December 17th, my father’s birthday. My dad would have turned 93 this year if he had lived so long. He lived to 63, barely. Funny how grief can linger submerged for a decade or two or even close to three and then bob to the surface for no apparent reason. Or maybe there is a reason—a mother with Alzheimer’s who, as she drifts farther out in a sea of old memories, brings my father up a lot, stirring my own recollections. She still gets peeved with him for “leaving” so long ago, knowing it wasn’t a choice. He actually hung in there with a literally uncooperative heart twenty-four years after his first heart attack when I was two years old. Most of what she shares are happy memories: their first meeting at a dance and his taking her home on the bus, the day he first met her father, riding in a sidecar on his motorcycle, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, moving to Southern California, then Oregon. The most “recent” memories are starting to fade and the old are blending into a collage where times overlap and dates have no connection. I no longer correct for “truth,” instead placing my face below the surface looking for the paradox of simpler and deeper meanings. Lasting love, loneliness of widowhood, leaving a homeland and family, trusting a partner, coping with a difficult mother-in-law. These themes and others repeat in her stories like the tide that is as reliable as the sunrise and sunset.
My way of remembering childhood seems to be shifting as I swim alongside my mother. Sometimes I question my own memories and find it helpful to step outside of my child-self and into my mother, try to imagine what it was like for her to have an eight year son and two year old daughter with a husband in the hospital, not sure of the long term prognosis. Living in Southern California, a continent and an ocean away from her parents, her safety net in England. I remember nothing of that time. She must have been scared. I know I would have been. She was a strong woman. I tell her this now. I want to make sure she knows I appreciate what she went through. She wonders what I'm "going on about."
My father got “better,” though hearts never fully recover. We went on to celebrate many more birthdays, always trying to make Dad’s birthday special, separate from Christmas. A plaid flannel shirt for his 63rd birthday was his gift that year. He showed his usual enthusiasm when he opened the package. He was a bouncy man and quick with a quip. After a childhood where birthdays were not celebrated, he always enjoyed the attention we gave him, jumping around and blowing out the candles on the cake. In hindsight he was slowing down. Cold winds of December were cooling the beat of his heart and a month after Christmas he would be gone.
They say certain memories about a death are etched in your mind. Almost 31 years later I remember getting the phone call at work, just before 8am, from Mom. It was a Friday morning. Letting a manager know I needed to leave. Calling my husband to pick me up because I didn’t want to drive. Meeting my mom and brother at the hospital. Someone pulling the sheet back. Kissing Dad on the cheek one last time, his pallor already ashen and skin cool. And noticing he was wearing the plaid flannel shirt, his last gift from me.
Over time I found I didn’t think about my dad every day, but he was with my every day. Healthy grief. Experiencing the last five years with my mom in her dementia, he has gone from being secreted inside a cozy place of childhood and young adult memories back to the surface along with fresh grief. And I get to experience this grief where I am now, not as a twenty-six year old, but at fifty-seven. It is swirling in with my grief at losing my mom incrementally to Alzheimer’s. Some days raw as those winds from 30 years ago and some days softer as I sit with my mom and look at old photos, reminiscing.
I believe in grief as much as I believe in love and tears and friendship and the necessity of compassion to heal an aching soul. The release of tears has been part of writing this post.
The questions I will pose as I close: What are your beliefs about grief? And what invitation is grief offering to you, if you look below the surface of your memories?
My next workshop on Grief and Loss is Sunday, March 12, 2017 from 1-5p. http://nurtureyourjourney.net/workshop-schedule/2017/3/12/journey-through-loss-exploring-grief-and-loss-through-the-archetype-of-the-labyrinth