A Paradisaical Phantom Pain

Yuki Bailey // “I know there were some photos lost in the fire, but I’m just glad my mom is ok,” said my uncle, after informing me that my grandmother’s house in Paradise, California had burned down.

“Yeah, that’s the most important thing,” I responded. After hanging up the phone, I started to cry, as I pictured photographs of my father burning from the edges inwards – an insidious melting of his childhood.

Sixteen years ago, my father suddenly passed away from unknown causes, which ultimately led to his respiratory failure. His mother and siblings still talk about him, but less and less with each passing year. He becomes less relevant with time, which is only natural.

But to me, he is still relevant. In fact, I need him to be relevant, as a large portion of my identity is wrapped up in him, and more specifically, in his loss.

“Her dad died last week,” I remember one classmate whisper to another, gesturing towards me, as my English teacher pulled me aside during class. My teacher was concerned that the graphic description of an upcoming death scene in the book we were reading might upset me. The main character’s mother was about to die from pneumonia, and given my father’s respiratory failure, my teacher was rightfully concerned.

My response to her concern: “I’ll be fine.” And I was fine. The book did not upset me. What upset me was the feeling of being examined on a petri dish. I felt like everyone was anxiously awaiting my reaction – will she succumb to her grief, or will she become inoculated against it?

In my vehement attempt to reject the label of cry-baby, I inadvertently transformed into a cry-bully. No one I knew could either care about or grieve any sort of relationship in a way I considered appropriate. When many of my family members took to social media to express their sentiments about my grandmother’s lost home, I judged. Such a public overture to grief seemed to render my family tragedy to a piece of sensationalist social media news. I perceived this to be an inappropriate mongering for attention, trivializing the tragic loss of my grandmother’s home.

But amidst my self-righteousness, I was also jealous. It seemed unfair to me that others, who could emote so easily, fluidly, and publicly, could be supported and possibly freed from their pain, while I felt helplessly denied of such salvation. I could never be as emotionally expressive as they were, and this frustration incited my ludicrous inquisition of grief.

The only way I knew how to grieve was to excise the pain from my life. After my father died, I refused to look at photos of him, or even speak about him. My brain, however, continually rewired itself to keep him relevant. Like an amputee suffering from phantom limb pain, I was debilitated by the pain of my phantom father. And in my sadness, I would occasionally laugh or smile, thinking of a past memory. 

The Portuguese language has a word for this oxymoronic mélange of happiness and sadness: saudade. In English, we have words, like “nostalgia” and “yearning,” that imply wistful pining, but saudade transcends these terms by breathing life into loss. Saudade confers presence to absence, negating the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

For sixteen years, I desperately attempted to free myself from my phantom pain by refusing to let go of my dreams of what my life could have been, had my father not died. My imagination rabidly constructed an alternate life to mitigate the pain of my reality.

The Paradise fire burned a piece of that alternate life. It was an event that encompassed yet another way in which my father continued to be taken away from me. His physical body had already been relegated to an urn full of ashes, and now his childhood was also reduced to ashes.

Ashes to ashes – this full circle made me feel like any attempt to salvage the person and the life I had lost would be rendered futile. I was grasping at the periphery of nothingness, incurring a dreadful sense of loneliness that made me want to scream and sob at the same time. Instead, I stayed silent because I am my father’s daughter.

Whenever I was upset, my father would always say to me, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”  But he was never a squeaky wheel. The pressure, the responsibility, and the fear he must have felt when he suddenly fell ill – he never expressed any of it. I still remember his last words to me in the hospital: “Don’t worry. I’ll see you soon.” The next time I saw him, I was staring down at his lifeless body.

My mother, my brother, and I were each given some time alone with him in his hospital room, to say our final goodbyes, before he was to be cremated. During my turn, I stood around awkwardly, and amidst the fog of surreality, I remember trying to say something to him. But in my determination to hold back tears, the lump in my throat impeded my ability to speak. Unable to verbalize my farewell, I crawled into his hospital bed, hugged his cold corpse, and I accepted the fact that he was dead.

After his death, my mother, my brother, and I learned to adapt. His loss became almost imperceptible at times, until a tiny reminder would nudge the phantom pain back. For me, something as simple as a person asking about my parents would remind me that my life had been forever altered – “What do your parents do?” “Are your parents coming to pick you up?”

Having to answer such questions with “My mom…” vs. “My parents…” made me feel aberrant, like my life did not match the baseline. And of course, having to hear my mother sob herself to sleep for months was a heartbreaking reminder that my family was far gone from that baseline.

I tried to assume my father’s role, but no matter how hard I tried, my mother was still sad. The frustration of failing to make my mother happy, and realizing I had let my father die in silent agony, emotionally and physically, was asphyxiating. I was stuck in a contradictory state of pain repudiation and masochism.

My continual inability to forgive myself, and to forgive life for the cards it had dealt me, were my way of making sure my childhood innocence remained dead. Admitting the death of my naivete – my life before knowing the revolting chill of a deceased man’s skin – still causes me to bleed grief, exsanguinating anguish until I am surrounded by the darkness of my own black Irish blood.

So instead, I preferred to retreat to my paradise, hiding from my phantom father. But the inferno of reality will always overtake paradise. The fragility I have long detested about myself, however painful, is my reality. My phantom pain will always find me because my father meant something to me – he loved me in a way no one else can. That love is a paradise that will never be lost – ashes to neural plasticity.


Yuki Bailey’s father passed away on May 9, 2003. She studied Anthropology at Yale University, and she is now a graduate student at Stanford University.

Image credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

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