Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On Grief and Loss

There's a reason why so much poetry is written about death and love. Death and love: they bewilder and stop us in our tracks.

Love pours into a life like an elixir. It assumes the shape of our days, and fills in all the empty spaces.

Death, on the other hand, stops the clock, cancels all plans, and plucks us out of routines that we had thought to be our lives.

At first, we are not alone in this new place and time; but soon we must be left behind.

I can only speak for myself.

I count myself fortunate for this: The loved one lingers with me for a while. For a week or a year, they stay close.  We go for long walks. We talk, and reminisce.  I can hear their voice clearly in my head, and I can feel their presence filling up my heart.

I take that time to be with them. I am grateful that the clock stops, and for the days on the calendar that have been crossed out. They belong to us, those days.

One close friend stayed with me for a week, after he died, summoned by my surprisingly loud grief. He may have been elsewhere at the same time, but he was with me, too, that week.

We used to smoke, so I bought a pack of cigarettes, and we walked together. He made wise-cracks, and commented on my wardrobe, which was no longer interesting. He was full of comments--it had been some time since we last talked.  Eventually, we both knew, he would have to go; neither of us could go on excluding everyone and everything else--death and life--indefinitely.

He left me with a gift. It was very apt, and very personal. It came as a big surprise, and I won't tell you what it was.

My father's death was beyond my comprehension. Only after I saw his dead body could I begin understand, in some visceral, physical sense, that he was no longer alive.

But even then, I heard him tell me, "That's enough [wailing and crying]. You're going to have a stroke."

Those were the first words he said to me, after he died.

In the year that followed, I saw him in dreams in which it had all been an incredible mistake, and there would so much logistical sorting out to do to reinstate my father in his place in the world. (How quickly everything converges on the space we've occupied.) I have to collect and return his things to him. Accounts must be put back into his name. The Death Certificate has to be nullified. (It had all done in good faith, but in those dreams, I was ashamed and embarrassed, as if I had meant to steal from him.)

My father moved into my head. He was a man of opinions. He got comfortable in my head...too comfortable. My personality changed. I was channeling him.

As an only child, I was never completely comfortable with the degree of overlap between our personalities. Becoming my own person, I had taken pains to draw lines in the sand: This is where I begin and you leave off. After he died, those lines became blurred.

One day, I was writing something (I don't remember what it was), and I typed this:

"I hope that my father can find a place for himself where he is at peace."

I believed that he could read it, just as if he were standing over my shoulder, preparing to give me  advice about how to invest my 401k.

I felt his heart sink, and the beginning of him letting go.

He left soon after that. At first, he didn't go far. He seemed to want to stick around in case I needed him--that white-out snow when I was driving west from Milwaukee, for example. He got the GPS working again. It hadn't been working for ages.

They say that the dead become natural electricians. The lights in the house had flickered on and off after the memorial service, precipitating a toast in his honor.

He might have stayed longer, if he could have. I don't think he had much of a choice. Eventually, time, in the form of all natural processes, resumes, for the living and the dead.

My father is gone, but when I look in the mirror, I see his deep-set eyes. I see my mother's jaw line. I see my own face.

It used to bother me, how much we looked alike. He was a handsome man, but I am a woman. But now, I like our eyes--the deep, scrutinizing set of them; the hard intensity and the soft warmth of them. They are what we are, a flickering light.

Someone told me once that our loved ones leave us gifts when they die, things you can't buy online.

My father gave me many things. Much of it is still in boxes in the basement. But clearly, the greatest gift he gave me was my horse. I bought her because he had loved boats all his life the way I had loved horses as a girl. His passion for sailing became my renewed passion for horses and riding. That's what he gave me after he died.

And the love.  It stays.  Somehow (I don't know how), it crosses the threshold between life and death, and blesses the rest of our days.

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