Grief. It’s a long journey where everyone follows a different path. It’ll be four months on December 2nd since Dad died. December 2nd is his birthday. He would’ve been 89. Most of the time I’m ambivalent, feeling that I should be sadder than I am, because I seem to be doing fine. But then a small trigger sets off a burst of sorrow. It may last for a few seconds, or it may last for a full day.
Tonight I was checking some photos on my laptop and came across a photo I took of me holding his hand on that last day in the nursing home. It’s a good picture, the light plays across the folds and rolls of the sheet, and our two hands show a history no words can tell. I noticed my thumbnail had a snag. I meant to file that down, but when I received the phone call from my sister, telling me to “come now,” I forgot any list of things I had to do and drove from Missouri to Wisconsin amid a bath of tears. I remember taking that photo, thinking at the time that I’d want that to help me remember. I don’t need the help.
I arrived in time. But in time for what? Yes, Dad was still living, but he was weak and unconscious. We surrounded him. Mom was there, siblings, a few of his grandchildren, other close relatives coming and going. We understood the outcome. We’d been anticipating this day and our reaction to it for the past nine years, when he was first diagnosed with cognitive issues that led to Alzheimer’s disease. We’d been carefully girding ourselves with the strength we knew we’d need. I’m thankful for that part. I know too many others who weren’t given that opportunity.
I had said my goodbyes repeatedly, each time I left him at the nursing home at the end of a weekend visit home. He didn’t really know me anymore. I’d try to wheel him away from the activity to spend some time with him. I might take him out to the garden, or just down the hall to a different sitting area. At times he’d welcome the change of scenery, but other times he’d scowl and say, “No, I want to stay here.” I’d try to draw him out by telling him brief stories. I’d avoid asking too many questions, because he’d get frustrated when he didn’t know the answers. Later, his reply might be a closed-eye sigh and an “Uh huh.” Then I’d wheel him back to the common area and park his chair. I’d lean over and kiss him on the cheek and tell him, “I love you Dad.” Then I’d walk out quickly trying to hide my tears until I got in my van and melted.
I’d usually cry for the first half-hour of my six-hour trip home. Then I’d get caught up in dealing with traffic and navigating my way through Chicago. I’d usually well up a few more times while driving, as I thought about the conversations we could no longer have. I had always wished I could converse more eloquently and listen more, but I have learned to write to express my thoughts. I always wondered if other people had conversations with their fathers like people did in movies. Were people really able to share feelings like that, and I’m just a schmuck whose stilted attempts felt more like a halting bus, lurching and swerving with each stop—the passengers holding on, so they don’t topple into the windshield? Or am I normal; do we all have difficulty expressing our true feelings to our loved ones?
And here I am, writing again. I need to do this. I haven’t been able to write about Dad since I finished the obituary for the funeral home. I wrote it the day I received word he had pneumonia. My heart told me it was time. Since then, I kept tucking my thoughts away; I enjoyed the memories others shared and left it at that. I couldn’t participate in the funeral by doing even a reading. My brother, Ron, asked me, “Are you sure?” I just couldn’t.
2017 has been a hard year, and we’ve lost more than a few members from our family. I wrote two pieces about men I lost after Dad died. I even read one as a eulogy for a friend’s funeral. But I couldn’t send my thoughts to my keyboard about Dad until now. I have cards I meant to send to others who I know are hurting, but I’ve yet to address them. I keep holding back. I’ve been functioning at work and at home, somewhat.
It’s time to challenge myself and work to bring my life back to a happier state. I told a couple friends the other day that I realized I’m depressed. It’s not a major depression, but it’s there. I feel it hanging on the back of my coat as I walk out the door. I feel it holding me to my recliner under a blanket, obsessively reading one “feel good” novel after another instead of tackling my sewing projects. I’m indecisive—more than normal—and I can’t make up my mind either.
I understand that grief is a process. I’ll work my way through it, but I also understand it will never completely leave. As I watch those I care about go through more extremes than I am, I feel guilty. How can I be grieving so much for my dad who lived a very full life, while one of my friends is reeling from the sudden loss of her fifty-something husband? I think of my cousins who lost their dads, spouses or brothers–some way too young. I think of my mom, aunts and uncles who are hit by loss repeatedly now. How can they stand it? Some have felt this for decades, and for others of us it’s still fresh.
We each take our own pathway. We each deal with our losses in a different way, but none is honestly more keen than another. Sometimes it takes suffering to make us acknowledge the suffering of others. To those who’ve lost their parent so much earlier, I owe an apology. I always sympathized their losses. But I could never know how deep their sorrow when they lost their dads too soon. But I know the void I feel, even if I was able to inch up to it over the course of a decade instead of being pushed into its depths abruptly. It’s still deep and dark. I’ll eventually climb out and then occasionally peer down into it from the edge.
Others have been here. And others will be on this path at some point. It’s the path of life, not just grief. I understand that now. I do.