The Memories We Pass On

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

| This is the 480th story of Our Life Logs |

Each time we visited the hospital with the fear that this would be the time, the moment life would leave my father, he would pull me aside. He would go over the plan, making sure I had it memorized. He said that I was the strongest, the one who would take care of Mom, and of everything. That fear of when that moment would come never left me. It became a billowing cloak over my life, keeping me from ever truly living for myself.

I was born in 1984 in the subtropical lands of Durban, South Africa, and four years later, my little brother came along. I have wonderful memories of my childhood. I remember my parents, brother, and me in the kitchen making cheese bread together. So simple, yet so real. We were a very close-knit family, drawn even closer by my dad’s poor health.

For most of my life, my dad battled chronic pain, struggling to do even menial work. He was in the Navy for 21 years, and in those many years he endured strenuous physical exams that took a toll on his body. When I was 12, he was officially diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. He had a severe case that attacked not only his immune system, but also his tissues, joints, and eventually internal organs. By the time I was 15, he was using crutches and was forced to retire from the Navy.

Dad, from his Navy days.

While other teenagers were out on dates and attending parties, I was at home helping my mum take care of my dad. But don’t be mistaken; I loved it that way. We would read Shakespeare together and dissect every meaning of the words. We loved watching movies and chatting about his days in the Navy. He was the kindest man I knew, and he always knew how to make me laugh. Oddly enough, a part of me is grateful that his illness gave me more of him. I may not have any exciting stories to tell by the fireside, but I had a great relationship with my dad, and that’s all the story I need to tell. 

In his lifetime, my dad has multiple surgeries and the fear that he would fall was always at front of our minds. We were very protective of him. Every aspect of our family’s life took his condition into account, whether that be where we ate—if it was easy for him to get there with crutches, or what we ate—if it had food that he could easily chew. It became a habit, like brushing your teeth every day, making sure Dad was okay. I decided early on that when I grew up, I’d provide for my parents and make sure my dad always had the best possible care.

When it came time for college, I stayed close, majoring in marketing. But I soon realized that building a successful career in my field wasn’t going to work in my home city of Durban. As much as it pained me to leave my parents behind, I moved to Johannesburg, about 600 kilometers away, when I was 20. The plan was to move them to the city with me once I had reached a stable financial state.

To reach that goal, I threw myself into my career, bulking up resume and gaining traction in the field. That was my life for the next 10 years–work, work, work. In the midst of building my career, I got married at 23. It was a little fast and we were young, but I couldn’t bear the thought of not having my dad at my wedding, so I wed early. My brother relocated to Johannesburg in 2009 and we both made sure we bought single-story houses so Dad could move around when he visited.

Even though I spoke with my parents on the phone often, I couldn’t afford to visit them more than once every three or four months. But they were always on my mind. I’d always wonder what they were doing right now. I could be having a great time out somewhere with my husband, and I’d suddenly feel guilty, wondering if my parents were okay. How could I have fun when my parents might be struggling? It was an endless cycle of happiness turned to guilt, turned to shame.

In 2015, I was finally able to move my parents to Johannesburg into my home. My dad was hesitant at first, but I convinced him with a simple question, “If you die, do you really want Mom all alone in Durban?”

Having my parents so close again was wonderful. It brought me a great deal of comfort to know they were safe and here with me. Mum would cook us dinner, and the four of us would often settle in to watch movies, just like the old days, plus my husband. I’m so glad my parents came when they did. At least I got a year with my dad before life as I knew it fell apart.

Dad and me, 2016.

In November 2016, my dad started having difficulty breathing. This wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary, as his arthritis brought on many other health problems over the years. Hospital visits were as common as going to the grocery store. But that still didn’t change our lingering fears—the fear that maybe this time wouldn’t end with dad being wheeled home after getting the “all clear.” And as it turned out, those fears were warranted. Because this time, Dad was in a bad way. We just didn’t know it yet.

Mum and I visited him the day before his passing. As we were holding him up, helping him eat and get washed up, he suddenly blacked out, collapsing in our arms. That’s when we knew something was off—that this wasn’t going to be like the other times. We called my brother to come through and waited patiently in the parking lot for visiting hours. When I went to visit at 7pm, Dad seemed fine, great actually. He was smiling and laughing without any worry. I just sat and watched. I couldn’t help but feel he was putting on a show. I knew him. I always saw through his masks.

The next morning, after dropping off my mum at the hospital, my husband and I were driving to work, and I got the call. If you’ve lost someone, you know what I mean by “the call.” That moment when you see who’s calling and your stomach drops, and you just know what they’re going to say before you pick up.  I answered, and my blood turned to ice.

We rushed back to the hospital where my mum was waiting for me with tears streaking down her sunken cheeks. I took hold of her shaky hand, and we walked into my dad’s room together. My brother arrived a few minutes later. From the moment I laid eyes on him in his bed, I knew he was gone. I felt it. I wanted nothing more than to collapse and retreat into myself in that moment. But I couldn’t. My mum needed a pillar of strength more than ever. So, I went onto autopilot.

I took care of some of the funeral arrangements, bank paperwork, and all the legalities. I threw myself into it so quickly that I didn’t allow myself time to process my emotions. That was how the first year without Dad went too, keeping busy so I didn’t have to face it. The Hindu culture holds many different ceremonies during the first year of a person’s passing, so that kept my mum and me distracted. I also threw myself back into my job, not giving myself the time I desperately needed to grieve.

