I have been told that I have the kind of laugh that causes others to laugh. A piercing high pitch that increases in volume after each gasp for air, gradually followed by the absence of sound because I simply have nothing left in my vocal cords to give. I find laughter akin to fingerprints; they are unique and identifiable. So one can imagine my shock when, a few years ago, I laughed exactly like my father.
It was 2012 and I was at home, in the middle of cleaning the bathroom. The vibration of a text message interrupted the melodic horns that were playing from my cellphone. The hilariousness of the text sent me into a fit of hysteria and my laugh was replaced by that of a Nigerian man who religiously smoked cigarettes and drank Guinness.
My father’s laugh was different than mine. A raspy sound that released scratchiness from exhaled breaths. Staring at my phone in disbelief, my brain could not make sense of how my father’s distinct laugh had effortlessly escaped from my mouth. Consumed by denial, I accused myself of imitating him but that was not possible. His was a difficult sound of joy to mimic. On this day, it had been over five years since his passing. Hearing my dad’s laugh in real time comforted me. I needed it.
For those five years, I had not allowed myself to fully reside in the emotions of a daughter mourning her father. I did not want to rest there.
The first year was easy. I chose denial. It was the summer of 2007 and I was back home in New York in between semesters at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The humid August air competed with the sun as my father and I ate lunch together on a block crowded by cars and pedestrians on Staten Island. We laughed and talked about everything at that table, but he did not tell me he was dying. When we left the restaurant, he held my hand as we crossed the street and embarrassment came over me. I did not know that this would be the last time that we would see each other, but he knew. When he died the following month, it felt surreal. In August, I held my father’s hand my while crossing a busy street, and in September, I was burying him. When I returned to Tampa, I funneled all of my energy into completing my degree.
I was immediately exposed when the veil of routine was lifted. I no longer had chapters, papers, and tests to hide behind. Physically drained and emotionally exhausted with my back on the ropes, I was left defenseless against suppressed emotions of grief, anger, and sadness that came rushing to the surface to take a swing at my mourning heart.
I was alone, surrounded by people who cared but did not know how to reach me. I gave it my all to stay in Tampa after graduating, but I needed to be home so I surrendered and moved back to New York in 2009.
Not being able to see my dad or laugh with him again hit me hard, like the abrupt smacks of frigid winds across my uncovered face when I returned home in the dead of winter. I fell and landed on a thick web of dejection, functioning in this space for over two years. Painfully painting over emotions with a mask of the friendly and funny girl everybody was used to.
I cherished the mornings I would dream of my father, wake, and transition back to reality. These dreams, in which I would ask him “What are you doing here?” held me together while I struggled to rely less on my daily façade.
Dreams phased into something real as I heard my father’s laugh that day in 2012. The sound of that unique part of him let me know that I needed to let go. And to this day, my dad’s raspy and scratchy laugh unpredictably becomes my own.