The morning of my senior prom, I woke up to an aggressive knock on my bedroom door. I glanced at my nightstand clock, which read 6:20 a.m., and croaked from my blankets that the person behind the door could come in. My mom’s friend Casey emerged, clutching a King James Bible and strand of clear rosary beads.
“It’s getting close to the end.”
I rubbed my eyes, lacking the will or energy to respond the “right” way, but there was no “right” way to approach the impending death of a parent. My dad had been terminally ill for nearly six months and the hospice employees had predicted he’d finally slip away the day of my senior prom. That’s one of the many horrors of cancer: it has no regard for timing.
My father had been suffering so much, I wanted nothing but his freedom from this newly horrible life — even if it meant never knowing me as an adult. There was a ton he’d have to miss out on, but what he needed more than anything in the world was to stop the pain, and what I needed was to continue sleeping (I’d woken up to various people in my household crying and screaming all week). I wanted only to withdraw from the situation until it was over.
“I’m staying here,” I mumbled before hiding my face beneath the comforter.
“You don’t want to see your dad?”
All I wanted was to remember my dad for the human he was and not the withering figure laboriously gasping for breath across the hall. The dad I wanted to see was the man who’d prepared my hot chocolate and cereal every morning of my life until starting chemotherapy treatment. He was the dad who confronted my longtime harasser with a roll of toilet paper reading the words DON’T DO IT after the guy told our entire class he’d planned to TP my house. He was the dad who took me to Baskin Robbins after my first boyfriend broke up with me and I needed ice cream and a pep talk. I wanted to maintain an image of my favorite person in the world at his strongest. I didn’t want to remember him in state he was in — he couldn’t speak anymore, use the restroom solo or even roll over without the assistance from hospice volunteers.
A couple hours after I went to school, my older brother Kevin sent me a text message: “How soon can you leave class?” My dad died shortly after I’d headed to school that morning. I felt an instantaneous sense of relief: my dad lost the war, but at least it had ended.
My classmates had talked about ditching school the day of prom to have extra time getting ready, so our school enforced a rule requiring all prom goers to attend classes that morning to be granted entrance to the affair later that night. When my brother and his wife picked me up from school, it was only 11:20 a.m., meaning I’d have to miss the prom if I left the campus then. The office assistant told my sister-in-law that I wouldn’t be allowed into the prom if I took off, leading my brother to explain what had just happened to me.
“Her dad died today. Are you going to take this away from her too?”
Without a word, the woman gave me a long hug, and behind her shoulder I met eyes with the principal of the school. Everyone hated his strict policies, but there was true heartbreak in his eyes after he’d heard about my family. He wasn’t about to ban me from prom for leaving school.
What could have been a tragic day turned out to be one of the most memorable of my young life. I was happy my dad was finally liberated, and with that came my own liberation to enjoy the event with my good friends without worrying about him back at home, or wondering for the millionth time when I’d receive the inevitable news of his passing. I took lots of pictures with my group of friends, had my hair styled at a salon, danced with my classmates one last time before college and indulged in chocolate strawberries and multiple cans of Coca-Cola. It wasn’t until prom that I finally felt OK enough to eat that day, and I overdid it.
On the bus ride back to school, I realized it was almost time to head home. I’d return and my dad wouldn’t be there. Never again would I have to toss and turn at the sound of his oxygen tank coupled with wailing down the hall. The canes around our two-story house would be gone. The prom, which had been a huge source of anger and resentment for me in recent months, was over, and I no longer had any distractions from the reality of losing my dad.
In the months leading up to prom, I was upset with friends for being incapable of talking about anything else. While I worried about when my dad would leave us all, my buddies were debating whether to buy their gowns from Trudy’s Brides, Jessica McClintock or Macy’s. While they couldn’t decide who to invite to prom, I couldn’t decide if I was doing the right thing by joining after-school track to get away from my house, which was becoming too hard and depressing to hang around. While they discussed booking nail and hair appointments together, I was forced to discuss my “feelings” with a hospice counselor.
Like fellow HelloGiggles writer Karen Belz, I’d tell my younger self that prom isn’t such a huge deal anyway. I would probably even say it’s an overrated milestone, and when I have kids someday, I’ll explain to them that I knew plenty of awesome people who chose not to partake in the high school event. But I’d also ask my younger self not to be so hard on my friends who were just trying to enjoy what felt like the biggest day of their lives.
They obsessed over prom because it came with the territory of being a teenager, and they’d soon move onto other exciting things like college, higher education graduations, weddings, etc. In embracing prom once and for all, mere hours after my dad was finally free of the burdens of his illness, I understood that, and I was thankful that it temporarily enabled me to forget about the fact that I had years of grieving ahead. The devastation would come later, but for a few hours on May 12, 2006, I could dance, pose for photographs and socialize like all was right in the world.
Laura Donovan self-published a novel based on her senior year (and prom) in 2013. Check it out on Amazon.