartment and did the same with every other switch plate in sight, wondering why I’d never used a putty knife before. It was so easy to fix, and yet I’d never thought to do it because I didn’t know I could. The sense of accomplishment, even from such a small task, comforted me. Doing something that made me feel remotely connected to my dad calmed me. Finding a new part of myself that was actually handy, like he was, sparked a light in me.

My home took on a new meaning for me after that. Each time I saw something that wasn’t right, I did something about it, using Google to find a solution if necessary. I bought a can of matte charcoal paint and a few synthetic brushes and gave my nightstand drawers a facelift (they were originally a weird shade of blue that had bothered me since I’d gotten them). I had a good amount leftover, so I painted every single one of my picture frames to give them a more cohesive look. I ordered another shade after realizing that the top of the old-school radiator cover in my living room turned out not to be just dirty but damaged and distorted from years of heat. Over the next three days, I stripped its many layers of paint down to the metal before applying two fresh coats of cream-colored paint. My wrists hurt from the sanding and scraping, but I was emboldened by the end result.

I cried as I pulled Japanese knotweed roots from the earth, flooded with memories of him mowing the lawn of our childhood home. I thought of him pulling my sister and me around in a wagon at the pumpkin patch when we were little, while I repotted half-dead plants.

As I continued to take on projects around the house and in our backyard, I felt closer and closer to my dad, even using some of his tools from my parents’ house. I cried as I pulled Japanese knotweed roots from the earth, flooded with memories of him mowing the lawn of our childhood home. I thought of him pulling my sister and me around in a wagon at the pumpkin patch when we were little, while I repotted half-dead plants. As I replaced and reorganized the shelving in my bathroom, I remembered the year that my dad transformed a crawlspace in my parents’ bedroom, creating a beautiful bathroom from practically nothing. I drank wine as I worked, knowing he'd have joined in if he were still here (he was French, after all).

My home is still a work in progress, and I know I am too as I heal from all of this, but at least I've found a way to help me through it.

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