I sit with my grief in a way that vaguely echoes sitting with Dad.
The last time I saw Dad, he was too weak to do much. I sat with him and watched TV. A couple times we talked, but mostly he dozed while I read or distracted myself with my phone. Even so, I tried to be alert to what he might want or need. That momentary job made me feel substantial. It was how I expressed my love.
Grief, it turns out, is a much needier companion than Dad, and I am so much more tired than I thought I would be. I’m still wearing all black. I want people to see me and already know the answer to the question, “how are you?” I am mourning.
I also did not think I would cry this much. Excepting that evening I broke down and bawled and the small service we had, I have cried a few minutes a day, although some days I have not cried at all. Still, I am surprised by my own displays and even more surprised at the ways grief creeps up when I am immersed in minutiae of the everyday.
But I sit with my grief, thankfully and gratefully, which is something I learned from sitting with Dad. I recognize grief as the marker of the privilege of having something worth missing. And when I can, I let it run rampant until it tires both of us out. I feel less substantial in these moments than I did the first time around, but then I remember the pauses Dad used to gather his thoughts and I am rededicated to waiting this out and just sitting with it.
My boss told me that she told everyone I was on bereavement leave because people kept asking where I was. Then she asked if it was okay that she did that. Before I left we had a conversation where she said she knew I was a private person, although Dad was still alive then. Maybe his death changed things more fundamentally than I could have thought.
I’ve tried writing about my issues regarding privacy here, but it seemed hypocritical to broach the subject in this public space. But here I am again, so it must be meaningful. Besides, I’m the one writing. These are my thoughts and my story, and when I’m here I don’t have to assure anyone but myself. What a nice feeling.
I’ve said it before, and I don’t think I can say it enough–the worst thing about grief is the added weight of the expectations of near-strangers. Many people have been kind and considerate. They’ve politely offered condolences and let me ramble on or be silent. They have been quietly understanding of the remoteness of the land I’ve been transported to. They have been there when I called on them for things that seem unrelated, and in doing so they have filled in the gaps that appeared over night.
And then there are the rest.
I don’t spend time trying to figure out what Dad would think of them. I already know. He’d appreciate that they were trying, but would inwardly back away from them. I know, because that’s how I am. He never wanted people to feel sorry for him. He wanted people to appreciate him and his contribution. Up until the end he did things his own way, and I find myself automatically calling his spirit to mind as I try to shake off the sticky sentimentality of that particular over-friendly tone of voice that accompanies that specific way of asking, “how are you feeling?”
I’m not against people asking how I am. I am against conversations, lopsided by what is unsaid. I am against pity in all of its seductive, dehumanizing forms. I am against the pain I am suffering being turned into office fodder. Because I’m not okay with people I don’t trust knowing about the white hot hurt in my center.
But these are things I can’t change. And I am already stronger and better for having lived this.
I forgive and I let go and in doing so I grow closer to what I love in each passing moment.
When Dad began to attend church regularly with Mom after they retired, I was very cynical about the whole endeavor. He and I had yet to form our relationship into what it would be. More to the point, I had the experiences I’d had in church when I was 14.
Adolescence is not fun. At least, it wasn’t for me. I had the need to fit in, but none of the ability to follow through. I also had an intellectual thirst that was as temperamental as I was. I was closed off by default–I just didn’t know how to be open. And I found that church, a place where one was supposed to be able to question the legitimacy of mainstream values, was no less ruled by the same tropes and hierarchies. But this betrayal felt much worse. It cut so much deeper because I felt that I was being told that if I didn’t fit in because I wasn’t trying hard enough I was damned. I decided that if my spiritual brethren couldn’t understand me because of a fault in me, I’d much rather be around a peer group that didn’t understand me because I didn’t say the right things or know where to go on a Friday night. So I left.
Some hurts fade and some will always be fresh. That particular hurt is still there. I continue to put distance between me and it, filling my life with new, wonderful memories in the intervening years. When C & I moved back to California for a respite, we found a church we still love. That church gave me hope that we’ll be able to find something here. But that first hurt is still there. It’s turned into one of things that I live with. It nestled inside of my body, and I planted my faith and the love of everyone who has ever loved me all around it. When I encounter it now it’s lost most of its sting.
