After Losing My Father, One Direction Helped Me Find Joy During Grief
That first time I heard it, the music was so catchy and the words were so ridiculous that I threw my head back and laughed. I opened the curtains that had been closed for a month.
more than a boyband.
When I found out months in advance that Sam and Freddie were going to kiss on an upcoming episode, I invited two friends over to watch, because this was important. When the kiss finally happened, my dad took a picture. There I am, square glasses and shaggy bangs, grinning so hugely that you can see every (purple) bracket in my braces. Behind the camera, there’s my dad with no idea what’s going on, but knowing I wanted to keep it.
I eventually moved on from iCarly and found a new love: The Starkids. Imagine the theatre kids you went to high school with or the improv group at your college. Now picture them even more aggressively larger-than-life and followed by thousands of screaming teenage girls. They were, I imagine, exactly the kind of thing my Pink-Floyd-laser-show-watching, Black-Sabbath-t-shirt-wearing dad hoped I would never get into. But they told us it was cool to be smart, to care too much. They told us that girls with mustaches are beautiful and fun and interesting, and we’d grow up and be just fine. And suddenly, when the boys in my classes started noticing my body but mocking my face, the Starkids were the only people who mattered.
When they did their first international tour, my dad drove six hours round trip so that he, my cousin, and I could see the Starkids.
I cried. He stood near the back and watched what had to look like something out of The Blob, this hoard of people screaming and falling over themselves because a twenty-something man was singing a song as a drag queen version of Dolores Umbridge.
I ate McDonald’s chicken nuggets on the three-hour car ride home. I showed my dad the Starkids songs I had on my iPod, and he, with a patience only a hall-of-fame parent or Catholic saint can possess, spent three hours hearing everything he’d just heard all over again, trying to learn some of the words. We were our own encore.
It went the other way, too. My dad played old Broadway cast recordings on vinyl for me and then drove our family to New York and waited in line in Times Square so that I could see a show live. He got me a front-row seat, one time, while he sat way in the back. He told me about going to Rocky Horror midnight shows in high school, and now I have to go every year.
The first time I noticed something off with my dad was in January of my senior year of high school. It was the coldest day of the year, and my dad took the day off work to take me to Toronto and see a Wednesday matinee of Once. We sat in the very back row, and he couldn’t stop coughing, loud enough that I was sure the actors could hear. I was embarrassed.
In March, my dad called home from the doctor’s office. My mom picked up and started crying as she listened to his update. When he got home he hugged me first, and I wanted to hold on tighter than I ever had, but I was suddenly afraid of breaking him.
By then, I’d already gotten into university in Oxford. My dream school, my dream program. We didn’t talk about whether or not I’d go. Staying felt like giving up. I put my senior prom dress on three days early and got ready like it was the real deal, so we could take pictures because my dad was starting chemo the day of prom. The doctors told him his lung needed to be removed. I didn’t look up the surgery, because when I’d looked up his diagnosis I saw the 80% mortality rate, and I didn’t need any more statistics.
I flew out to Oxford a week before the surgery.
A month before the Brazilian Youth gave us the leaked songs, two months after I arrived in Oxford and did everything I could to make my life there, I came home from class and got a Skype call from my mom. I knew what it was about before I picked up.
I don’t think she was crying when she told me. I only remember hearing we lost daddy today.
When excitement came back, even for that moment, it didn’t just feel like I was myself again—it felt like I had my dad back.
His one remaining lung had gotten infected, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight it off. It wasn’t a surprise. But isn’t it always a surprise? Don’t you always think that you’ll be the exception?
That’s what your body does, when it happens. It convinces you that you could still be the exception, that maybe they got it wrong, and it warps your brain until the only thing you can do is survive each day, even if that means waking up and going back to sleep and pretending the day never happened in the first place. Every day, I had to remind myself that it was real.
Things stopped being exciting, because why would something be exciting if my dad wasn’t there to be excited at? Why would anything make me happy if I was never going to be actually happy ever again? It didn’t matter that I’d stopped eating. I could see that there was fun and excitement in the world, but I didn’t see myself as part of that world anymore. Fun and excitement weren’t for me, barely tethered to my body, counting my fingers in class to see if I was awake or dreaming.
When Four leaked, I was mostly operating on autopilot. I had figured out a routine: If I wasn’t in class or drinking, I was asleep. I posted selfies and kissed my friends in clubs and laughed, but I didn’t feel any of it. It just happened to me. I downloaded the leak because I was a One Direction fan and that’s what I was supposed to do. I pressed play because I knew that’s what came next. I even started texting my friend because that’s what we’d always done.
I didn’t even realize that I was excited, at first. I figured it out halfway through “Girl Almighty,” which became my favorite song on the album.The lyrics make absolutely no sense. It may be, if I were ever to examine it further, a bad song. But I love it with my whole heart. That first time I heard it, the music was so catchy, and the words were so ridiculous that I threw my head back and laughed. I opened the curtains that had been closed for a month. I ordered Chinese food. I brushed my hair.
Almost half a year after Four came out, I met the friend I’d been texting as we both listened to the leaked recording in Birmingham. We walked into the first tattoo shop we could find, and I lay down on a table and felt each burning letter burrow its way home on my ribs: Girl Almighty.
One Direction has been on hiatus for almost four years now, and my tattoo could be called meaningless or embarrassing. How cringey, to love something that fleeting that hard. But when I got my first tattoo, quotation marks on my collarbones, a week after my eighteenth birthday, my dad called it spiritual, almost.
When I got my second, a Doctor Who quote, he said he wanted one as well. My dad was always right there, loving that I loved something. I can see the face he would make when I was in deep, just before he would ask me to tell him everything about whatever I was so excited about this time.
This One Direction tattoo may have been a young or impulsive decision, but it’s worth it. Because it’s like getting to keep that feeling forever.