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An Open Letter to My Dad in Heaven, Who Has Missed Sixteen Years of My Life

One of the two biggest tragedies that a child could ever go through brought me some of the greatest life lessons I have ever learned

By Ryan Woitalewicz
Son of Kenneth Woitalewicz

To the Dad I didn’t have the privilege of knowing very well,

I am unsure on where to even begin. The first thing I can say is that I am doing well, and life is really good — but I haven’t moved on…at all. I adapted to change and grew up, but I never did “move on,” and I don’t think I ever will. It’s very cliché to say, but I truly hate that phrase so much, and I understand why other people do, too. It doesn’t matter how many “dead dad” grieving camps I attended throughout middle school and high school or how many heart-to-heart talks I had with my high school counselor. The term “moving on” is a phrase that should only be used in a situation where someone is moving on to a new chapter of their life—not a death. When someone tells a child who lost their parent to “move on,” you are indirectly telling me that my father’s whole life and death is just a moment that soon shall pass.

I want to keep your memory alive; I really do. But, when I start speaking about you to my closest peers, I slip so easily into the present tense that I do not even realize it. “He is great!” “My dad would love to help out with that.” You would think that I would learn by now, because you’ve been gone longer than you were actually presently a part of my life. I guess I’ve always thought that made me weird. Then I noticed, everyone else does it about their loved ones, too. And it is not because we are in denial or because we are forgetful; it’s because the people we love, who we’ve lost, are still so present for us.

Things have certainly changed, and not the way you would’ve expected.

If you were still here, things would be different. You would be disappointed in some people who never kept their promises after that Valentine’s Day house fire back in 2004. After you passed, we heard the typical, “We will always be here for you.” or “Let us know if you need anything.” Now, here we are sixteen years later, where are they? Those people are non-existent. These people that made those promises were your closest friends and colleagues. The reason is still unknown. I am not sure if the “kids” from sixteen years ago were supposed to stay little, but now we are all grown-up. We have families of our own. We are in our career jobs. We are finishing up our undergraduate degree. We are now adults.

Even though you are physically gone, it doesn’t mean your memory is gone too. And that’s the thing. Your memory is so much alive in your ol’ friends and co-workers, but they fear to bring up the good times they had with you because they don’t want to make us sad. What these people don’t understand is that these memories I made with you are slowly starting to fade away the older I get. Your heart of gold and the love and affection you had for Momma is something I will never forget. However, it’s the comical stories and pranks you pulled on your co-workers, the stories of drinking Budweiser in the garage with the neighbors, your constant helping hand towards others, and your laugh, smile, and your voice are all fading away from my memory. There is a fear of mine that I know I will have to face one day, and that fear is I won’t get to tell your grandchildren how great you actually were, because I will not remember anything. The great memories will be gone from my memory; and all I will have is your name to cherish.

With losing you at such a young age, it actually made me a better person in the long run.

I will become the best educator. In ten short months, I anticipate having an elementary classroom that I will get to call my own. I’ll have the greatest opportunity in the world to teach the next generation of our society. Most importantly, I will have the opportunity to be the positive father figure in a child’s life, just like you were to me in the few years you were a part of it. As a senior undergraduate student, I have seen broken families in our public schools. These students are not just here, they are everywhere across the nation. These students may not have a good home life. Their family is inconsistent. I want to be the one who makes that change and becomes their difference maker and motivator. Because of my past experiences, I am confident that I will be the best educator because of the lessons I have learned without you being present in my life. I can only do this dream of mine because your death has taught me not only an experience, but a new lifestyle.

I have a support system that I can’t even describe. Your death has brought me closer to a network of a different type of “family.” This family is not like any ordinary family. We are a family who all shares a similar story—losing a loved one in the fire service. I have met some of the greatest people in my life because of this “family,” and I will forever be grateful. I have had the opportunity to meet young adults my age who have also lost their father in a very similar way. This established hundreds of friendships that are forever lasting. I have had the opportunity to travel throughout the country and share my story about you with strangers. I have gotten the opportunity to visit places that I would never even have thought about visiting in my lifetime. Your death brought me a new type of family that allows me to know that I am not alone, and I have people across the States that “get it.”

Your death truly changed my aspect on life, and it keeps changing the older I get. Thank you for being my constant motivator for everything I do. I do everything because I want to make you proud. I know you are proud of me regardless, and that is my motivator to keep going. I’ve learned a lot of things throughout this past sixteen years, and I will learn so much more in the years to come. And there is one thing that will never change—I’ll never move on.

To the ones who read this far, I want to leave you off with a few words of encouragement that I live by, and I hope you can, too. I encourage you to capture the photos while being in the moment with your friends and family. When the time comes, all you will have left are photos to hold their memory. I encourage you to record videos and make those home movies. You will want to document these years of your life and share them in the future. I encourage you to tell the people in your life [friends and family] how important they are to you. You never know when the good Lord is going to call them Home. I encourage you to hug your loved ones close, and lastly, pray more than ever before, because all in all, tomorrow is never promised.

NFFF Scholarship Recipient Spotlight

Ryan Woitalewicz

Ryan Woitalewicz

Senator Paul Sarbanes Scholarship

Majoring in Elementary Education

Ryan hopes to find a school district where he will be able to make a difference in children’s lives. He plans to eventually enroll in a master’s program in school administration and hopes to earn a doctorate degree at some point. At the University of Nebraska – Kearney, Ryan serves as a Chancellor’s Ambassador and works closely with the University administration, conducts campus tours to prospective new students, serves as a Student Senator on behalf of the College of Education, and is a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity.

» Read More About Ryan’s Academic Goals & Success

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