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  • Writer's pictureTatum Van Dam

a message to papa

The Fourteenth of July of twenty-sixteen was the longest day of my life -- and it always will be. I don't care if, technically, the direction of the moon (or whatever those astrology charts say) dictates what days get to be the long ones. I don't care if there is a 1962 Academy Award winning film called "The Longest Day" based on the wartime book written by Cornelius Ryan. I don't care if Monday, June 20th, was considered to be the longest day of 2016. In my book, the only long day to ever exist was and is the Fourteenth of July.

Usually, and as they should be, first times are all about fun and excitement -- like a first kiss, or a first date, or a first day of school. Being the adventure loving, spontaneous girl I am, I am usually one to advocate for new experiences -- whatever they may be; however, the "first" I witnessed on the Fourteenth of July is a "first" that I never want to have to witness again. The "first" I witnessed on the Fourteenth of July is something that remains embedded in my mind to the finest of details, and the "first" I witnessed on the Fourteenth of July is a "first" I could not even wish upon my worst enemy.

On the Fourteenth of July, I experienced my first loss.

July 14, 2016 (5AM)

After moving, I was so busy I couldn't exactly keep up with this [writing in a journal daily].

Tonight was hands down the longest night of my life. What happened in the last two hours felt like a whole two days. Late at night (2AM), my mom put Sparky into my room. He sat on top of me and eventually began to bark and it woke me up. I noticed red flashing lights outside my window and saw an ambulance. I texted my parents asking if they were here for Papa and my dad said "Yes." When I asked if he was okay, I didn't receive a response.

Instead, my mom walked into my room and told me "He died". I cried. And cried. And cried some more. I still am right now. After attempting to stop, I went downstairs and met the chaplain. We talked about stuff so I would be distracted. Finally, at 5AM the guys came and took his body. I feel so bad, especially for my mom and [great] grandma. My mom told me Papa appreciated how I always said hi to him when I walked inside the house. I know he's in a better place, I'm just having trouble accepting it.From now on, I'm going to make the most of each day and live each day as if it were my last.

I love you, Papa.

7. 14. 16 <3

July, 2018

Dear Papa,

It's been two whole years since you've passed, yet it feels like just yesterday when I would greet you hello and goodbye each and every time my busy, high school self would rush in and out of the house. It feels just like yesterday when I was a self-proclaimed pastry chef and you and Grandma served as my number one (and only) taste testers. It feels just like yesterday when you explained the work you did in "showbiz" in the "pilli-pines," and it feels just like yesterday when you gave me a pair of denim jeggings with white stars on them that remain folded neatly in my closet.

It feels just like yesterday when you moved into our house, and it feels just like yesterday when it was revealed that you had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It feels just like yesterday when you and Grandma lived in Las Vegas - in that two story house with the white interior, and you worked at the crystal stand inside of The Stratosphere.

It feels just like yesterday when my ten year old self visited Vegas to see you and Sasha. I still remember when we asked your half asleep self if you would take us to Circus Circus and you mumbled what appeared to be a "yes" (or at least, in our minds, that's what we made your mumbling out to be). You woke up from your slumber, we told you that you agreed to take us to the indoor amusement park, and the events that followed were hilarious. We laughed, you said no, and we proceeded to put on our best puppy faces with the kindest "pleeease" we could recite in unison. Then, you told us to get in your dark green SUV and we headed to Circus Circus.

Since that very day, the idea of a "mumble" changed in its entirety. What appeared to be your half asleep sound just eight years prior transformed into your completely awake and aware mode of communication. Although your lungs did not provide you with the proper capacity to speak clear words, all of us family members became mumble-deciphering experts. I can still remember the sound of your mumbles. Your mumbles reassured us that you were okay, that you were listening, and that you were hanging in there.

The last time I heard that beautiful mumble of yours was on the thirteenth of July, in 2016, when I left the house to do one of the things I tend to do (and, as always, gave you a "goodbye" before walking out of the house). As I left, you began to take a nap. Little did I know, you would not be waking up from that next slumber. And, little did I know, that "goodbye" I had gotten so used to giving would be my last and final goodbye ever.

A day after you passed away, my eyes were so puffy that I had to force the rest of my tears to slide out of the tiny crevices that remained. (You know I don't cry often, and I have come to conclude that all the tears I accumulated over my years of being unemotional finally burst.) At this point, I didn't know what to do. In my freshman year health class we had learned about the nine steps of the grieving process, and truthfully, I could not even begin to tell you the first step of that process because at the time I didn't think I would ever need to use it. All I know is that my brain felt like the black and white fuzz that appears on the television screen when it loses connection. As if my thoughts were a bunch of floating puzzle pieces that were not created to connect to one another.

The hardest part about that day, and the days that proceeded, was leaving and entering the house and looking at your empty recliner chair with the neatly folded cowboy blanket carrying your distinguishable scent, the empty IV bag residing next to your bed, and your dresser still full of your designer clothes and lavish accessories and all "Papa-esque" things alike. It was nearly unbearable to watch Grandma sit on her side of the room -- just staring blankly at your belongings, feeling just as lost (if not, more) as the rest of us. She told me eight words that still put a hole through my chest: why did he have to go before me? My heart was so heavy for her, and it still is; there is no mother in the world who deserves to watch their son pass away like Grandma did. That day, I had to physically force myself to leave the house. And that day was the first time I left the house without having to give you your daily "goodbye." Naturally, I headed to the one place that comforted me, T4, and got my bubble tea -- earl grey with tapioca, just the way we both like it. I saw a friend from school (or maybe, she saw me), and she gave me a hug. Her name is Gabby and she's full Filipino. You would have liked her. She was the first hug of the many that followed.

