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What finally pushed me to learn to code
Finding inspiration through personal grief
The UPS guy just knocked. Pandemonium ensues. After corralling the dogs, I fetch the brown envelope from my mailbox. I had been waiting for this package from my stepmom but had forgotten about it. I bring it inside and open it. My father’s old passports slip out and into my hands. It has been almost three years since we lost him. Enough time has passed that I can look on pictures with fondness and without too much pain. But, I am not prepared for the smell that hits me as I hold his passports, opening them, gently thumbing through the pages. It is like he is right here with me.
How can a smell remind you so much more poignantly than a picture of what you have lost?
My dad was a larger-than-life character. I suppose most daughters say that about their dads. He was the embodiment of Greek machismo, the American dream, and equal parts charisma and asshole. You couldn’t tell him nothing. He loved life. He loved love (sometimes a little too freely). He was difficult. He was not the world’s greatest dad, but we loved him, he loved us, and that is what family is about.
Cologne, nightclubs, musk, cigarettes…
I close my eyes and it feels like he’s right here. The tears rolling down my face are part grief but also part joy at being able to have this high-fidelity sensory experience, awakening my memories once again.
In February of 2014, my dad called me to tell me he had lung cancer. It was a short call. He was driving with my stepmom. It was so short I couldn’t process it other than feeling this immediate sense of dread like a weight pressing down on my chest. I don’t know what I said. I spent the next four months splitting my time between Houston and New Orleans as my father went in and out of hospitals. Once he splurged and got what I can only call a hospital penthouse suite. That’s my dad.
He played soccer in the hospital hallways with my sister and stepbrother. I am not lying. He later laid down to take a nap in his hospital bed, and I went to the recliner next to him so he wouldn’t be alone. We looked into each other’s eyes while we held hands and silent tears rolled down our faces. This was my macho, proud, Greek dad. His seemingly moments of weakness were actually moments of strength. Strength in love and family.
The disease progressed despite treatment. Relationships are tough, especially complicated ones with those we love. I am part my father (including the difficult parts), and our similar personalities often led to conflict. To this day I am still grateful to the counselor at MD Anderson who told us not to wait to say our last words. So, we had “the talk” while he was still healthy enough.
I cannot imagine how much regret I would have today if I hadn’t taken her advice.
In the fourth month of his disease, my father went into palliative care where he soon was on increasing doses of opioids to manage not just the pain but the sense of drowning that lung cancer patients feel as the disease slowly robs them of breath. Everything was not going to be okay. But no matter what happened I was going to support him through it. We watched the World Cup matches together, and eventually, he could no longer communicate. One morning my siblings and I were still at the apartment and we got the call from my stepmom. He was gone.
My father was from Piraeus, the port city near Athens, but he always loved Ikaria, the island where my yia-yia (grandmother) was from and where he spent much of his youth. That is where he is resting now, on the side of a mountain overlooking the Aegean Sea.
This is not a sad story.
A sad story would be never living your life. Never taking risks. Never experiencing all the good and bad that life and love have to offer. This is a happy story.
My father lived life to the fullest. I could say that he told us to do the same, but his delivery was always a bit unorthodox and it usually came out as boasting. I miss his boasting. I heard him, but it became more even more real and urgent when confronted with his loss. Life is so short. So entirely too short. After returning from Greece, I went to China, then I went to Hong Kong. Then I was forced to come back because I was a registered companion for my friend at American Airlines and she quit. It was time to face life again.
Luckily I still had contract consulting work, but I needed to figure out what was next. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet, so I reflected on my interests and behavior over time and started noticing a pattern. My undergraduate degree was in chemical engineering, but my only perfect-score classes were in Fortran 90 and discrete mathematics (I almost switched my major to math). With the advent of MOOCs, I kept starting new computer science and coding courses, but only as a hobby.
There comes a time when you just have to kick yourself in the ass and say “Stop being dumb, you clearly like this, just do it already!” The loss of my dad reminded me to be brave, to take the risk, and to do something that I clearly loved more than my current work. If you’re a guy reading this and wondering why this was such a difficult step, realize that as young women, we internalize what society defines as “appropriate” behavior for women, which does not include risk-taking, leadership, or being ambitious. It is difficult to break that mold.
In a month, I go to Ikaria for my father’s three-year memorial service. So naturally, this is a time of reflection for me. Here I am, three years, two coding boot camps, one apprenticeship, one full-time job, a handful of open-source projects, and several contract gigs later. I love and miss my dad fiercely. I’m also grateful to him every day for living his life to the fullest and pushing us to do the same, even with his loss.
This is not a sad story. Though I write in both grief and joy, more importantly, I write this story in the hopes that it inspires others to seek out what they truly love. Don’t wait for loss to open your eyes to our limited time. Be with who you love now. Do what you love now. Don’t wait. Leave no time left for regrets.
Thanks, Dad. I love you.
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