We were early. I sat and looked around, not wanting to be seen. The walls were grey. Or maybe a dirty sage. Some failed attempt to be calming. I stared at my feet, watching my raspberry tennis shoes blend into the mess of a patterned carpet. My eyes blurring, then refocusing. Other people shuffled in the room, claiming a spot in the small circle of plastic chairs.
Mom sat next to me, gazing at the table in the center of the circle covered in grey. More grey. Perched on top sat a small vase of flowers and a handful of smooth stones surrounding a burning candle. Chairs filled, people breathed heavily. We waited.
At the front of the room stood a man in his late twenties. He wore tight, purple skinny jeans and a button up t-shirt with small ships floating on white sleeves. His huge, glossy, black boots looked heavy, like anchors grounding him in a room full of wobbly people.
“Welcome to the Support Group for the Newly Bereaved”, he murmured. He had to be fresh out of graduate school, trying to mask excitement at being able to facilitate a grief group of his very own. In a voice barely above a whisper he began to outline what our group would accomplish in the next four weeks.
His tone was obnoxious. I tried to make eye contact, pleading with my eyeballs, “Speak to me like a normal person!” For the last three weeks, hundreds of people had been speaking at me in the same overly delicate tone you would use on a 5-year-old. Grabbing my arm gently, brushing my hand, treating me as a fragile being. His whispers added him to the list of seemingly caring people who didn’t really know me at all.
My eyes gravitated towards his sharp goatee and trendy hair cut. “Hmph,” I snarked in my head, “he looks more like Jafar from Aladdin than a proper counselor. Not everyone gets to receive therapy from a modern rendition of a Disney character.” Muffling a laugh at my own cleverness, I prefered to stay lost in my own new character narrative. I was jolted back into the meeting when I heard Jafar say, “We are going to go around the room and share, using this formula, about the loved one you lost.”
Shit, I had tuned out. What formula?
Other people began to share their one sentence. My heart started pounding as the number of chairs between Jafar and me shrunk. I caught on to what was expected of me. It was my turn. My mouth moved and my heart broke again as I said out loud for the very first time, “My dad, Roy Christman, died on March 18th.”
Those therapists use this formula for a reason. It takes repetition for our brains to embroider the reality of loss to our hearts. We can speak the phrase one week or one month after loss, but our beings take much longer to absorb the truth. We started every session that way, sharing our formula, our new horrible reality that someone we loved died.
In the waves of after shock, the most holy progress was giving myself permission to sit and sob, gut wrenching, uninhibited tears that shook my whole body. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and slink downstairs to the deep blue couch, crying by myself. I’d let these waves of emotion leak out through my pores, fearing to share the intensity with anyone else.
Alarm clocks went off. I pressed snooze. I woke and went to work and ate what people put in front of me. Dozens of frozen meals from Trader Joes. Mush in your mouth that turns nutrients into the energy you need to cry.
Keep ripping days off of the calendar. Start wondering how to approach the logistics of the things he left behind. Our annual family vacation approached and we went, tentative and weeping, to the place of my favorite childhood vacation. We stood in a mountain valley, holding hands with supportive people, and watched as my brother released Dad’s ashes to float on the wind. We toasted with a beer, and sat in the sand, feeling the breeze on my face and dirt on my toes.
Spring turned to summer and days got longer. Staring in silence still part of the everyday routine. Many nights we’d gather on clunky outdoor furniture and look to the sky, waiting for the sun’s warm glow to sink behind shadowy mountains. I’d sip of wine and sigh reminding my heart we’d survived another day.
Further down the road, healing was realizing that food began to taste normal. I could eat with pleasure and brought back Dad’s favorite foods. I bought bags of small pretzels and dipped them in pub cheese. Sunk french fries into blue cheese dressing. Fried breakfast hash browns and tossed them with salt, memories of breakfast with him settling in as grains dissolved on my tongue.
People had birthdays. Some even had babies. In solitude, I continued to stare at walls and the sky, but I also started staring at photographs. Of him and of me and of our celebrations. Ones he will no longer attend. I ate my own birthday cake. Noticed birthday cards missing his name, now just saying, love Mom.
A full year passed; the damn anniversary. Healing was getting a tattoo of his handwriting on my arm. Permanence. His influence in ink and my blood. It was also writing Dad a long love letter. I plan to write one each year.
Eat. Rest. Write. Cry. Repeat.
Each day, acceptance slowly allowed me to be brave and enter his favorite places. Baseball stadiums, the pool hall, burger joints, the pinball gallery. Weekend outings and attempts at normalcy. Planned excursions to get us up, out of the house, and living again in his absence. In the parking lot of his favorite brewery one summer evening I sat in my car, accepting the flood of memories of time shared on that brick patio. Welcomed back the messy tears, and wiped snot on auto upholstery. Drive away.
Healing was my choice to pass on the annual family vacation as it approached on the schedule again, choosing instead to use my days to go to the Oregon beach. Skipping on tradition that doesn’t feel as good as it once did.
More blinking. Less staring. More twinkle in my eyes.
Healing has been keeping a running list of the things I wish I could say to him. In the recognizable ache of wanting to tell him a story, a personal success, a new knock-knock joke. In realizing, perhaps, that this isn’t going to go away in the way I hoped. These heart scars are hard earned; grief seeps into my waking hours and I see Dad in dreams.
Today, It has been eighteen months since my dad passed. Euphemisms for death still suck. Passed….was lost…. went on….. taken too soon. All of those phrases suck. He died. A part of me went with him.
I choose to believe I will rise from this sharp, gripping pain and that this death will morph me into an altered form. Like warm, homemade play dough, I’ve become malleable from salty tears. I will be sculpted, too, by healing. Rework the dough with strong fingers and start to integrate the loss.
Grief showed up at my feet on March 18, 2016. She took my hands and started dancing frantically, pushing me to my knees. She’s been with me in the horrific initial conversation and has twirled beautifully as I’ve started to stand. I carry her with her sharp teeth, and soft feet in my heart pocket as I wake and work and again find joy. She is the cold ache of lost and alone, and also the warm reminder that I will always be Roy’s daughter, for the rest of my life.