A week after you passed away, a celebration of the life you lived was held in Downtown Danville -- just a few minutes away from our house at the time. We decorated the room with plenty of flowers, plenty of photos of you with your loved ones, and of course, your infamous cowboy boots that could only be pulled off by the best. All of your children (and your mother) had nothing but beautiful words to say. Although I am not usually a physically emotional person, Auntie Dyne gave a heartfelt speech that brought immediate tears to my eyes and the eyes of others, and although I do not consider myself to be a particularly religious person, Auntie Sandee gave an eye-opening speech that gave me the affirmation that there is some sort of God above, and that that God was watching over you the whole time. I know you were sitting there with us, listening from your recliner chair in Heaven (armed with your cowboy blanket, sporting your cowboy boots and Louis Vuitton scarf), and I hope that we, as a collective, did you proud.

Also, I hope you liked the slideshow I made. I made sure to use your best photos, like the one of you and Grandma dancing, as well as the best music (Elvis, obviously)!

A month after you passed away, I was stuffing my suitcases to embark on my journey to attend the American University of Paris. You told me that I was going to love Europe, and you were completely, absolutely, positively correct! I loved everything about Paris, Papa, and I can completely understand why you did, too. While I was in Paris, I developed a newfound love for travel (along with baguettes dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar). I didn't get homesick, at all, really. With the help of technology and an open mind, it felt like I was just five hours away from home as opposed to five thousand miles. I made sure to keep in touch with Grandma, and it felt as if I was keeping in touch with you, too, because you often appeared in my dreams (and you still do).

There was one day in particular where I found myself crying in the city of lights and love -- and the tears were not of joy. On my nineteenth birthday, I realized that it had been a year since we took the last photo we would ever take together. And neither of us knew it would be our last. It's the photo of me and you on my eighteenth birthday with the balloons and the cake. The photo appeared in my Facebook news feed as one of those "yearly reminders" and a tear escaped from my eye. What began as a single tear transformed into many tears shedding, and next thing you know, I found myself locked in my tiny bathroom with only half a roll of toilet paper to soak the byproduct of my sadness. After leaving the bathroom with the most casual facade I could fake, my roommate, Anni, comforted and reminded me of how proud you would be to see me living my best life in Paris (of all places). She also gave me the reminder that you are with me no matter what. I wish you could have met Anni, because you would have drawn so many similarities between her and I.

A year after you passed away, two very opposite, emotion-evoking events happened. The first being, I experienced my first heartbreak. It was my first relationship, and to be honest, it started out as a fairytale (or so, what I consider to be one). He came all the way to Paris to see me, then we went to Iceland together, and next thing you know, we were dating. Could you believe it? I sure couldn't. Unfortunately, what presumably began as a fairytale did not end with a "happily ever after," but all good things have to come to an end eventually. Knowing that you were up there to get me through it was enough for me.

On the other hand, I continued to work my hardest in the hopes of doing you justice. I achieved fantastic grades both semesters of my first year in college, and furthermore, I got into USC! It's a university in Los Angeles, and it's the best school in the nation for my major. Now, could you believe that? You witnessed a stressed-out-Tatum go through the whole application process: doing applications, taking standardized tests, getting rejected from each of the schools I wanted to go to, and finally deciding to handle my rejections by fleeing the country. My acceptance reminded me that everything truly does happen for a reason. To this day, I remain shocked at the fact that, for once, something great has worked out. Did you have a talk with the College Admission Gods above?

Everything I do, Papa, I do it for you. I want to continue to be the best version of myself that I can be and to make you proud, every day - even if you are no longer physically here to encourage me to do so. I can still smell your scent through the Old Spice that my brothers wear, I can still hear your voice in any Elvis song I listen to, and I can still hear your voice asking if I have a "boy-prend" (which, I in fact, do not - and I'm sure you like it better that way, anyways).

Fast forward to today, and it has been two whole trips around the moon since you passed away. Since then, I have experienced an abundance of firsts and lasts; I have traveled to an abundance of countries, I have developed an abundance of hobbies, and I have made an abundance of life long friends. Since then, I have grown to be a much more confident version of, in your words, the "beautiful young lady" that I am, and, believe it or not, I have physically grown, too. A whole inch and a half! I have continued to do the things I love doing most, and I have continued to do well in school (because I know what me attending college meant to you).

A lot of things are happening in the near future, Papa. I think this coming year might just be one of the busiest years of my life. I am going to be a junior in college (yes, a junior), I am going to be turning twenty-one (can you believe it? Me neither), I am going to face the struggles that come with being a real life adult, and furthermore, I am going to figure out this crazy not-so-little experience called life.

Most importantly, I am going to continue to make the most of each and every day, and I am going to continue to live each day as if it were my last.

I love you, Papa.


Your "Signorita"

Tatum <3

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