Anniversaries are powerful, whether we want them to be or not. The calendar date turns, and the mind goes back, with even the body bearing the imprint of what we sometimes long to forget.
A year ago today, I buried my father, in St. Lucia in the cemetery near the beach where he loved to walk and swim. He had died five days earlier, withered and defeated by complications from so many ailments, doctors deliberated the cause of death on his certificate. I had been there, at his bedside in the hospital, surrounded by other family, all of us stitched to a great sorrow and reluctant relief as his spirit leaked before us into some black and nameless splendor.
We sent him off amid a gentle cacophony of prayer and song and silent, streaming tears. And in that slow, inexorable unfastening from the world where we had loved and battled him, I saw my father anew — in the wash of longing that had hounded a heart irreparable after one too many blows, in the lamp of a quiet majesty that stilled his features as he expelled a final breath.
In that moment, despite the grief that carved its darkness, a deeper love settled, a love that has billowed and surged across the months, looming larger in his absence. Sometimes, it will brush its bright sheen upon a day, and I will feel him, like a soft murmur or breeze, inhabiting the space where I move, proud and adoring and joyful, too, renewed with both vigor and youth. On some days, it confuses me, all this love, clashing with painful stories and memories that revive a father more familiar than this generous presence I seek. And still, that love can be a sharp keening, a reminder only of what was lost, and all the fresh losses to come.
I lose my father often: when the woman behind me at the supermarket checkout line says, “See you soon, Dad” as she ends her phone call; when I see a shirt that would have made a perfect gift; when I hear Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” or Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening” or even Luther Vandross’ “Dance with My Father,” a song I never liked until he sang me a verse one year. I lose him at the weddings I perform, when I look up to see the bride about to walk down the aisle, beaming dad at her side, or when I reach for the phone on a Sunday to connect on our weekly call.
But I find him, too, in these songs that transport me, or when I’m near the ocean, or in strangers who utter a phrase he would have said or a compliment that somehow seems an echo directly from him. When a therapist suggests making him a card for Father’s Day, I balk, initially fearful of a landslide into yearning. But I buy poster board, decide to make a collage instead. I paste up old photos and cards he sent me with his bold and elegant scrawl. I include a newspaper clipping from a St. Lucian paper, one my aunt had sent me after he died — though I’d never known of its existence — boasting of all my accomplishments upon my graduation from college. And I weave in lines of poetry, my own and Mary Oliver’s.
In all the cutting out and gluing on, the arranging of things just so, I connect to a surprising joy. I see my dad, larger than life, as always, but turned to me with a brimming heart and eyes as warm as the sun. Among those words and images, we are untainted sweetness, pure enchantment. And for days, I savor the heady roles of beloved daughter and dad.
But in this last week, with the anniversary of his death, and now today, his funeral, I am only riven by sorrow. I find myself back in the hospital, where the scrape of memory sears me — when I think of his broken body and frail hope, when I recall his helplessness and his courage, ready to make his exit with decades of dreams still in sight. Sometimes, the most-tender memories are harshest on my heart, like the one of a woman leaving a nearby patient’s bedside who paused beside me to ask “Is that Daddy?”
When I merely nodded, eyes filled with tears, she replied, “I could tell. There’s a lot of love there.”
I remember how I cried harder then, after she walked away, wishing all that love hadn’t come gushing out at the end, wishing it had been just as potent and transparent, always, just as freely lavished. But I’d tucked it, and myself, behind a wall I didn’t even know I’d built. And my dad had his barriers, too.
In the year since he died, I’ve been learning more about our relationship and the ways it failed and flourished, an ever-hardy blossom forcing its light through the cracks. Sometimes, it feels as if grief is as much a journey of discovery as it is of loss, one that requires bold honesty when rosy nostalgia would be more palatable. But there are gifts in owning our human frailties and in seeing them in those we carry, like sanctified dust in our bones.
That is how we forgive and heal, how we harvest strength to move on. And as we start to reconcile what is with all we think we have known, we create more room for love to branch out, from a wild and rooted weight, to become our sheltering place.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times