07 December 2009

What a granddaughter and a grandfather can share

They are both here in front of me: two photographs. One of a daughter dead at birth. One of a father who died after a four year struggle with cancer. I can barely remember either one without the aid of a photograph. Of course, I can remember Grace and her small body, her three pound, 15 ounce self. But what I actually remember of her is rather hazy because I didn't realize then that I could have asked for more time. I didn't realize that instead of the three hours and 48 minutes I got with her could have stretched into another day. Instead, I took in what I could. The closed eyes, the dark lips, the furrowed forehead.

But now it really is rather hazy without the photograph in front of me.

And my father? Nothing. I remember nothing. I see the black and white photo in front of me, and it is as if I see a stranger. I see him holding my brother on his lap, me on my mother's lap, the other two off to the side. But no amount of staring at him can bring him any closer. No amount of looking in his eyes reflects back anything more than stories I have been told by others.

I see him in my mind, kneeling on the grass in our front yard with my brother, Jason while I remain inside of my mother's belly. I can envision the prayer my brother has told me about, when my father, joined by my brother, kneels down and prays for a daughter. I wonder if it was morning or night. I wonder if the grass was wet with dew. I wonder how fervently my brother actually prayed with him.

I see this image too as a photograph told to me several times as if the telling of it makes it real.

Are they real? My father and my daughter? For they were born, one living and breathing, one not. Set next to one another I suppose you could say my father got the longer life, the 42 years set against the other, 32 weeks inside of a body seems quite long.

But neither was long enough for me. With each of them, I cannot say that I had enough time with either one. I can say easily that I feel greedy. That I want more. That I want enough time with each of them to feel satiated.

I want one sitting with the other--granddaughter in grandfather's lap.

I want to call my father when conversations with my mother don't go so well.

I want to call my father when conversations with my husband don't go so well.

I want to call my father to tell him about my day, and I want to ask him for answers to questions that I just can't seem to answer.

I want to call my father and tell him, hopefully retired by now, to fly up to visit, to come up and fix the moulding around the refrigerator that we don't have time to fix. I want to ask him to patch the ceiling where the water has dripped for a couple of weeks now. I want to ask him to stay with the children while Terry and I go out on a much-needed and much overdue date.

And I want him here to teach me how to grieve. To tell me what it was like to lose his own father as a child, and how he found ways to cope. I want him here to teach me how to grieve.

As a minister, he would have seen and performed enough funerals by now to have a sense of what works and what doesn't. He would be able to comfort me with words and laughter, and I want to believe all of this with the desperate faith of a child toward her father. I want to believe that whatever words I would have cast out toward him in anger as a teenager would long ago have dissolved. I want to believe that I would have lived up to his prayer in the grass on that long, long ago day when his prayers rose up to sky and were met with answers that all of us found pleasing.

I want my prayers to be answered as easily as his: Yes, yes, you can have your daughter. Here she is.

And you, you can have your father for as long as you want.

I want my prayers answered as positively as his were on that day.

I want. I long. And I continue to feel terribly greedy toward all of these things that I wish for.

Granddaughter set atop of grandfather. Is that really too much to wish for?

Maybe, just maybe, with my childlike wonder and candy-coated faith, granddaughter really does sit with grandfather and time no doubt will pass too quickly until all of us are together again and some of my questions will finally be answered.

05 December 2009

Grief arrives in the quiet passing of a year

42. I have been 42 for more than seven months now. But as those seven months end and as I move closer and closer toward 43, I cannot help but think about my mortality. I cannot help but think that 42 years is how long my own father got. That's it. That's all.

And with his death, came the journey of my life at five years of age, learning again how to live, learning to live without him, not understanding the meaning of his death in that moment. And experiencing it again for the first time, 31 years later when my own child died and knowing finally how permanent death is.

42 years. Leaving behind a wife, a 13-year old son, an 11-year-old son, a 9-year-old son, and a 5-year-old daughter. And that is how I have always seen it. Until now.

And now, I see a life left still living. Leaving at 42 is leaving behind your own life, leaving behind your joys and sorrows. Leaving behind all of those things you imagined on the days that your children were born. Leaving behind their weddings and births of your grandchildren; leaving behind the death of your parents; leaving behind your daughter's high school graduation; leaving behind yours sons' marriages to their wives. Never knowing what it means to hold a grandchild in your arms; never being able to console your daughter when she grieves. Never being there to mediate an argument; to hold your wife again in your arms; never being able to sit again with your six-year-old, now seven and eight-year-old. Never taking your grandchildren out for an ice cream cone; never seeing the joy on their faces as they tear into their gifts on Christmas morning.

And at 42 with all three children on the couch, sharing a bowl of popcorn while watching a movie, I feel the inexplicable grief at being unable to call my father to tell him about this moment. I feel the grief of a daughter who for so many years has known the emptiness at losing a parent unaware that this emptiness was so much less even than the emptiness of losing a daughter and how is that even possible? How is it possible to sit one emptiness next to another and compare it? It really is no more or less, but together that emptiness is huge. That emptiness and longing feels like an open wound that sometimes closes and heals, but most of the time remains raw and exposed only pretending to be something other than it really is.

It is at best bearable and at worst excruciating. It is a kind of love so large that it tears open the heart and literally pauses the breath and closes the throat. It is a kind of longing so huge that words seem like empty placeholders filling up a page with mindless letter after letter, word after word creating nothing more than its own kind of void filled with nothing more than words on a page.

42. It is a kind of grief all on its own to live through this year. To make it to 43. A birthday that can only be bittersweet in the passing of it because living through this year cannot be a kind of celebration, it cannot be a joy worth celebrating. But it can be a life worth remembering. It is the closest I can get to being nearer to my father.

A father who for me is merely a series of photographs and told stories. A father whose face I cannot even conjure up without the help of a photograph. A father who I've been told from story after story after story that I was loved and wanted and wished for and prayed for. And to that again I say sometimes it feels like empty words on a page because nothing, nothing can bring him back into view for me. And with all the cells of my being I want nothing more than my father here sitting on the couch with my children and with a six year old sitting on his lap in the form of my other daughter, also missing.

And that is the kind of longing that never leaves. That is the kind of longing that stays behind no matter what joys come along. It is, in fact, that longing that sometimes makes the joy even sweeter, the heart sing louder, the love feel bigger than anything any words can ever describe.