I am grateful to be back and unembarrassed of who I am. In the last two years after the diagnosis, Dad’s faith took on a different meaning. I was able to see him in a new light, and I believe that his faith is what gave him such a tremendous will to live severed from the desperate fear of dying.
Still, the hurt of his death remains, although I have faith that one day it will have lost at least some of its sting.
It is as if I am here, but I am actually not. I feel removed from the things around me, and absent from my life.
Everyday I move closer to the reality of the decision I just made. Everyday I move further from the last time I saw Dad.
It feels like harmony, as it also feels like echoes of nothing.
I haven’t been able to reach back to the people who reached out to me. I think about them each day that passes and begin to compose notes until I realize that in the reality of this moment I can’t. So I forgive myself for not responding to such brilliant kindness and commit to trying again soon.
It feels like autumn, doesn’t it? It feels like Dad’s death on the precipice of a season change is yet another blessing heavy with meaning and intention for me to benefit from and carry. Even as I don’t quite feel, I appreciate that this, too, is a gift.
Today I’m tired.
I drove for nine hours yesterday, and was on the road for a total of 14. Nine days ago, Dad was still breathing. The next day we drove to my parents’ place. Day two of this new world without Dad had us out, speaking to someone about his cell phone plan and stopping by his work. I made preliminary notifications of Dad’s death and slept very little. Day three, we went to the bank and after I finished the preliminary notifications I wrote an e-mail notification. That night we sorted the pantry and the fridge until we ran out of easy things to sort. We went through his closet, dropped off things to donate, recycled old electronics, and then laid low on day four. On Sunday we went to church and had a nice breakfast out before our little memorial. After that was over we all rested and watched an animated movie about friendship. Monday, C & I got Mom’s oil changed and tires rotated on the way the furniture store where we inquired about repairs. A week after he had died I took everything I’d written down about Dad’s life the previous day, and I used it to write his obituary.
Now I feel like a shell washed up on the beach. I feel rubbed smooth and bleached by unknown forces much larger and more powerful than I comprehend. I think I am different compared to what I used to be, but I don’t know how and I can’t envision what that might mean.
I do still feel sad. My pain has become an ache that I live with happily. It is the signpost of love and appreciation for what family has to give.
Yesterday I broke. I sobbed like I did when I was a kid, hyperventilating until my fingers tingled. It felt nonsensical and selfish, because even in death our relationship still flowers. Who he was set an example for me, taught me that I should be well-loved, and laid a solid foundation upon which I’ll be able to make many uncomfortable decisions with more relative ease. We had so many good times with Dad, especially in these last two years. My heart is so full, which is why I did not expect to be sad.
But I am sad. I want everything to stop until I am ready to go on. I know these feelings and have followed them to the sticky, inky pit they inevitably pull towards. These last two years have given me chances to practice acknowledging sadness without surrendering to despair. However, even with that practice it’s still difficult to walk this well-trod path and notice when I should stop.
Today we’re driving back home. I don’t want to go back. I know Mom is a strong, smart woman with loads of people to back her up. I know I am my parents’ daughter, and I have all the resources I need and more. I know these things, but I feel empty even as I feel full.
I am determined to continue on–right now I just don’t want to.
When I think of Dad, I think of quiet mornings and the smells of coffee and newspaper. I think of his morning glass of milk and his plush terry-cloth robe. I think of the way he sometimes had black smudges on his nose as the newsprint ink grabbed at his fingertips and settled upon the soft things he touched. I think of other things, too, but these are the things I think of first.
I’m trying to write Dad’s obituary today. I know that this particular piece of writing is not for me or for the people who know me. It’s for them—all the people who cared about Dad. I want them to feel included, but I don’t know how to start. How far back do I go? What do I concentrate on? When will I stop waking up, convinced he’s still here?
And so I close my eyes and breathe.
And then I begin.