I plan to read two books on grieving. “I Didn’t Know What to Say” by David Knapp was given to my mom. And a friend recommended “Grieving Forward” and has a copy for me. But researching grief or discussing the grieving process in meetings with others feels too blunt, too honest for my state of mind.
Instead I find myself listening for others who are grieving.
Picking up this book today was like a puzzle piece picked from the five hundred unplaced pieces and finding that it fit. Before I left Montana, I looked through my dad’s books for the ones I wanted to borrow and found this one with his initials and the date he had finished reading it.
It begins at the bedside of the author’s dying father, a beginning I didn’t anticipate at all. He talks about his sadness and the grieving process as he felt it, as he experienced it while also telling the story of Paul Tibbets and the Enola Gay. It is somehow validating to see that a 53 year-old left the graveside of his father and a month later, still didn’t feel like talking to anyone. He worked as a reporter, but pref
erred at times to avoid humanity.
Everything that anyone can say about grief in short sentences and long paragraphs– it feels like it’s all been said. Soon it will be three months, but it seems like it was yesterday I rose up from where I was kneeling at his blue chair, and someone closed a glass case over me. In one minute I was a mess of silent tears and apprehension, longing for his suffering to be over, and in the next minute, I was a wooden puppet moving about the room attempting to comfort others.
It was shock, I realized, and also God’s grace like a protective shield against too much reality.
I guard my thoughts carefully now. I can’t look too long at the sky, I choke on thinking of him in the past tense, I don’t say the d words still, I don’t think about “God’s plan” or how “He knew your dad had done all the work assigned to him.” I don’t even know if I believe that kind of thing any more though it all made such neat and sensible sense once upon a time.
God, the loving God, knows our days and numbers our hairs. He has a plan for everyone and sees the entire expanse of our short lives from His eternal viewpoint.
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this judgement,” Hebrews 9:27
This bit I know and believe.
But I don’t dwell on how God knew. How God had this plotted out on His map. I don’t park on how, last July 20th when I visited, God knew my dad had six months left.
I can’t. I can’t just look it in the face, and be done with it.
So I don’t look for books on how to be helped through the grieving process or latch onto comfortable phrases about how it will get better.
I just try to ride it out, and at this point part of riding it out is also engaging in a bit of denial.
I hadn’t lived near my dad in many years so it’s automatic to think of him still living where he was such a short time ago. We didn’t talk on the phone every day or even every week. Believing it’s just been awhile since our last conversation is subconscious rather than an active understanding that I’ll never call him again.
The weeks of his illness are fresh in my mind, like the fresh, clean aroma of cow dung really. Cow poo doesn’t produce the noxious odor of other mammals’ waste, yet it’s unpleasant to look at or step in, and it wouldn’t make a salable perfume. That’s how the days spent at the hospital were. No one wanted to be there, and yet like cow patties, it wasn’t completely unpleasant. In fact in the right circumstances, you want to have cow droppings around. I wanted to be at the hospital even while I disliked it. There was no other place I wanted to be, even though stepping in it was uncomfortable.
Now, I focus on what we have left. Those things that speak of current, meaningful existence. He was the one who made the jelly for Shelly’s Jellys, the company they bought in November 2016. There are a couple hundred jars of jelly made by his hands in the food grade kitchen with the A+ rating. His meticulous methods and just so motions ensured each jar of jam and jelly was perfection. He showed me last summer how he’d determined the correct number of times to turn the pepper jelly so the peppers would be evenly distributed, and a multitude of other minute details.
When these jars are sold or given to family and friends, they’ll never be another jar of jelly made by him.
In November of last year I had asked him a question about spiritual warfare. He said he would get back to me, but I forgot about the question. In January I found three sheets of paper, dated for December, on which he had been answering my question. He wrote in pencil with notes on the side of the paper and the script varying from time to time in size like all his papers. It’s unfinished. I put the papers in my planner, like a reminder of Dad’s current, recent relevance–him answering a question I had asked.
I asked my sister to take pictures of the living spaces he occupied most. I haven’t looked at the pictures in weeks, but there they are showing the life of a person who is engaged in activities, contributing to the family and acting on plans he had made. His interests are evident. Touches of the past, present, and future desires are shown in the photos.
I have his favorite flannel shirt, several of the black and spotted rocks he picked up on walks, his Bible full of notes. As the weeks pass and his days of being alive move further and further into the background, these things will be reminders of who he was.
