Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: feeling grief

One More Moment

Dad,

What I have to say is kind of a mess right now.

Stay with me as I take you through some things that I’ve been thinking about.

***

It has been seven years since I saw that message from Mom.

Call me as soon as you can.

And I just knew. Before I pressed Call, I knew that at the end of the conversation, I would know that you were gone. I remember looking at that button on my phone thinking, Just one more moment before I know for sure. I need one more moment of not knowing. Just one more moment before I know and I can never not know again. I need just one more moment.

This is not happening.

But it is.

I sat at the top of the stairs and I pressed, Call.

I heard the words and they rattled inside my mind like marbles in a jar. Away. Passed. Unable. Last night. Nurses. Dad. Breathing. They were all words that I knew and understood, individually, until they were forced to be in the same sentence. I had the context to expect these words. You had not been doing well for weeks after you fell. I was expecting this.

My mind understood. But my heart did not.

The reality of losing someone who has seen your hand grow from the clenched fist of a newborn to the open palm of an adult. Someone whose memory populates the entire landscape of your childhood and teenage years.

It should not be possible to lose someone as important as you were to me.

And yet it does.

All the time.

***

The first time that Felicity asked seriously about death was shortly after the pandemic broke out, no doubt fueled by the never-ending news updates about the virus. She was six years old. We were watching Hook, specifically the scene when Rufio dies. When the movie ended, she was sobbing.

I had never seen her cry like this before. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “What happened to Rufio?”

“Well, he died,” I said.

“But what happened to him? Where did he go?”

I could feel my heart seizing in my chest. This was an important moment and I literally had no words. I almost wished that I was still 19 years old, certain of the destination of souls depending on who was right and who was wrong.

So I did what all smart parents do.

I stalled. And then I put the question back to her.

“Where do you think he went?”

“I don’t know!” she sobbed harder.

I panicked. Like I said, I had never seen her like this before. This moment was crushing her and she was seeking out my comfort and certainty.

Say something! I chided myself.

“No one knows for sure what happens when we die,” I began. “But I think that we go to be with God.”

She sobbed even harder.

And I instantly knew that it was the wrong thing to say.

“I don’t want to be with God! I want to be with you and Daddy!”

“You’re not going to die, Kermit. You’re going to be fine. This virus mostly hurts people who are older.”

“But what if it does?”

I swallowed the growing knot in my throat, pushing it deep into my stomach and straightened myself. She wasn’t saying it–but I knew what she was getting at.

“Is that what you’re afraid of? That me and Daddy will die?”

“YES!” she continued to sob.

At this point, three-year-old Henry walked into the room and saw Felicity crying. He walked over to her and put his arms around his sister and said, “S’ok, Ficity.” She hugged him back.

And in that moment, my three-year-old had given more comfort to her than I had.

Of course telling her that she would “go to be with God” was a terrifying concept. Who was God to her? Some large, unknowable entity who lived up in the clouds. Although she had learned in church that “God is Love,” her six-year-old brain understood love as a packed lunch, a hug when you’re sad, and the voice that says “good night” before the light goes out.

I pulled her into my arms and held her while she sobbed.

And then I told her the truth.

“You will never be alone. Daddy and I have surrounded you with friends and family so that this will never happen. Even if you lose me and Daddy, there will be someone to take care of you. You don’t ever have to worry about who will take care of you and Henry.”

“Who will take care of me?”

And then we spent the next five minutes listing, in order, the people that would take care of her. I started with those we had designated as her legal guardians should such a situation arise. Then, I kept going. I named every friend that we had incorporated into our lives, one by one, holding a finger up for each person who loved her and cared about her. When I ran out of fingers, I made her hold one of her fingers up for the names that I was still listing.

When we got to twenty names, we looked at our fingers and then I held her hands in mine.

“You will never, ever be left alone. Ever.”

***

The day after you died, I got a bouquet of flowers from my friends.

Our friendships are special.

