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.
Does time make it easier?
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.