As time wears on it becomes more and more real.
I think I’ve been saying that for six weeks now. And yet, I still can’t look it full in the face.
When we took care of him for eight days after January 18, he was still there, with us. We chose the funeral home we did because of how the owner had taken care of his mom and my mom’s mom. No caked on make up; that was the main thing. We sat in his office and he said, “Now I will tell you, there is special lighting. There are four different colors of light that are directed onto the spot where he will be lying, and the colors blended together give the skin a hue it won’t have under fluorescent lighting.” Jason, being a videographer, asked for the details of the lighting. And Jayson, the funeral home director, answered with particulars.
I half listened.
I was looking at the urns and memorabilia you could develop to remember your loved one. It was fascinating and horrifying at once. I could choose to have my dad’s fingerprint made into a piece of jewelry. I wanted to want this, but my mind rebelled instantly. It’s not him. It’s a facade. There is nothing more despicable than fakery. It was not for me, but for others yes, maybe. I was glad they had that option, but for me it would be clinging onto death. As if I were to go into the morgue. Peel back the sheet. Remove a pocket knife from my jeans. Slice his fingertip from his finger. No bleeding because he was embalmed. Put the fingertip in my pocket. Disgusting.
Fast forward to last week, a coworker of mine was telling me about the scholarship race she organized in her son’s memory. He was killed just over a year ago. As she walked out, she must’ve glanced down again, as she must a hundred times a day. “I have his fingerprint here with me always,” she said showing me. She has her son’s fingerprint imprinted on silver, and she wears it around her neck. It’s beautiful; her baby, her toddler, her pre-teen, her teenager forever there for her to reach and touch.
We stood and walked out of Jayson’s office to see my dad. We paused in front of the double doors leading into the funeral home chapel because Jayson was standing in our way.
“I want you to know, you will see him as soon as we open the doors. There is nothing blocking your view.”
What a profound kindness. Continually as we dealt with these people I was amazed at their thoughtfulness, their learned intuition. Yes, learned, because they had been doing this and come to know what people were thinking and feeling.
He opened the doors and we walked in, down the aisle. Boxes of kleenex were on every row. I felt vaguely sorry for the ones who had to use this room for the final service. No loving church family? Then as with almost every thought, I turned it back around. This way they could have the service, and then never be in this room again, never have to look at the front of the church, and see the box even though it isn’t there.
What are we expecting to see? I wondered. What are we expecting to feel, do, want? Would one of us scream or otherwise act out? Please no, please no. Would we need the boxes of Kleenex? Would we stand there waiting for him to open his eyes and sit up?
And there he was. Sleeping on the gurney. His skin looked healthy. He had not lain flat in weeks because he couldn’t breathe if he reclined. Yet, here he was lying flat with a sheet covering him feet to shoulders. There was a hospital gown showing, and I had asked back in the office, embarrassed, if my father would be wearing underwear. Yes, he would be. Dignity, I had thought. Thank God for dignity.
And yet, through it all, day after day for eight days it was not real. From the blue chair to the men tamping earth over him, it could not become truly true. I had seen it all. He never moved. He never breathed. He did not try to climb out of the box when we kept vigil in the dark church. And yet, my brain could not connect the points on the timeline.
So having closure must mean something else. I shied away from nothing, and yet here I am three months later gasping silently, feeling vacant. It’s not possible for the jeans to be empty, for the undershirt to never match the button up again, for the socks to be unneeded. It’s not possible for the hands to never drum as they pass by a wooden surface. It’s not possible to never care again if the carrots are shredded in the salad because he was the only one who wanted them that way. How can the pencils sit unused by the roughened hands? No more sheets and sheets of paper written in pencil, ‘r’ before ‘i’ in words like first and third. How could the voice never say “uman” and “umble” leaving off the “h” as if we are fancy people? And again, how could the man never say, “Hi, My Girl,” when I called him from 2500 miles away?
In the past, I used to hear about a death and I would think of that person in one thought. Born and Died. With life in between; yes, and Heaven a foreign place we can’t comprehend. But on earth there is the beginning of that person and the end. If it’s someone I know who is grieving I would think, “How awful that it’s over now, so completely over! How she is hurting!”
But now I see, I was wrong. Because it’s not over at all. That annoying, trite phrase “He lives on in spirit,” is more than true. It is full bodied, not just a spirit. He is, in my mind, very much alive here on earth somewhere. I just haven’t found him yet. And when I try to follow him, in my mind, to where he must be, the world falls flat. Because he is in the ground where I put him. Trees collapse, hills become plains, no buildings standing. Flat with the shock.
I sat across from my friend having a lunch date. She is probably old enough to be my mother, but I’m not sure and it doesn’t matter because we became friends on equal footing. Her mom has been gone for eight years. Her eyes welled with tears six or seven times during our 90 minute lunch. She bought my son the biggest, sweetest drink available. It’s sweetness unto sweetness with a clump of cotton candy sitting on top of the glass, stabbed through by the straw. She laughed and she giggled with my boys who are silly in answer to her open faced silliness directed at them. And yet, she looked across at me, her expressiveness displayed like a book on her face, “It never goes away. I read your writing and I feel so bad for you, because I know what you are going through.”