I understand this more now that I’m approaching 40. To continue to share weekly dinners and breakfasts with a group of friends throughout your 20s and 30s is not typical. We’ve taken vacations together, both long and short. We’ve stayed after parties and helped each other clean up. We’ve made each meals when we were sick. We’ve supported each other through the stuff that we don’t talk about with just anyone. We’ve come together to support each other as we’ve lost parents. Six times over now.

And when the pandemic came, we moved our dinners to Zoom and suffered through the constant, Wait, what did you say? Go ahead. Wait, me?, just so we could stay connected.

After 15 months of separation, we had our first in-person dinner a few weeks ago. When I hugged my friend, Ben, I said, “I’m not letting go first.”

He said, “Okay.”

And we just stayed like that for a full minute.

What is a word stronger than “grateful”? If there is one, that’s how I feel toward my friends.

I wish you had a friend group like this when you were alive.

***

Dad,

Does time make it easier?

Sometimes.

It’s not so hard when I’m remembering the things about you that make me laugh and smile. All the ways that you were completely unique and unforgettable. Whenever I see someone dressed oddly, I remember that one time we were at the gas station together. I took stock of what you were wearing on a hot July afternoon through the driver’s side window of your sedan. You were so tall that all I could see was your belly, covered by a blue and maroon striped dress shirt, tucked into teal and black swimming trunks. When you got back in the car, I laughed at your bare feet, shoved into brown loafers. You grabbed a McDonald’s napkin from your glove compartment and mopped at the sweat underneath your baseball cap.

It’s also not so hard when I’m remembering things you used to say. Whenever situational context pulls something you would say out of the depths of my memory, it makes me smile. You lack motivation, but not know-how, you used to say our border collie, Gator. Down at the Old Country Buffer, you would say to talk about the restaurant, Old Country Buffet. It’s the Boss! You know they call him the Boss?, you would ask me every time Bruce Springsteen came on the radio in the car.

But then sometimes, no, time does not make losing you easier.

It hasn’t been easy to hear How Great Thou Art or Amazing Grace. I miss the way you would lower your head and mutter the words. Not sing. You weren’t a huge singer. But mutter, yes. You were a soulful mutterer. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.

It’s not easy when Felicity reads a story to Henry, cover and to cover, and he asks her what the difference is between a My Little Pony storybook and a My Little Pony comic, and she comes up with a perfect child-appropriate answer. You never got to see them like this. I wish you had.

And the squeezing of my heart when I look at Henry’s school pictures and I think, He has my eyes. Which means he has Dad’s eyes.

Those are the times when it is not easier.

***

After seven years of life without you, I understand a few things better now than I did in the immediate days after you passed.

First, the times when I’ve felt your loss the most were the times when I built the walls high and kept everyone at arm’s length.

These were times when I was perpetually stressed by the endless juggling of work and care-taking when the kids were small(er). To be honest, I was afraid of running out. Running out of what? Everything. Energy. Time. Love. Everyone wanted something from me and so I gave and gave and gave–almost as if I were trying to beat life to the punch. Ha-ha. You can’t take away when I’m readily giving and giving and giving. And that’s what I did.

Until I had nothing left except numbness.

And in that quiet numbness, the feeling of loss would rear its ugly head at surprising and unpredictable times. And I was shocked by it. I thought I was fine. I had been getting everything done for everyone else, hadn’t I? But in all that business, my heart called out for me to acknowledge what I had lost.

Dwell on it? No. But acknowledge? Yes.

I don’t fully understand why the acknowledgment matters so much. But something within the human heart calls out for remembrance. It’s why we have namesakes and statues and days of remembrance. Perhaps we sense on a primal level that the worst horror of death is in the Forgetting.

Maybe it’s why no matter how far I meander here and there throughout the year and throughout my writing, my steps and my words always bring me back to this sacred space of remembering you around this time of year.

Second, after seven years of life without you, I can say for sure that the one thing that has helped the most is this:

My commitment to keep my heart open to Love.

To welcome new friends into my life.

To share my house and food, conversation and laughter.

To sacrifice for those I love, even when I’m not sure of the outcome.

To listen and believe and comfort.

To give and hold.

Every act of love and care that I’ve given someone else in the time since your death has healed me.