Right now, they are, in my unsure mind, leaning toward disbelief, reminders of who he is.
On Thursday of last week, the glass case lowered over my head unbidden. It felt like I was staring again at his head bent forward toward his chest, his arm out on the armrest of his blue recliner. It was again 2:22 in the afternoon. People were quickly moving out of the house; there were muffled sobs, murmurs from loving family members also in shock. And yet I was at work; it was April not January. I was in Mississippi not Montana. It had been almost three months since that day.
My face and arms felt numb. There were no tears, only the rebellion of shock, “How can this be?” “How can it be over so soon?”
I went into the break room to eat protein and carbs; if this awful sensation was only low blood sugar it would be so irresponsible to forgo eating. But it persisted after eating, until an innocent person doing his job asked me a question, and suddenly there was the embarrassment of tears and a constricted throat. He sat down, and feeling foolish I answered his persistent question, “What is wrong?”
“My dad passed away. I was his hospice nurse…not officially, but I was. He was diagnosed December 15 and on January 18 he was gone…”
“My dad passed away too,” he said. Again I was struck by how many of us have lost our dads too soon.
“Guess how old he was. 65. He was 65. I went home last year and stayed for a month to take care of him. I was his doctor, his PT, his OT, his nurse. I was everything. I took care of him myself and he improved enough that I felt safe to come home. Then, they called me and said I had better come back. He died on March 2nd. I was only able to come back to work after ten days.”
Ten days, I thought. Ten days! I came back after a month, and now it’s been almost three months, and still I am drowning in disbelief.
“You know what, we can take comfort,” continued my new, empathetic friend. I braced myself for the familiar words, but I was wrong. They were familiar words because my uncle Hugh and I repeated them to each other several times in the first weeks, but they were not the words I was bracing for. “We took excellent care of our dads. We did the very best for them.”
We all do, those of us in healthcare, and not just us, but the mental burden falls on us as we take care of our loved ones as patients even while trying to take care of them as parents, children, siblings. We are two people in one person. At one point when my dad woke up from a sedative sleep, he was confused about my identity. For a full 30 minutes he could not figure out if I was his daughter or his nurse.
I dried my face. I moved through the rest of the workday with a stronger voice, but I chastised myself for losing my professionalism right there at the nurses’ station in front of other professionals. They reassured me of understanding, but it still felt wrong, weak, foolish.
I called my husband. “You will have to face this head on, not worrying about anything else and deal with it,” he said. I think I know what he means, but I can’t do that. For one thing, I do have to function, and fully comprehending the ramifications of the events of December 2017 and January 2018, is too much. I can’t sit on a mountain in solitude working these truths out; I have to go to work, care for my children, and be a wife and friend. And I want to do these things.
So I take reality in small bites. I guard my thoughts carefully, looking not too long at the sky or dwelling on the beauty of Heaven. I’m glad he is there, but it’s a far place, a place I can’t reach or comprehend. I shrink back and look at my flannel shirt, the one he chose himself and was most pleased with because of the long-enough sleeves. It’s something else we had in common, the shirt may fit but the arms are seldom long enough.
Am I doing this right? Who knows. Is it even a relevant question? For me I’m not sure because I want to serve my people well–my children, my husband, my patients, my coworkers, my friends. God too. But on Thursday as I was the recipient, again, of patience, love, and understanding on all sides—not just from Dr. I-Just-Buried-My-Dad-Too, but from my coworkers who have been there or at least hate to see another’s suffering—I was reminded like a bat upside the head, “You can’t dictate this process. You can’t rush it either.”
By the time I reached the third page of my book, my borrowed book, I had texted my Uncle Carl knowing he would be interested in it. I sent several pictures. At chapter four I texted again, “Oh this book is good.” He had already googled it and concurred that it seemed like a good one.
In time, the mementos will show themselves relevant as reminders of who my dad was. I’ll find and read everything he wrote on college rule paper, and share his thoughts with others. But right now, to prevent the ocean of grief from swallowing me whole, I say phrases like, “I borrowed this book from my dad’s house,” thereby avoiding the silliness of saying I borrowed it from a person who will never care about it again and yet not fully acknowledging that he isn’t aware of my actions.
No brilliant statements, no hospital corners neatly folded in, no expert wrapping on this package.
Just riding, salt water drying on my face; plunging under again, panic, rising up, then calm, no land in sight.
Someday soon, and it won’t be long, I’ll see your face again.