Growing Up Without My Father

Through my grief, I find he still lives on in my memory.

by Natalie Betances

The day my dad got sick, I was out shopping with my mom. She bought me a little teddy bear. I was so excited to show it to him that I ran inside his bodega as fast as I could when my mom parked the car out front.

But when I got inside, he wasn’t there. A coworker said he’d been rushed to the hospital. My dad had diabetes, but since I was only 7 years old I didn’t understand the seriousness of his illness. My mom just told me he was sick and would be better soon.

A few weeks later, my grandma picked me up from school. I was happy because she bought me a snow cone from the ice cream truck—until it dropped on the ground. I started crying since she wouldn’t buy me another one. I had a fit that continued all the way up five flights of my building’s stairs and I refused to go inside my apartment.

It wasn’t until my mom came out with red eyes and wet cheeks that I realized something had happened that was bigger than my little problem. “I’m sorry, Natalie, I thought your father was getting better. But he’s gotten worse.”

When my mom took me to the hospital, I wasn’t allowed upstairs to see him because I was too young. He died before I was able to see him one last time.

On the day of my dad’s funeral, I didn’t understand why everyone was staring at me with a pitiful look. And why was everyone so sad? I kept thinking I was going to finally get to see him. I didn’t yet fully comprehend what death meant.

So much felt confusing to me. Before the service, I didn’t understand why I was being introduced to relatives I’d never met before. Why was he in a casket and not moving, and why did he look plastic and feel cold? When I saw him, I got scared and upset. I ran out of the funeral home crying, “I want to go home!”

What Is Death?

My cousins agreed to take me home during the funeral service. As we walked, they gave me hugs and kisses, telling me the same thing everyone else did: That he was in a better place where he wouldn’t suffer and would feel peace, like he was talking a long nap.

They said he was in heaven and watching over me. He was my own personal guardian angel. It made me feel better that he was still with me in spirit, but I would have preferred for him to actually be there with me. I wondered if he was taking a nap, why didn’t he wake up? And how is he in a better place if I’m not with him?

Later that night, my mom took me back to the funeral home. My grandma asked a man who worked there to give the two of us time alone with my dad. My mom cried and showed me a pillow under his head that she had made for him. We got down on our knees to pray together and say “I love you” one last time. She kissed his forehead, and helped me reach it so I could, too. After his funeral his body was sent to the Dominican Republic, to be buried with his relatives. I wasn’t able to go, even though I wanted to.

So Different Without Him

After my dad died, my family talked about him in hushed tones or in Spanish so I couldn’t understand them. They didn’t want to make me sad. But I didn’t mind being sad and hearing them talk about him. I thought then, and still do, that it’s nice to learn things about my father that I didn’t know before. Even after his death, he lives on in other people’s memories, not just mine.

I missed him terribly. I couldn’t run into his arms, or hang out in his store anymore. Even though my parents were divorced, my dad and I were still close and I would go to the bodega almost every day after school. It had dingy turquoise floor tiles with a few missing, and a little deli counter. Behind the counter he usually put up my artwork, like a wooden picture frame I made with little shells around the edge. The frame held a picture of us outside in the snow. He was kissing my cheek.

When my dad had customers, I’d help count the money and give him the right amount of change. That’s how he helped me practice my math. Customers thought this was adorable. After he died, the bodega was left to my stepmother. Soon after though, they closed the store and a guitar store opened up in that location.

Clinging to Mom

Since we no longer had my father’s financial support, my mom had to work longer hours at her office job. My grandma would watch me on days that my mom worked and I didn’t have my after-school program. One time I got dressed up in my grandma’s clothes. I took one of her jackets and put on her scarf the way she did, with my pajama pants, a pink wig, and a pair of her heels. I put on a fashion show for her, and she loved it, laughing and applauding. She couldn’t take my dad’s place but it made me feel good anyway to have her attention and support while I was grieving him.

When my mom came home from work at night, I clung to her because I was afraid to lose her, too. Even now that I’m older, I try not to say or do something that might jeopardize our relationship—whether it’s failing a class, not doing what she tells me to, or even talking back. If something happened to her I would feel awful if our last interaction had been upsetting.

As I made my way through elementary school, I still had clear memories of my dad but I became less sad. Although his death was something my mom tried to explain to me, it was a concept that was too difficult for me to comprehend. So I pushed it to the back of my mind. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” my mom and other relatives would say.

YC-Art Dept.

Cruel Kids

It wasn’t until middle school, after he’d been gone for five years, that my bubble of ignorance popped and I fully understood that he was gone forever. I also learned that my dad didn’t have to die so young: His death was caused by complications from diabetes and high blood pressure. Though these are conditions that need to be treated, he kept saying he felt fine and wouldn’t go to the doctor even though my mom often warned him about the consequences. He just disregarded what she said, something a lot of my relatives do. It upsets me that his death could have been prevented if only he’d listened to my mom and gone to the doctor sooner.

Also during middle school, I was bullied for not having a dad. One kid said, “Why don’t you kill yourself, so you can be dead like your dad?”

It hurts to see girls doing things with their dads that I’ll never be able to experience. When I graduated middle school, I missed not having him around to tell me how proud he was and how much he loved me. This year, I didn’t want to have a Sweet 16 because I knew if I did, I couldn’t do the father-daughter dance, or have him put high heels on my feet, like in Cinderella.

He will never be able to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day and tell me how beautiful I look. He’ll never be able to scare away my boyfriends, and I’ll never be able to get mad at him because he’s embarrassing me.

Just Like Him

Friends of his and neighbors often tell me how proud of me he’d be if he was alive. But hearing it from other people instead of him isn’t the same feeling.

His absence is like a big, deep hole that I can’t fill. In school, whenever we’d make something for Father’s Day, kids looked at me as if I were a zoo animal and they were waiting for me to start crying. I made a card for him before he died, though he was never able to read it.

My mom tells me how he was a hardworking and responsible man. She says, “You are your father’s daughter” because I’m prudent with my money and hardworking, too. Because I share these qualities with him, she gave me one of his rings. He wore it so much it has dents. It doesn’t fit me since my fingers are too skinny for it. So I don’t wear it; I’m afraid that I’ll lose the last thing I have left of my father. I keep it inside my jewelry box. But I have my memories, so parts of him live on in me.

I missed him terribly. I couldn't run into his arms, or hang out in his store anymore.
Explore All Topics