Honestly? It was like chaos in a teacup. From the outside, I looked fine and functioning okay. But internally, I was lost. I completely lost my sense of self. When you’ve planned most of your life around someone, losing them is like losing a part of your soul. What was I supposed to do with myself if I wasn’t taking care of Dad? How should I think when I don’t check if a place has stairs or lifts? Should I be feeling so guilty about it? All these questions filled up inside me until the second year when I crashed. Hard.

The enormity of not having my dad paired with the guilt of not having given him the joy of being a grandparent made me feel awful. I feared that I hadn’t done enough while he was here, that I had failed him. Everything collided and I wanted to just lay in bed, not wake up, not brush my teeth, not shower…not breathe.

It was the darkest place I’d ever been. I was so angry all the time. As I was winding up my dad’s estate, I became angrier. It felt like I was erasing him, and I didn’t want to forget him. I didn’t want him to be run-off washed away by time. My husband tried his best to comfort me, but nothing helped. Waking up now felt more like a routine than a choice. This also turned me into a stranger in his eyes. I was gone, just as much as my dad was. My husband’s support didn’t waiver, even at times when he didn’t understand.

That went on for a while, until I realized I was existing, not living. That’s when I saw how blind I had been. I was not living my life in a way that would’ve made my dad proud. He would not want to see me like this, refusing help and staying angry. Something shifted in me then, and I decided I needed to get help.

I was put onto antidepressants and began seeing a psychologist who helped work through my guilt and work toward a reality without my dad where I could be happy. I was also encouraged to join a grief support group which was a good idea in theory, but the groups I found all felt superficial to me. It felt like no one was being truly honest about their grief, and I hated it.

Through my grief journey, I met a girl who had also recently lost her dad. We found that our emotions attached to our grief were similar. Since I couldn’t find the grief space I wanted, I made one with that friend. The space we created gave people a place to be authentic about their feelings without judgement. Grief has many layers to it, and not all of them are pretty, and that’s okay. Talking with people about their losses helped me see that. I also started journaling, boxing to release anger, and wrote letters addressed to my grief. I started to heal.

In 2018, I was talking with that same friend about wanting to do something good with my dad’s old clothes. I wanted to do more than just donate them. I wanted my dad to be remembered. Even though he was sick, he still wanted to help people, so he became an educator to others about arthritis and eventually the manager of the Arthritis Foundation in Durban. He did numerous TV and radio interviews to help raise awareness and funds. I didn’t want that to be forgotten. Thus, Dressed With Legacy was born. Dressed With Legacy aims to memorialize the lives of the fallen by making clothing tags with their legacy on them so that when a piece of clothing is donated, the person who’s receiving it will know a little about who had it before them. Sharing those memories is therapeutic for those grieving.

“Dressed With Legacy,” 2019.

What stemmed from this was Legacy Bears, a program we started where we dressed teddy bears in clothes made from the garments of a loved one lost. My friend who is a counselor to families at Hospice, introduced me to two little girls who had recently lost their dad and wanted to give them something to feel better, so we came up with the idea of a bear with clothes made from their dad’s favorite pair of shorts. They loved it, and in that moment, I knew my dad was working through me, showing me that I could do more with my life.

The girls and their counselor with the teddy bears.

I don’t know when the shift happened, but I woke up one day and decided to keep finding a way through my grief, no matter how hard it got. I also realized that I had focused so much of my life worrying about others, I never stopped to think about what I wanted. So, I decided that I was going to quit my job in November 2018 and give my life a new purpose. And what better place than the grief space where I could be myself without any masks? I became a bereavement guide and through helping others with their grief, I feel stronger every day.

I’ve learned that you must face your grief and all its sides, and you can’t let it control your life. Before my dad died, I was just walking through life worrying. His death forced me to take off the rose-colored glasses I had about my life and see that I was not living it to the fullest. Some days you’ll wake up feeling great, other days awful, but that’s okay. It’s all part of the process, and you don’t have to feel guilty for being happy after a loss. The one you’ve lost would want you to live on, to make them proud. I will honor my dad by helping others and keeping his memory alive, on both good and bad days.

This is the story of Atishca Makan

Atishca resides in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband and four dogs, where she helps people who are grieving through her Dressed With Legacy Initiative and grief programs. All her life, Atishca lived with her dad’s health and comfort in mind. When he died in 2016, she was completely lost and stricken with depression. But once she received the proper help and the chance to talk about her grief, she found a new purpose in life. Since she quit her job, Atishca has been doing freelance marketing consulting work while also working in the grief space. She has plans to create retreats for widows to help them find themselves again as well as a photoshoot called The Smile Within.

Atischca’s own Legacy Bear is imbued with a deep heat ointment smell that reminds her of her dad and gives her a sense of hope. One of the Legacy Bears was gifted to a woman for her wedding day to symbolize her departed dad’s presence. Seeing that brought Atishca a sense of purpose she did not anticipate. When Atishca isn’t helping others, she’s taking a nap (self-care is now a ritual) or spending time with her family, or being a Human Book at the Human Library of South Africa. Her dad may be gone, but she intends to keep doing things that make him proud.

Atishca, 2019.

This story first touched our hearts on December 30, 2019.

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: MJ |

#DressedWithLegacy #feature #caretaker #Johannesburg #Death #grief #veteran #rheumatoidarthritis #SouthAfrica #clothing #Depression #chronicpain #fatherdaughterrelationship #family #Loss

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