The motto at my private Quaker high school was “For the Honor of Truth.” We would throw it around in irony whenever a cheating scandal broke out, under the impression that honesty was simply the opposite of lying. During my freshman year at Boston College I learned that honesty requires an active pursuit of the truth, an openness that still frightens me.
My father died when I was 10 and I was living on a floor of people who knew nothing about me and on a campus where virtually no one knew who I was. I had to come to terms with explaining this to perfect strangers.
It wasn’t a car accident or a heart attack, it was kidney cancer, and he passed away on February 8, 2007 (Anna Nicole Smith majorly stole his thunder).
I was a fifth grader in my hometown’s public elementary school when it happened. I experienced all the comforts a grieving community has to offer. My father, Dr. David James Lombardi (I don’t think his name is said enough), did everything from coaching little league to chaperoning school field trips. Walking into class and knowing I would never again be asked to have my parents sign a permission slip or make an appointment for a parent-teacher conference were among the many small reliefs. I didn’t like to bring it (him) up.
When I transferred to private school in seventh grade, my safety net disappeared. My biggest anxiety–although I never would have been able to articulate it then–was explaining myself. I wanted people to know, but I didn’t want to say anything, so I didn’t tell anyone. I spent high school longing for the silent understanding of my teachers and peers that I relished in my hometown, but I was unwilling to establish it by sharing anything with them. I developed a habit of passing on opportunities to share things about myself, which I realize probably sounds vague to a person who has never experienced this kind of loss.
In gym class one day, I wore one of Dad’s old National Ski Patrol shirts, which I’ve since been informed is illegal if the shirt wearer is not actually a ski patroller. A group of girls whom I was eager to get “in” with were curious as to whose shirt it was. I told them quickly my dad was a ski patroller. They were all impressed, and I didn’t say anything more. I was hesitant to share anything more because the assumption that my father was just as alive as theirs made speaking about his life and his amazing accomplishments less sad.
A lot of my friends assume I don’t like to talk about him because it’s “too difficult.” And they aren’t wrong. I posted an Instagram of him on his birthday, but deleted it after an hour because I hated the feeling that I was ruining someone’s innocent scroll through social media with my deceased parent. The difficulty in confiding truly lies in slow drop of a smile as I kill a perfectly nice conversation with stories about my dead father. I spent so much of my life self-conscious that I was begging for pity that by senior year of high school, I convinced myself I was.
I started college still unable to talk about just how his life and death had changed me. February of freshman year I attended a retreat called 48 Hours. I went into the weekend upset because I didn’t feel like I was creating any genuine connections with the people around me. I figured it was just a case of the blues: Boston in February may be one of the saddest places ever.
Then, at the beginning of her talk on freshman year social life, a senior leader shared the story of her uncle’s suicide. She said that we needed to know about that part of her life because it would be impossible to understand her without that key piece of the puzzle. She continued her conversation on social life and that was it. I realized I never need a reason to share the fact that I lost my father because the fact that it is important to me is reason enough.
My inability to make connections at school was directly linked to my feeling of isolation. On a campus of 10,000 people where no one knew more than I told them, I felt as though I was missing him all by myself. Being around people who never knew or loved the person I miss everyday sucks, but keeping him to myself is preventing me from forming genuine friendships. How can you call someone your best friend and not know her father died?
People I care about deserve the opportunity to know me. They deserve the opportunity to know the person that I wish I never had to lose. I repeat this mantra frequently because I still lack the courage to assert my father’s place in the world, to pursue the honesty required of authentic friendships. But I’m trying and I really do believe that anything, whether it’s loss, heartbreak or love that’s on my mind everyday is worth the world knowing.