Because every act of love proves I have not surrendered to the pain of loss.

Because every act of love is an act of Courage.

People who have lost understand this more acutely than those who have not. Because after someone you love dies, you have the evidence that the act of loving can feel like a painful, reckless act.

Because the more people you love, the more you have to lose.

And so to continue to love after you have lost proves, once and for all, your tremendous bravery.

You understand this, Dad, especially because of your experience as a father. That first child that enters your arms opens a giant hole to your heart that remains exposed forevermore. The more children you have, the more vulnerable you are to the ways they can hurt you.

And you were a father of five.

To love deeply is the definition of courage. So much can go wrong. But it is the act of loving that gives us the greatest joy, the greatest reason to not only live, but thrive.

***

When I want to remember you the clearest, I always find myself in the passenger seat, you in the driver seat, hand on the wheel. I don’t know why, but we are headed south on route 127, going toward Oxford, back to Miami for classes. We pull over for Croissan’wiches–sausage, egg, and cheese–and coffee from Burger King and we eat from fast food wrappers in the front seat. We talk past each other over and over again because the space of our common ground is shrinking now that I’m building my own life, replete with different interests and concerns. We both feel it, crumbling on all sides of us, accelerating now that the time we spend together is limited to school breaks and summers. It pushes us closer together for the moment even as the edge approaches fast.

But I couldn’t see that.

I was looking somewhere else.

Somewhere off into the distance.

Somewhere where you were not.

I was falling in love, making new friends, traveling, taking class after class after class, and redefining my beliefs. I was growing up, reaching out, moving on.

And you were standing there.

Is this the terrible pain of parenthood that they don’t tell you about?

That as you are standing there, the circle where you stand with your kids gradually and imperceptibly shrinks over the years? Until you realize that everything around you has changed and your shared common ground has dwindled to only your shared moments from the past?

Maybe it is.

And maybe your wisdom to me now would be to say,

Stop looking off into the distance. Stop looking for the approaching edge. It will get here soon enough. Just stand with me. For now.

For one more moment.

Just one more moment before everything changes.

Just one more moment.

Love this moment.

Write it on your heart.

And when it’s time to let go, remember that they can be loved by others, just as much as they were loved by you.

Find comfort in that. Because I know it’s true for you.

It is, Dad. It is absolutely true.

But I still love you.

And I still miss you.

Sharon

We danced to “Unforgettable.” It’s still true.

***

A Time to Say Good-Bye

When my dad died five years ago, I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.

Since then, I’ve had a few dreams about him. But nothing that has given me much closure.

Until recently.

The dream went like this: My dad is alive. So is my mom and her new husband, Warren. And everyone is okay with this.

It’s a dream, right? You know how dreams are.

It’s also Thanksgiving and we’re back at our old house in Huber Heights. The table is set up in the living room, which is awkward. But that’s because my youngest sister’s bed is set up in the dining room, and we’re all coping with that.

Fine.

There are lots of chairs around the table, but no one is sitting down. I see that it’s because, apparently, everyone has already eaten except me. I feel hungry. And yet I’m frustrated because there is food all over the table and the floor. I start picking up, scraping bits of food into my hands: lemon wedges, wet and cold Spaghetti-os, cracker crumbs, and rice. Absolutely nothing that looks like anything we would actually eat at Thanksgiving dinner.

No one is helping me. Actually, I can sense that they are annoyed that I’m cleaning up. They’re all talking with each other, laughing, having a great time.

Apparently, my dad and Warren are old pals. I can hear my dad’s laugh above everything else. That cutting HA! that interrupts what someone else is saying, just before saying, “Well, that’s just like what they did down there in…” And he segues into a new story. They’re off to the races.

Ah, whatever, I think as I get up from scraping up food from the carpet. Maybe later.

By the time I get over to where I think my dad is, I see my mom sitting on the sofa, staring out the window, a book on her knees. She’s sad. And she won’t talk about it.

And she’s also pregnant. Like third-trimester pregnant. At sixty-some years old. Her hands rest protectively on her belly.

It’s a dream, right?

