More than two months after the fact of my dad's death and I still stand in the chaos of the aftermath.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I am going to be a day; a week; a month after my dad passes. So if you don’t hear from me, do me a favor and call me and just ask how I’m doing.” This was the phone conversation I had with a friend the eve of my father’s passing – not knowing he’d pass in the wee hours of that night. After a restless sleep; I was jolted awake at 3:55AM by my mother, who had found my father dead, moments before waking me.
Throughout the whole cancer battle, people have said “yes you know his death is coming, and you can spend that time with him, BUT no amount of ‘preparing’ will make you ready for that moment when death takes him.” And they were right! The sound of my mothers’ sorrow waking me; hearing the news “he’s gone;” feeling the shock in my gut; seeing his lifeless and pale body; and letting the tears overcome me as my legs collapsed under me – nothing, not a thing, not one wise word could have prepared me for that inconceivable moment.
The days following are all but a blur. Being in and out of work that week, with students of ranging ages reacting to the news of my dad’s death; and some not knowing what to say or even how to act around me - I indeed felt like the elephant at the school. Feeling like I was perpetually on the phone with friends or family or replying to emails from friends or family – certainly it was comforting to be consoled so much. With ten out of the twelve of my dad’s siblings flocking in from across the country, and a fair number of other relatives in town - we were hardly alone in that first week. Flower deliveries flocked our door steps; home-cooked meals that gave us the luxury of not having to cook for a week. Constant company from friends and family alike gave us comfort and consolation as condolence cards and care packages seemed to have caravanned its way to us constantly. Managing plans at the mortuary while blinking back tears; tying up loose ends at the church for the funeral while pushing back bitter sweet memories that became hauntingly painful to me; grappling and wrestling with words for my father’s eulogy as I struggled to write without breaking down – this was the emotional state I often found myself in the preceding week after his death. And the irony is, as emotional as I was that week I could really be emotional - there just wasn’t time to really mourn.
As the days of the viewing/Rosary proceeded; and as the funeral preceded the burial, the out-pour of people who showed up to pay respects truly surprised and moved me. Even those who either didn’t know my dad that well, or at all for that matter came out of the woodwork to show their condolences to my family and me. In this way I truly learned the funeral was just as much for my family and me, as it was to honor and remember my dad.
Now, more than two months after the fact I still walk in a fragile state of emotions that simply lay just below the surface of the façade I sometimes put up. From where I stand, I can honestly say, I feel bipolar – no offensive intended – either that or I feel like I’m perpetually PMSing. On any given day or week I don’t know where my grieving will be at. In some days or circumstances I might find myself recalling his memory and in turn (of course) missing him – A LOT; wishing I could just see him walk through the door, or give me a hug, or hear his voice. But I can’t, and I won’t – and it breaks my heart.
Other times I think: what if we had detected the cancer sooner? Would he had more of a fighting chance? Would he still be here? What if my folks hadn’t visited me in Philadelphia in May of 2012; would the lack of walking all around town not triggered symptoms; and would he have gone sooner; and (hypothetically) not having a lot of notice would I have been around?
His memory visits me in the early morning as I run and gaze at a morning sunrise – as it reminds me of the morning he passed and the gorgeous sunrise he gave me and my family. I think and picture him as I get ready for work, and how he and I were often the first ones up in the morning; to find him plugging away on Quicken or sittin’ on the front porch was common place and a fond presence to my morning routine. I replay memories of outings and conversations of the past year; conversations I never thought I’d have with my father. It makes me smile in gratitude, yet sigh in the fact that I wish we could have more. Songs like "The Scientist" and it's words "nobody said it was easy; it's such a shame for us to part; nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be this hard; oh take me back to the start," and with that the tears come rushing down. I gaze at pictures old and new of my dad; me and my dad, and notice how the stress of life really weighed on him at times; while other times his disposition really is quite sweet.
In the mist of the unpredictable highs and lows of the grief I treated myself to a weekend getaway to Chicago to visit my SSJ Mission Corps and Philadelphia dear friend Colleen. On the Sunday morning of the long Veterans Day weekend I sat in morning Mass with Colleen when the presider gave his homily on death. Oie – just when I thought I could evade the grief for one freaking weekend! As he spoke with sincerity I couldn’t help but think of my dad as the priest spoke of the dying process and comparing it to someone sailing into the ocean horizon. “Little by little we (the loved ones) see less and less of the one dying; while more and more they sail into the unknown waiting for what awaits them.” My dad’s declining time in hospice was all I could think about; my family and I more and more watched him straddle that line between heaven and earth; life and death. As the priest continued he talked about grieving the death of a loved one is a very human experience; that grieving is preserving (really preserving) that memory of the person.
And so as I sat there in a parish I had never sat in; in a city I had never been to, the grief I could not evade came rushing through that façade, and it was all I could do to breathe back sighs of tears, as my dad’s memory came back to me. Try as I may to keep up the façade, tears came steadily down my face, as I first dabbed them dry with my scarf; then with tissues from Colleen’s purse, who sat next to me and offered them, before she offered her hand as some comfort in the church pew. Without hesitation I grabbed her hand in support and strength in some relief from the grief.
And so goes the question I’ve been wrestling with: how do people comfort when I’m at the mercy of the emotions that take me captive? And the answer: just be…present. When all I need to do is recollect and process memories of my passed dad– just listen without fear or uneasiness. When all I need to do is let the tears fall and let them be heard – take me without question in an embrace, and hold me in my sadness. Let me know my mourning is warranted and approach without anxiety or hesitation. Let me know you care enough to ask me how things are, and not look at me like you’d like to ask me but you’re too nervous to – and in a sense making me the elephant in the room. While I know it’s never an easy conversation starter; know it’s better attempted then dismissed.
Let it rain; let it pour; let it come down on me.