I’ve been preoccupied with death today. More accurately with grief.
A colleague found out on Monday that her sister had died. Based on what they know so far, she died in her sleep. The sister had not suffered with a long-time illness. She was healthy in all appearances. Strong, happy, and healthy is how my colleague described her. Happy. This adjective is the least meaningful in a diagnosis, but it is still so important to the people that love her. “She was happy, how could she die?” or “At least she had a happy life.”
To get that call — someone you love has died. Not a death you were expecting. Not an elder come sweetly to the end of their winter. Not the afflicted finally at peace. She was strong, happy and healthy. And now she is gone.
But you are still here — waiting your turn or running from the inevitable.
Following the theme of today’s thoughts, I received the unexpected gift of a poem postcard from my favorite poet. The poem was about death, or grief. Or it wasn’t, but my thoughts were about death and the interpretation got shadowed by looming gravestones in my memory.
The poem is called “The Loneliness of the Last” by Robert Okaji and the last few lines hint that we might be inclined to chase that departing train, for one last touch, but “What lies ahead is not yours to embrace.” — at least not this time.
The lines remind me of the many dreams after my father died where I would wake myself up trying to hold his hand. Once my dream self recognized that it was a dream…when lucidity crept in to remind me that he was gone, therefore this must be a dream, I would stretch my arms out to catch his hand in mine. To pull him back? To keep us there in that moment? Or just to feel his hand — strong and solid, a constant of my life — one last time. Only to let go of it again.
Grief can be a form of self-torture. Or grief breaks down our defenses and causes us to engage in masochistic thoughts. Like examining all of the ways you took someone for granted.
“Why didn’t I answer the phone more? Why didn’t I skip that Thanksgiving with other people and go have one more holiday dinner with him? Was I kind enough? I should have been more respectful. Why did I argue with him about the stupid VHS tapes? Was he disappointed in me? I should have been a better daughter instead of a brat.”
You know they loved you but there is significant doubt as to whether you deserved it. Did they love you despite all of your many flaws? Of course. But how much happier would they have been if you had less flaws? Masochism.
There is a cavernous void in my life where my father belonged.
People like to say, “Time heals.” They say a whole lot of nonsense when it’s your loss and not theirs. At least not this time.
If you’ve ever lost a person you loved more than yourself (or at least the person you reeeally reeeally tried to put first but you were too tired to talk and your favorite show was coming on and the stuffing was so much better at Ant P’s Thanksgiving…so you failed.) If you’ve ever lost a person that meant more to you than everything except your most selfish moments, you know that time doesn’t heal anything. Loving a person who is a major part of your life is an addiction you didn’t know you had until they are gone. You have to quit cold turkey. The only thing time does is retrain your soul not to need them. As much.
After a year you stop reaching for their hand in a dream. After two you stop reaching for the phone to tell them things. After three maybe you can get through their birthday with dry eyes and some laughter. After five you can remember them and not fall apart. Most of the time. It’s been fifteen for me and today has not been a dry-eyed day. Every time someone else experiences a significant loss within my vicinity I revisit the hole my dad’s death left to see if it’s any smaller or hurts any less. Nope. Other people’s grief is like a smoldering butt in an ashtray that makes me want to light up. (Figuratively. Smoking is a disgusting habit I will never take up again but a former smoker will totally get what I’m saying.)
The hole they leave isn’t two dimensional either. It has X, Y & Z axes but it also crosses time. When I lost my father: I lost him giving me away at my wedding and the father/daughter dance; I lost the answers to all of the questions about his childhood I forgot to ask him, and the name of the Japanese girl he fell in love with before the Korean War broke him and sent him home; I lost the other end of the phone call for every day when stuff and things would happen to give us something to talk about. I lost his voice, his aftershave, his smile as we pulled into the driveway, his stubble scratching my cheek when he said hello or goodbye. He was my father, my mom can remarry, but I can’t get these things from anyone else.
There’s no methadone for the departed.
I don’t like to talk about it, but I can’t
write about this,
about the hole left behind by loss
and the space-time it has punched through,
without thinking about the gut-wrenching grief
the other great loss.
Two great fissures have cracked open my soul.
The other has not reached the five year mark of not falling apart.
It may very well take longer without a Tardis.
Two generations, present and future, slipped into the void. Sacrifices made in the past became moot. Never again will there be unexpected messages that begin, “Hey Mom. It’s me. Your son. And you better know who this is, because I’m pretty sure you only have one.”
There is no methadone. No patch. No smiley faced Welbutrine. It’s strictly cold turkey and burning guilt.
erased in the null,…
lost to touch and forever beyond reach…”
excerpt “The Loneliness of the Last” by Robert Okaji
Author’s note: I’d like to say a special thank you to Robert Okaji. In obtaining permission to quote his poem I found out he has not shared it anywhere but the special snail mail poet’s bio card. Gracious as he is talented, Bob gave me the greenlight to use it anyway.