My mom and I are driving home from Cape May when I see a hawk circling the spare canopy of a tree along Route 47.
I catch its flapping wings from the corner of my eye, watch as it swoops in low, scattering the birds already roosting on a limb before it rises again only to glide back down and settle into a predatory perch.
I don’t make a fuss, only briefly noting its presence, but I feel a rush of warmth inside.
Only a week before, I’d been in Atlantic City when I walked into a store on the boardwalk and saw a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Sunny Side Up.” I was so stunned, I interrupted the conversation I’d been having with a dear friend to make a beeline for it. Just minutes earlier, I’d been told by a stranger with whom I’d briefly exchanged a few words about my losses of the last few years that my loved ones were still around me. And here I stood in front of a shirt that undeniably reminded me of Lou, who had been my mom’s partner for almost two decades.
“Keep the sunny side up” was one of his favorite expressions. Receiving such instant confirmation of a stranger’s encouragement gave me chills. I’d never seen such a shirt before and my friend, who also got chills when I told her the reason for my sudden surprise, said she’d never heard anyone use that turn of phrase.
Of course, I bought the shirt. And when I see the hawk a week later, days before the anniversary of Lou’s death, I think how fitting, and flashy, of him to choose this particular time to let us know he is still with us.
He had an affinity for the raptors and they remind me of him whenever they soar into view.
April 30 marked three years since we lost Lou to pancreatic cancer. It seems impossible time has marched so fleetly, that the dark thread stitching together all those aching firsts without him is still unraveling, carrying me to a place that sometimes feels frightening. For while time can indeed gentle the agony of loss, I’ve also, in mourning him, and my father, who died a year later, dreaded its distance: The more the months and years pass, the further away Lou and my dad seem.
I remember at the one-year anniversary of my dad’s passing last October feeling, amid the crash of sorrow for his absence, an immense sadness at simply marking that stretch of time. I wanted to hold fast to every memory, even those final moments at his bedside, lest he become a diminished, fading portrait in the coming years of slowly abating grief.
But what I know now is memories may fade but the love deepens. As I thought about Lou more than usual last month and in turn my dad, there were melancholy ripples, yes, but so, too, a sweet fullness I’ve only recently begun to savor.
For a long time, I couldn’t think of my dad without being hurtled back to the meager hospital room in St. Lucia where he spent his final days, wracked with pain and withered to a shell of the determined, charismatic man I’d always known. I wished for a different ending, for greater comfort and dignity for him, for more time to soothe the longing and futility that lanced our fragile hours.
After Lou died, I was haunted by the dramatic swiftness of his passing, wondering about the fear and anguish he must have felt keeping his diagnosis to himself. The week we learned he had pancreatic cancer, when he became too sick to hide the truth, was the week we lost him. And I tortured myself, yearning for an alternative prelude to offer what affection I could, to simply hold his hand.
In time, such wistfulness became less of a serrated weight. Instead of looking back only through the lens of trauma and tragedy, I’ve been able to embrace a more complex and fluid experience of loss. I miss Lou and my father, sometimes with a keenness that startles me, but in the vagrant stir of emotions that is grief, there is room for more love and gratitude than I thought was possible.
Yet what allowed that shift to happen is no great trick or miracle. In navigating the last three years, I’ve chosen to sit with all the hard, uncomfortable edges I often found myself pressed up against. The compounded punches of loss have forged a courage to live with more openness and compassion, to appreciate what is good and beautiful now. But journeying with a heart so tender and raw has also brought days of feeling battered and adrift, of fighting exhaustion to keep pace with a world that goes on oblivious to our tribulations.
Five months after my dad died, a woman who prefaced her words by noting she’d lost people, too, told me it was time to move on. I was appalled and hurt by her decree, though in our quick-fix culture, “moving on,” however it looks, can feel like a panacea compared to the option of being with our pain and all it has to teach.
But what I’ve realized is grief is not something we get over or give up or one day bequeath to the past. Our losses become a part of us, reconfiguring the fabric of who we are and what we’ve known, as we strive to find new footing on a craggy, tear-stained path. And as we walk, and sometimes crawl, our loved ones live on, in and through us — and as those whispers that console us from a vast and veiled beyond.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times