I looked back at her. Eyes open, mouth closed, ears connected to brain, wide—talk to me. Show me. Tell me I will never forget him. Help me understand how I can carry this burden, but adjust it so that I don’t crush the people around me with my struggle.
“Everything hurts, even the things that have nothing to do with her.”
“Yes, everything. The way the food is stacked on the grocery store shelves. The staircase. The way the cars go down the interstate. Because he is no where. It all hurts.”
I had the temerity to tell others these two words, before all this happened with my dad. What was I talking about? I had only a vague idea, but I knew this: turning my face away from what caused deep suffering, acting like it wasn’t true, that is not my way. Self-pity? That’s not what I’m after. Honesty, looking grief in the face and saying, “Where do I put this? What do I do with it?” This is what I’m after. And every person has to learn it for themselves even though it’s all been done before. Every pregnant woman feels unique and every grieving person is clawing, coasting, plunging plummeting, soaring forward in their New Normal. Even though, it’s all been done before.
And yet, I’m in limbo because I can’t quite believe it.
I know what is true. Bone marrow 95% affected. Multiple myeloma. Lungs filling with fluid. Kidneys failing. Two agonal breaths. Meetings with Jayson. A beautiful box with iron ornaments, made by the hands that once raised in brotherly fights, held the bottle, put it away again, clasped in the handshake of friendship, and finally, held out to steady. The younger, stronger brothers holding the now weakened, older brother. I helped lift him into the box. I stood by stubbornly waiting for the men to cover him. I know what is true.
And I know what I can’t let go of. Dad, nimbly trundling up the mountain ahead of me, a strong 67 answering my questions without shortness of breath. Sitting across from me saying, “I see there’s been a change in you; you answer me confidently with your opinion even when we disagree.” A real milestone for me despite my age. I never liked to disagree with my dad, and there was seldom any reason to. Memory upon memory, his life and health and plans and strength as present as the computer before me now.
At the moments when it’s fully true, I cannot breathe. And I put it away again. Like the relentless waves softly rushing up the shore trying to outdo each other, reaching beautifully with their foaming whiteness, and then slipping back again. My thoughts rush forward searching for the restful beauty of life, “He is there! He will talk to you. It was a nightmare after all!” And then slipping quickly back again, the thoughts like water, “No! Not there! His life seeped away like the salt ocean soaks into the sand of the shore. It’s gone. It’s gone, you can’t hold it in place.”
To fully acknowledge that he is gone for good from here, it is too much. Just as the earth feels like it’s tilting off its axis, I reprimand myself, “Straighten up! Everyone suffers! Everyone hurts and many more hurt more than you do.” But trying to be patient with myself, realizing I have to take this difficulty on at the point where I was when he left me, I try to keep an even keel.
I’m sailing in the ocean of grief, and the goal is to keep moving forward. I’m not speeding along to win the race, but also not capsizing never to right myself again.
I was sitting on the bed yesterday after Sophia aced her 10K, and I had bombed like a kamikaze. Tears slipping down, harsh words for myself, Brad listened. I had wanted to run it for my dad, even though that seems pointless given that I can’t believe he’s gone. And then I was ashamed because, while I did finish the race, I was second to last and wasn’t ready for a 10K at all. I haven’t been running because of my hip pain, and my new diagnosis. I was passed by the speed walkers, the grammas, the grampas, the run-walkers. My emotions were a wreck, shown upon my blotchy face. Who would want such a race to be run in his honor? Brad reached out his hand to take mine. Squeeze. “It’s okay, Gina.”
Half the time I’m interacting like a normal person, hopefully. Half the time I’m just trying to stand up straight. The Pointless Questions come at me. Why did you leave me? Why would God let this happen? What now? Who am I? Pointless only because it hurts too much to examine the answers for too many minutes in a row.
More than anything, I can honestly say, I want to help others be okay with grieving, to know that Yes, God is there in the trenches with the grieving person.
But right now, I’m floating face down in the water, breathing salt solution. I depended on him too much. I held him too tightly. Who can fault me? We aren’t all superstar Christians. I knew it was dangerous to hold onto him, but he was my Dad. Yes, all the dad words–hero, guide, friend, mentor. Just knowing he was still there day after day, refusing to give in to the demons of depression and self-doubt, meant I too could go on. Everything was okay because Dad understood, because when I embarrass myself at the race, in front of my friends, children, strangers, he would say, “It’s embarrassing isn’t it? But remember, no one is looking at you as much as they are looking at themselves. Worried about the cotton in their own button. Just keep going, get your water or gatorade. Pick yourself up. Remember, Jesus didn’t go around winning at everything. He just did what His Father said. He kept going. People loved him, people thought he was a fool. And even at the end, Jesus asked questions. Even on the cross, Why have You forsaken Me? God can handle you Gina.”
Oh God, Oh God. I miss him. Groaning agony. Wishing 50 years was over or the Rapture was today. And I just made all that up but I know he would have said something just like that.
“Take care of your little tribe, Gina.”
And my prayer is, “God help me make it count. Help me Live today for eternity. And help me make the dinner.” I will raise my babies, love my husband, family, friends, strangers. “Help me to be faithful. You chose me for this; use me. You prepared this grievous path for me, and I for this path.”
“For thus saith the high and lofty One, that inhabiteth eternity,
whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place,
with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones,”