There are moments in life one remembers as a flickering film clip of history, moments that bring a smile as the reel plays – carefree childhood, coming of age, emergence to adult life and the cycle again to children and hope for the future.
This isn’t about one of those.
This is about the sort of moment that flays you open, a scorched earth type of devastation. This is about losing my father.
By the Jewish calendar, his passing took place on the 5th of Adar. That is the day when I’m supposed to go to synagogue, recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and light a candle in his memory. My day-to-day life, however, doesn’t operate on that schedule. Sure, I observe the major Jewish holidays, but when it comes to my world, the Gregorian calendar guides me, and so March 12, 2000 is my scorched earth day.
Yesterday morning on awakening I settled in for my meditation and found my hand drift to the Hebrew prayer book given to me on my very first trip to Israel in the summer of 1995 – a trip on which I went with my entire family.
My father had recently conquered his first bout with Cancer, a skirmish that began when a chest x-ray scheduled for a minor surgery revealed substantial growth in his left lung. After recuperating from the initial surgery, my father returned to the operating table, sawed in half, 25% of one lung removed and declared Cancer free. When my sister suggested that I join her synagogue trip to Israel a few months later, there was no question.
Well, okay, there was a bit of a question because I’d been planning a trip that summer to Denali in Alaska. Extended hang time with my family wasn’t something that felt right in those days and Israel had never been on my list of must see places. My sister gently suggested that in light of our father’s recent health situation that a family trip was merited. A deeply saturated Daddy’s girl, it took mere seconds to see her point.
Every participant on that trip received a prayer book that we used throughout the journey – for Shabbat services, for meals, for acknowledging victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem and more. This prayer book returned with me to the US, slipping onto a shelf high above my desk where it sat between old media reference manuals and a series of the sort of dense literature that one reads in school and then keeps on the shelf, not ever to return to it, but to retain somehow as a reminder that at one time they felt important.
When my father’s Cancer returned in 1998 my life had taken a decidedly dark turn. It was around the time I began to recognize and embrace that I was gay. It was also around the time my drug and alcohol use began to blossom into something decidedly dangerous.
The latter, perhaps fueled by fear from the former, wrapped me in a near constant state of numbness. I wish I could say it was comfortably numb but there was little to nothing comfortable about this period of my life. I became someone I hardly recognized. Outwardly there wasn’t all that much change but inwardly the old fashioned girl with the heart of a hopeless romantic froze and took a back seat.
Cancer set its hooks deep and a few months into 1999 began its stolid march forward. Taking the most aggressive treatment path possible, my father began trips back and forth Houston’s MD Anderson. By spring when his treatments began in earnest, my siblings and I set up a schedule so that we could each be there to support our father and mother and be present. I wish I could say that I’d actually been there. While my body was in Houston, I was so deeply dissociated that any real connection was tenuous at best.
The night I got the call I was out with a friend. Dinner, a blues club and from there it was to be an after hours club and who knew after that? Sitting in my car while my friend grabbed cash at an ATM, I fished my cell phone out of the console next to the seat. That there were any missed calls at that hour was odd. That there were about a half dozen of them, all from my family, sent splinters of ice into my heart.
I’ve been sitting here now about an hour attempting to describe the rest of that evening, attempting to craft in some remotely graceful form a telling of how my friend immediately leaped into action, grabbing the reins to get me home, get me packed and off to the airport and onto a plane. I began to wend my way through the story of my journey home and the experiences of those 10 days in Florida – preparation for the funeral, the funeral, sitting shiva. The heart-wrenching moments of sadness liberally scattered with moments of mirth. (Some time I’ll recount the story of how the title of this blog came to be as it was born about two hours after the funeral.)
Despite my entirely inebriated state during that time, despite the emotional turmoil, every moment is a scorched earth scar, stark, clear and utterly consuming. Yet as I sat last night with words flowing through the chronology and the blow-by-blow accounting of events, I felt myself dissociating again.
There is likely some more work to be done on that front to go back through that time, unpacking those moments and allowing myself to actually feel them, but I realized that this was not why I set finger to keyboard tonight. Rather this is about grief and the passage of time, and the impact that it has in shaping one’s world.
The thing they don’t tell you about the five stages of grief? They are in no way linear. They also do not just end at any point in time. Certainly from my vantage point 15 years beyond this shattering day the pain has changed, but it has in no way gone away. There isn’t a day that goes by when my father isn’t somehow, somewhere in my thoughts. When I go through stress, when I experience joy, when I come up against a challenge, often my first thought comes side by side with a twinge of pain … If only dad were here. I wish I could hug him again. How I wish I could see him smile, smell his cologne, feel the steady, calm sense of his presence just sitting with me.
The woman who I am today is a direct result of what has transpired in my life since my father’s death. In a sadly ironic twist, the woman who I have become, the woman who I think he’d most enjoy, exists because of his departure. That seems so patently unfair.
Sure I know he’s with me. Everyone tells me that. Again much like how people say “all things happen for a reason” to help justify and soothe away discomfort from bad things, the cliché comment that even when someone dies their memory lives on, their impact remains.
The more spiritually focused posit that even after passing on, loved ones remain in some nearby state – watching over us, providing us with that small, still voice of comfort or guidance when we feel lost. Sending signs and messages that if we remain still enough we may see, hear and experience. I believe this perspective to be true, as my own experiences in the last 15 years have proven it to me. There have been many times when I was in an emotional bind and suddenly heard a song on the radio that was a favorite of my dad’s. There have been myriad instances where I’m thinking about how to address some situation and suddenly I feel his presence, catch a whiff of his cologne or even hear the faint sound of his whistling. Most of all when my heart feels bruised and I need an uplift nearly always I’ll see a rainbow or a hummingbird and know that my father put them there to make me smile.
That dust covered prayerbook, which sat abandoned on my shelf for so many years is an example. Sitting at my desk one day sometime in 2010 or so, I went to pull a reference manual from that top shelf. The small, blue vinyl covered prayerbook, which had been wedged deeply onto the shelf next to it, slipped from its perch and began to drop. My hand darted out, catching it before it struck the table or floor and it opened to one of the first pages.
My eyes fell to the following words:
“Let all my being praise the Lord who is clothed in splendor and majesty, wrapped in light as in a garment, unfolding the heavens like a curtain.”
Glancing up from the book and out the window towards the east, the morning sun was breaking over the horizon, shearing through San Francisco’s fog and cascading across the rooftops.
In that moment, my father was with me.
All this is great, but I’m selfish. I don’t want ephemeral signs and energies. I want my dad. I want to feel his hug. I want to see that twinkle in his eye. I want to sit in the dark on a hot summer night, just being in the same space and not talking, just being, the scent of his cologne floating on the warm evening breeze.