On Thursday, like thousands across the country, I will gather with my family around a table of plenty, the harvest of my mom’s favorite holiday spread before us, hours of cooking and love ready to be heaped upon our plates.
Before the meal, we will say grace, pausing, also, to give thanks for all that brims in our hearts in that moment of clasped hands and timely reflection.
Though they will not desert me this year, I know my words will be summoned through a welter of tears, extracted from a deep heaviness to braid their melancholy with the awareness of many blessings still to count.
For a second year in a row, loss will be the uninvited guest at our table. It has been only a little more than a month since my dad died, a little less than 19 since Lou, companion to my mom, father figure to my brother and me, passed away. And in between, the news of other passings, other days and lives emptied has been far too frequent, grief the mantle worn by so many I know and love.
I will carry them to our table, too, fold their hurt and sorrow into the prayers we speak. And though the shadows may seem long and impenetrable, though this season may linger past what grows barren and then buds, I will give thanks. For the happiness and healing that tunnel through even the most tenebrous of days. For the connections that remind us we are not alone. For the grace that somehow steers us through loss, even when we feel we are fumbling at best, scattering our broken pieces from an eggshell composure with every faltering, forward step.
How else do we make it through? How is it we find a way to keep up with a world that spins as if nothing has been altered, a world that beckons daily beyond a front door we’d often rather keep closed?
It seems to me the heart, that same broken and anguished center gushing out our grief, is also what knows the way. Lately, I can’t help marvel at its pliancy, at the strength and courage that carry us into some of life’s most harrowing passages, just when we expect them to forsake us.
There have been many moments since I’ve returned from St. Lucia, where my dad succumbed to numerous complications arising from a protracted recovery from esophageal cancer and heart disease, when I’ve wondered how I ever made it through those four days at his side.
Though I arrived knowing he was gravely ill, my mind refuted the inevitable — until I walked into his hospital room and saw his frailness with my own eyes, heard his labored whispers and the finality of the words he was able to speak.
In the moments to follow, I know I could have been a different person: frantic and overwrought, or stoic and efficient. Speared by impending loss and face to face with death for the first time in my life, I could have simply collapsed under the weight, squandering precious hours in fear and denial.
But all I wanted was to hold my dad’s hand, cradle his head, curl up as close as I could to leak all the love and tenderness that weren’t as easily transferable across an ocean into each minute I had. When I asked him if he were afraid to die and he said his only fear was losing my brother Joachim and me, I assured him he never would and that he would be even closer to us in death.
As I pressed a final, tear-stained kiss to his lips at the end of my first hospital visit, I told him it was OK to go, that I knew he was tired, and that somehow we’d make it through, knowing he was at peace. For two and a half more days, he hung on, while I poured everything in me into loving him and letting him go. Though I ached for a different outcome and was already mourning life without him, my every prayer was one of gratitude.
I was grateful to be by his side, that I had made the decision to come and arrived in time. I was grateful for the love and support back home that held me up, for the prayers that had accompanied me across the sea and ushered me into every day; for his siblings, my aunts and uncle, who wove a gentle, protective net around me even as their own pain ripped through them; for the chance to rub my dad’s legs and arms when they hurt, to help him brush his teeth, to see the vulnerability with which the man I’d always known to be so strong and independent let us tend to him.
I gave thanks because he would soon be healed, and on that final day, when he lay unresponsive, his eyes fixed on some distant horizon, I silently cheered him on to that place where he would know joy and freedom and all the sweetness that had been too long absent from his life.
At one point, during that encroaching twilight, I found myself laughing with my cousin Sarai, both of us struck by the incongruity of an age that had us scrolling through a Kindle, searching for Psalms to recite, though we were lapsed and rusty Catholics in a fervently devout family, reaching for once-familiar threads to stitch to our own tumbled words of invocation. Looking back, I am astounded that we could have laughed at all, knowing the reason we were turning to the texts that had so often consoled my dad.
But that, too, is a gift I’ve taken from those four sacred days. Mere hours later, it would be Sarai who held me as I sobbed in the hospital corridor while we waited for doctors to officially declare what we already knew — and who would continue to inject a breathtaking levity into the hard, busy blur to come.
My dad left us in hands of infinite care. In the days that followed, providence brought my mom to St. Lucia with my brother for the funeral, and into the bosom of a family that had never stopped loving her though my parents had long ago carved out separate lives, divided their hopes and dreams. It was providence that enabled my boyfriend Zane to fly down, too, though he’d never met my dad but had sent him encouraging books and messages over the years and would now have the honor of helping to lay his body in its final resting place. When several members of my mom’s family drove up from the south of the island for the funeral, the very family my dad had believed abandoned him with the divorce, I thought here at last is all he’d ever wanted: everyone he loved and missed together in one place, saluting his life and leaning on each other with open, untethered hearts.
So now when I walk with a clanging emptiness, my sorrow a blade to my chest, I take comfort in knowing grace never leaves us in the threshing of our lives. Sometimes, I catch myself in a moment of pleasure seeping past my bones, wonder flooding my senses and I am reminded again of the heart’s resilience in the rudderless hour, of how we can and do go on.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times