Suddenly, she’s gone. The book is still there, conveniently left open to the page that she was reading, marked with underlining. The heading reads “Brain Disorders.”

“It’s her decision,” my dad says. He’s there now, sitting on the couch.

“Why won’t she talk about it with me?” I ask.

“This isn’t about you. This is between her and God.”

“But…” I can’t think of the words. But what I feel is this immense emptiness opening in the fabric of my life. This is isn’t about you. This is between her and God.

Through the window, I see the tree in our backyard tipping over, its roots becoming exposed to the air.

“I don’t want her to make that decision,” I finally say.

“It’s not about you,” he repeats.

He is not somber. He’s actually quite jovial about it. His health has been restored to the last time that I remember him being physically and mentally well, probably around 2007. He tries to help me see the positive possibilities. What if the brain disorder actually benefits the baby? He tries to give me examples of babies with certain brain disorders who were born in the past and who are now astounding doctors. He places his fingers close together and far apart, saying something about the spaces between synapses.

“But we don’t know what type of condition the baby has,” I say.

“You can’t know everything that you want to know,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to trust God.” He is laughing.

Laughing!

The nerve.

“Dad?”

“What?” he says.

I reach over and grip his large hand in mine, pull it to my heart and lock it there so that we are connected from fingers to elbow. This is not something I ever remember doing when he was alive. Our family wasn’t big into hugs and we certainly didn’t hold each other’s hands.

But I don’t have the words anymore.

All I have is the grief of his loss.

The knowing that when this is over, he’ll be gone again. He will slip away for months or years, away into realities that I cannot sense or galaxies where I cannot travel. He’ll be gone again and I’ll still be here.

And I won’t know when I’ll see him again.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel that I’m sending out everything that I want to say but can’t find the words for. All the empty spaces in my life where he should be. All the moments that he should have seen with his grandkids. All the times that I regret I didn’t spend more time with him. All the jealousy that I have for my peers who still have their fathers with them. All the love that I still have for him that has nowhere to go, nowhere to land. And so it swirls inside of me and rises at unexpected moments. Crying in the store over 0.99 cent cinnamon rolls. (I would pay you $1 NOT to eat them!, I had joked.)

My roots are raw and exposed, my world is upside down.

I pull him all the way to me, into my very heartbeat.

And he starts weeping.

He doesn’t deny how I’m feeling. He doesn’t tell me it will all be okay. He stops mentioning God and the possibilities.

He just weeps with me.

We don’t talk anymore. I just hold his arm against me until all the emotions are gone and what remains is stillness. Peace.

Once all these emotions have been released, the truth that remains is that my father is Gone.

And I don’t have to be okay with that.

I’m not angry. Anger is just an emotion that covers a far deeper wound.

No, the anger is gone.

Now, all that’s left is love and pain. And it’s not wrong. It’s not a failure or a flaw. Sometimes, this is just the way that it is.

Sometimes, love just plain hurts. Sometimes life grinds cold Spahetti-os into the carpet, pulls out trees by their roots, and takes away the people that you love the most. And it gives zero shits about how you feel about any of it.

But there is also Peace to be felt in the middle of it.

But first, the pain has to find its way out. It cannot be numbed or ignored or medicated. It needs to be felt and acknowledged, directed and released.

The only way to Peace is through the Pain.

***

I woke up shortly after that, replaying the bits and pieces that I remember over and over. Dreams are often slippery suckers. But I think this one will stay with me for quite a well.

It felt like a chance to show my dad what I’m carrying with me through this life, now that he is gone. But also to assure him that I will be okay, as long as I have someone to hear my stories, as long as there is an outlet for the emotion to flow through me and settle elsewhere. It’s the bottling up that makes grief unbearable.

It felt like a space to catch my breath.

A moment to hold on with all I have.

A moment to decide to let it all go.

It felt like my chance to say good-bye.

When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
and, Yes, I know
that you are with me;
you, my moon, are here with me,
my sun, you are here with me,
with me, with me, with me.
 
Time to say goodbye
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.

with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you

“Con Te Partiro” Lucio Quarantotto, as sung by Andrea Bocelli
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