“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay
On Monday, May 25th, 2015 my father passed away. He was 83 years of age.
Each day since then has been filled with tears and filled with sorrow. Each day that passes I’m strong when I need to be, and then not when I don’t. Some days I get bogged down with a task at hand, and the grief I feel shifts around to somewhere other than the forefront of my mind. But when the task ends, or when I sit down to allow myself to rest for a moment, or when the house is quiet and I’m the only one still up, or I awake in the middle of the night it comes crashing back over me. Grief is cruel that way. Cruel and unfair. It strikes when you least expect it, and then lingers to taunt you.
I must speak of my father in the past tense now. I can drive past a certain assisted living home in Maine, but I no longer will stop there. It’s not where he sleeps, it’s where he slept. I can look for grape nut ice cream in a list of available flavors. It’s not what he likes, it’s what he liked. I can mimic his words and tell his oft repeated stories, even in his voice. It’s not what he says, it’s what he said.
So many words seem infinite in their potential and their capacity. We can like many things. We can know many things. We can love many people. So many words in our language seem to encompass moments and hours and weeks and years. Live is one of those words. We live by breathing and eating and loving and feeling. We live in the miles that we travel and the disappointments that we face and rise above. We live in the moments that we create with others and for ourselves. We live in the knowledge we acquire and our relationships with others and the legacies we leave behind. We live from the moment we draw first breath to the moment we expel our last.
The word die is different. It is a present tense word that the use of only encompasses a brief moment in the span of eternity. It is the moment when we cease to breathe…we cease to feel…and we cease to live. There is before, which we participate in and leave our mark for later if we are lucky. There is also after, which is not ours to own. That belongs to those we leave behind to mourn us and honor us and miss us and remember us. But in the word die there is only the briefest flicker of time in the space between before and after. Our eyes, once open, close, and then before is done, and after has filled its place without us even noticing the transition.
At my father’s funeral, I spoke of him and of our relationship, and how it suffered over the years. Fortunately it ended in healing and in forgiveness some ten years ago. I am grateful for those ten years, and yet feel cheated out of the other 36 I might have had with him. For a period of time lasting more than a decade I cut my father out of my life and robbed myself in the process. I won’t take full responsibility for that separation, as we both had a hand in it. But for my part in what brought about our silence with one another for all those years I am sorry. For what I lost in those years, time with my father, I am filled with regret and told him so before he passed away. For what I have now lost with his death, I know there is no apology for, and no forgiveness to seek, and no substitute for.
When my father died last week, I lost many things. I lost more than eighty years of wisdom and experience. I lost answers to questions I never thought to ask. I lost arms that would wrap around me no matter what was wrong or what I had done and comfort me. I lost stories of my grandparents and their parents before them that he hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I lost laughs that we hadn’t yet shared, as well as tears that we might have cried together, safe and comforted in the presence of one another. I lost the hours of anticipation I’d feel knowing I was driving up to Maine to see him. I lost someone who cared about me enough to listen to what my favorite cookie was and hand me a bag full of them, lifted from the coffers of his assisted living home, to send me home with them and carry me through until our next visit. I lost someone who would pick up trinkets and toys found around the facility and send them home for my boys to put a smile on their faces. I lost insight into a time before I lived that no history book will ever offer me. I lost stories of myself that come from a time before my memories began to imprint themselves on my own mind.
I lost a friend. I couldn’t always say that he was my friend. Thankfully that changed before it was too late.
People say grief has five stages to it. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I believe I’ve skipped over the first three stages in an end run for the final two. I cannot deny that my father is gone. I cannot be angry for I know he was prepared for his death and that he had reached a place in his life when he no longer wished to fight a losing battle. I cannot bargain for his continued existence because I’ve already lost him. That leaves me with two stages. I won’t call what I feel depression. Many times people feel as though they have nothing to live for when someone passes, or they begin to think about their own mortality so strongly that it becomes a kind of paralysis to them for continuing to live. I have to go on. I have kids, and family, and friends and experiences to make with all of them. I have many things to teach the boys, memories to not only pass on to them but to make with them as well.
I think this stage is, for me, more aptly labeled sadness. Sad that I can’t listen to him telling me stories, no matter how many times he’d told them to me before. Sad that I can’t hug him anymore, or kiss him on the forehead when I’m leaving and feel him reach up and place his hand over my own that I lay on his shoulder. Sad that my boys won’t get to know him better, at least not directly, and will have to rely on my stories to teach them things about their grandfather. Sad that I have one less place to visit when I go to Maine. Sad that while I can still say ‘I love you, dad’, I can never again hear him reply, ‘I love you, too.’
I know that the stage after this is acceptance. I know that in time the hurt will change and the memories won’t bring so many tears, and I’ll be able to think about his passing and about going to his grave site without a feeling of panic sweeping over me. I’ll come across pictures of him and be able to look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling as though someone has knocked the wind out of me with repeated kicks to my stomach. I’ll take out the very few material things I have of his and hold them in my hand and imagine his hands upon them and perhaps feel that he’s really quite near, rather than feeling the incalculable void that seems before me now when I look at them. I’ll sift through memories of him and not feel like I just want to curl up in a ball and sob until I have no tears left. I know I’ll get there. It’s a journey I’ve taken many times before.
For now, I think I’ll just stick with sad for a while longer.