I’ve no memory of the first time, pencil in hand, I parsed letters together to form words on a page. The spell of this magic must have been seductive, potent, a way for my wee voice to be heard in the world. I still have verse written to the tooth fairy and a small collection of other early poetry. I’d give anything for that diary I tossed in a fit of teenage angst, filled with musings from age eight to fifteen. I started journaling around twenty. I have volumes.
In 2005 I slowly started to go public with this call to write. At first this newsletter was a simple notice about what I was offering in the community. But as I began to unravel, as my own vulnerability became increasingly tolerable, this newsletter gradually supplanted the journaling. My private writing steadily dwindled to nothing by 2009, as this format fleshed out it’s weaving of the personal and the professional. Because that’s how it happened in me: the personal and the professional became inextricable.
Long time readers know that over the years, several of these missives documented the healing trajectory of my relationship with my father. “Documented” is a paltry word. Through writing the fuzzy fluidity of what’s in my heart becomes clear. Not so it can be named and shelved. But rather to nail it, to articulate how it feels in a particular moment. For me, the writing is active excavation, exploration that yields elucidation. It comes from a yearning to give voice to the unspoken. It is a poem to the tooth fairy.
My father died this week. Clearly not the end of this saga but this is an attempt to articulate how it feels in this particular moment. We’ve all been in these fierce moments, whirls of emotional intensity, heart-full connections, hefty decisions, flashes of perspective, incredible moments of presence, impenetrable numbness, bone deep exhaustion. I rose this morning in need of this excavation via articulation. And now I wonder what there is to say. Maybe it’s just about telling the story. There is comfort in recounting the tale. When we give voice, memories fall into place, hard parts soften, sweet parts deepen. It’s what humans do. Tell our stories. And in our telling, the grief itself acts as shape shifter, invites us to use its power to transform, envision ourselves in new ways.
My father was 95 and I knew this broken hip foretold his future. His personal situation has been uber-challenging for a long time, locked so far away by incommunicado-second wife. How could I know when to go? This had been my deepest fear forever. And here it was. Fate intervened in the form of a loving nurse who stepped out on a professional limb, let me know about the morphine and the oxygen and the rapid decline. I was on the plane in the morning 6:00am. Gone was the big grin that had always greeted me on arrival, the sweetness of that first hug, that first garbled conversation. He was comatose. Breathing steadily but completely immobile, except for one amazing thing. The classical music playing at bedside, as per 24/7 usual, stirred his right arm into motion from time to time. In the realm he occupied, he was directing the orchestra. It was so him.
I alternated between sitting at his side and lying to spoon in the small bed. Holding his hand, moistening his lips, cooling his fever. I sang to him. He was not eating or drinking. I told him details of each person awaiting him on the other side. I wept. I watched his inhale become more labored. I gave him total permission to rest and let go. I told him it was time. I told him how much I loved him. I watched myself abide in total presence for long bouts and then drift into a mindless novel. Then I would wake out of numb escape and resume presence. It was, in short, overwhelming. I slept for a few hours in another room and then rose with a start and rushed in, fearing he was gone. He was still breathing.
I wondered how long it could go on. Was I going to stay until the end? Doubt of my ability to hang in arose powerful strong. My son called right then. I told him of my hesitation, my confusion. He told me of how he held his cat last year when she died. How pivotal it was for both of them. I roamed down the hallway and felt my resolve rise up to meet this reality. I was there to walk my dad all the way home. Maybe he felt that resolution in me because within the hour it became obvious that it would be soon. Each in breath was major work. His eyes opened for the first time, cloudy as they were. We stared at each other across time. He lifted his head with his last breath. He was going somewhere. And then he was gone.
I was able to be with him for a couple hours before they came for his body. I wept, I sang, I said good-bye. I packed his beloved Navy hat, an old pair of plaid flannels, a ragged white tank top. At the last minute I stuffed the radio into my small backpack. And the first installation on my home altar was this radio. Tuned into our local classical station, a backdrop to my life at home that transports me back to this sacred moment in time. Grief is unwavering in its transformative duty.
Thanks for listening to this story, this excavation via articulation. The telling and the listening allow memory to materialize and find shape. As memory forms, sense of self re-orients. Today I make space for a spanking new awareness: I remain, the last of my family of origin. We need each other for so many reasons and one is to tell and hear our stories. Yet stories are just that. Stories.
Right now, maybe as a result of telling this story, I feel myself shifting into a much broader realm, a realm where my papa is not really gone, just returned from whence he emerged. Carl Sagan puts it so succinctly: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” Star-stuff. We are made of star stuff…