I’m sitting at work, surfing the web, and it’s frivolous. And then I find it. The random blog post on a blog about something entirely unrelated about the blogger’s mother and how she’s in pain and wants to die.
And it hits me.
My dad is dead.
He died on Christmas Day, almost a year and a half ago. Sixteen months. That little counter ticks in my head, trying to count the time it will take before I will stop feeling the fat tears pressing against my eyes, my breath starting to catch, and then come only in gulps. How long is long enough that I won’t have to worry about how to stifle the sounds, how to make it to the bathroom to clean myself up without running into anyone. Because it’s only allergy season for so long, and then what’s my excuse?
And even though it’s April and spring and I’m at work or home on the couch or anywhere, no, it’s not. It’s December 2012. It’s that room. The bedroom that was such a place of privacy for my dad and stepmom that turned into Grand Central Death Station, filled with sounds and smells and people. Filled with warm wishes and quiet prayer. But filled always with the presence of my father, on his bed, and later in a hospital bed. The whirring click of the morphine pump. The strange presence of the hospice nurse, always on duty. And me. Cross-legged in a chair. With a mug of tea. Waiting.
I wasn’t there when he finally passed. For all that I washed dishes and changed bandages and diapers and had muted conversations with nurses and listened to his breathing, I wasn’t there at the very end. And part of me is glad.
It’s really exhausting being emotionally fragile, I think, back in the present day. I want nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket and a pan of brownies and maybe some Netflix. I want to sleep. But instead, I wipe my eyes, make a cup of tea, and continue on my day. No one notices. It gets easier. Easier to mask, that is. Not easier to experience.
For everyone else, it’s a vague memory of a sympathy card being passed around over a year ago. Maybe an awkward pause in the conversation.
“Your folks live around here?”
“My stepmom lives nearby.”
“Oh, it’s nice having your dad and stepmom so close.”
“No, my dad doesn’t live anywhere anymore,” I want to say. “My dad doesn’t live anymore.” But they don’t need the awkwardness to be made solid, explicit. So it just becomes a pause.
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
Even though I hardly talk to my stepmom anymore. Part of it is that we’re busy people. But maybe part of it is that we shared those last weeks, her more than I did. She was the one with the strangers tramping in and out of her bedroom, what she described to me once as her sanctuary. She was the one tethered to that house, while I could leave whenever I wanted. So I tried to tether myself, too, just a little. I lived three blocks away and could walk over in a matter of minutes. I took leave from work. I silently existed in the house, doing what I perceived needed to be done, whether it was doing dishes, or wiping up the stove, or just being in the room where my father lay there, expiring.
I sometimes wonder if I’ll cry when I have children of my own and I want to sing them to sleep. Sing the songs I sang in the still and the cold of that bedroom, the songs I sang to the man who helped me find that I had a voice to sing, low and a little breathy, in a humming alto or the thin soprano I can manage. The songs I’ve thought about, the songs I’ve always known I wanted to sing to my children. And now they’re songs of comfort that have become memories of pain. Songs that will be sung in a breaking voice, as I try to avoid tears.
But avoiding tears is like exercise. It’s a muscle you work out, the more you do it. Some weeks get easier precisely because they were harder.
And some days, it just hits you. It’s ice cold water in the face. The chills run down your spine and you realize that awful thing that you spend most of your existence subconsciously trying to forget. And once you’ve had that flash of thought, it’s done; you’ve lost. The chills become shivers become stinging behind the eyes become tears and gasping and maybe even shaking. You end up feeling like you’ve gone a few rounds with a bear. Your shoulders tense, and then, maybe an hour later, you feel them finally relax and you realize they were up there, around your ears the whole time, and now your body is sore. The pain is physical, not just emotional. But you have to ride that ice cold wave of realization out because it’s not going to pass without picking you up.
It won’t pass without hitting you.
So it hits you. It hit me. And I rode it. And then I got up, and I walked away.
And that’s what I have to do: Keep getting up and walking away.