He’s not on vacation. He’s not at a meeting. He’s not going to arrive late and we won’t see him next time we’re together.
There’s no getting around this. He’s gone. We have to go through this. We have no other option, even though our spirits screams within, revolting against reality.
There was a man in a parking lot who looked like him from afar and my whole body tensed up as I prepared to call out to him. Then I remembered. There’s no calling out to him anymore. There’s no giant arm held high above everyone else in a greeting from across the way. There’s no corny tag-lines left on answering machines and no requests to address a quick item of business in the middle of a conversation.
He’s gone and he’s not coming back.
This thought crushes me.
This truth sits on my chest pressing the air out of me until I can hardly breathe.
How did the sun come up this morning? How can bills need to be paid, errands be run, appointments kept when everyone and everything ought to be taking a year of mourning (at least) to absorb the loss of him. To carry on as if nothing has changed is asking too much.
But even in that, even if people ask about him or share their condolences, it’s too little. It’s not their fault that it’s too little; it’s that there can never be enough. They already know this. Societal conventions do help guide us through these interaction. Flowers, cards, phone calls, meals — these things are beautiful expressions of support and demonstrations of love. The point isn’t to equal who he was, or somehow replace him with a generous check that won’t bounce. The point is to acknowledge that he played a significant role in your life, OR a person from his family played a significant role in your life and you are also impacted by his death either directly or by association. I’ve been on the other side, wanting to offer support or help and feeling my attempts are flimsy, tinny notes that squeak from my horn into the dark, yawning chasm of the person’s grief. It’s a terrible feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy.
Then there are the people you don’t know but with whom you must interact. For example, how do you tell the library that your 75 books are two weeks overdue because you were too busy attending to the unraveling of your family’s life? Even if they would make allowances for you, how could you get through the conversation without crying and putting everyone, your children, the librarian, the library staff and any patrons within earshot, in an awkward spot? Is that even possible to expect from yourself? I’m a bad liar, and I’ve learned that the expression I thought was my poker face actually comes across as being more like indigestion or intense irritation, so that’s not very effective. I don’t know yet how to not spill all the details of what’s been happening.
Part of this is the process of getting comfortable with a new vocabulary. New phrases must become shorthand for what happened, a few simple words loaded thick with the final months of his story.
“My dad passed away” is used to sum up his dignity in the midst of suffering, his undiminished positivity and bright eyes that were attentive to the small miracles that unfolded for him each day.
“He had cancer” is supposed to cover the enormity of cellular betrayal from a strong, healthy body to one riddled with internal tumors. It’s supposed to imply the weakness, fatigue, weight loss and brain fog he experienced. People can’t know these details unless they’ve lived through this, but the broad spectrum of cancer can also include a small mole on an earlobe, easily removed by a dermatologist. Obviously his was a more aggressive type of cancer, but how much detail do people really need to know?
“Thank you” is somehow enough to convey gratitude for people remembering, for people appreciating the significance of this loss, for their words of comfort or sharing their stories of life moments with him. It’s intended to convey gratitude for the care shown in choosing a greeting card that encapsulates the person’s sentiments. It’s only two words but they’re charged with communicating gratitude for so many small details right now.
Even here, I’ve kept it pretty navel-gaze-y and self-centered, in part because the details of the illness and its progression weren’t fully mine to share. Much of that was also because Dad didn’t share much about how it felt to be sick, how he felt about the crappy news he kept getting, or about the slim odds of getting better. He wasn’t willing to take much stock in statistics, because they were so general and didn’t take into account a person’s healthy up to that point nor did they take into account a supernatural Healer who could change the entire scenery with a twitch of His finger.
That didn’t happen.
That doesn’t mean other miracles didn’t happen, and I hope to share some of those here in the future.
For now, it’s enough to stop at the store for cereal which we may or may not eat for supper (don’t worry about us, people have been SO generous and brought many meals for us — my refrigerator and freezer are stuffed) and get toilet paper. Everything feels like it takes monumental effort so the fact that we’ve got clean clothes and the dog’s been fed, well that’s enough for now.
We’re okay enough for today. That’s all we can look for as we adjust to this new rotten normal for quite some time to come.