Well, the church he was assigned to. I don't think he went there very often. In fact, just to confirm how I imagined that aspect of my dad's childhood, I asked my uncle if they ever actually went to church as kids. "Well, only a few times," he said. "In this very church, in fact."
Weddings make me miss my dad.
Isn't that odd? It isn't just weddings in my family either (all of my Allman family events make me miss my dad), but every single wedding I've gone to since he died.
One of my Sorensen-side nieces was married last week, someone I'm not sure my dad ever even met, but as her dad walked her up the aisle, I thought about my wedding, and how my dad made me so late I had to rush through everything. I wondered how he felt, not seeing his daughter's wedding ceremony (I was married in the temple but he wasn't interested in the church at the time). This thought made my tears spill over, but luckily no one cares if you cry at a wedding. They just didn't know it wasn't over the bride.
I've been thinking about my dad quite a bit since then.
Back in September, I went to a funeral in Springville, the town where I grew up. It was for my cousin's husband, and since that cousin bought my grandma's house when she died—the house my dad grew up in—the funeral was held in the church my dad went to as a child.
Well, the church he was assigned to. I don't think he went there very often. In fact, just to confirm how I imagined that aspect of my dad's childhood, I asked my uncle if they ever actually went to church as kids. "Well, only a few times," he said. "In this very church, in fact."
The church's chapel has something I have never seen before: a stained glass window. Well, I mean: Of course I've seen a stained glass window. I see one almost every day, as my library has one of the county's most famous. But LDS churches are very utilitarian. There are meeting rooms and a gym and a chapel, a place for the primary to gather, and the youth, and the adults, but generally there isn't a lot of art. There is some on the walls in the foyer, but none in the chapel, where we hold our most important Sunday meeting, the sacrament meeting.
So when I walked into the chapel of my dad's childhood church, I was astounded. Stained glass windows!
I've noticed this lack of art before, but I've never really, really thought about this question: Why isn't there any art in our church buildings?
Why are our buildings so uniformly constructed, and so plain?
I've even researched a little bit, trying to find an answer, but I haven't gotten far. (I confess to wanting to find an essay or a talk on the philosophy of Mormon church buildings.) I imagine that it has something to do with humility, and with the desire to have our thoughts of worship be focused on Christ and the Spirit rather than be influenced by images. It probably also has something to do with our temples, which are much more awe-inspiring and beautiful than our churches.
I understand that, mostly. The desire to be influenced simply by the Spirit.
But I also confess that it makes me a little bit sad, this realization of our austerity. It makes me think of Anne Shirley, sitting in the purple light cast through the stained glass window. It makes me wonder if a church full of light would've been more appealing to my young self. Or if beauty instead of utility would appeal to me more even now.
It makes me wonder what my dad thought, on those few times he went to church and sat in the chapel with the stained glass windows. They weren't, obviously, enough to make him want to keep going. At least, not then. But near the end of his life, he started going to church, and reading the scriptures, and developing his testimony. It's probably a long stretch. But maybe he remembered—the images from the Book of Mormon on the windows of his childhood church, and that feeling that beautiful art gives you. The way an image made in paint, or pencil, or glass helps connect you to story, and through that connection the story becomes more vibrant.
And oh, how I wish. I wish we could sit down at a table somewhere together. Maybe in his backyard. Maybe in my sister's. We'd have some cake and I'd ask him what he remembered about going to church as a kid. What he thought about the stained glass windows. What he thinks, now, about our church buildings. If he understand the lack of art, or feels like I do...wishes that every church could be unique, with art and color and soaring ceilings, with oddly-shaped rooms and small, hidden corners. Maybe we'd also talk about church in general. I'd tell him a story about something funny at that wedding last week, and maybe even ask him what he felt on the day I got married. And then about what we were reading, and the hike I took last week. Also, if he likes the cake and would like some more, and maybe a drink, too.
I wish I could have that impossible conversation.
I miss you, Dad.
Yesterday afternoon, Kendell and I had an appointment with an attorney.
You see, after his mom died we learned something: it’s difficult when people die without a will. Even if there are no family arguments about who gets what (there were none), there is an extra expense and a whole bunch of extra work involved in parceling out the remaining money to the family. As Kendell was the executor, we know it’s not a pleasant job. It is rough having to meet with lawyers, go to court, fill out paperwork, keep track of the time limits, and do everything else that probate involves, especially as you have to do this right after someone you love has passed away.
We decided we don’t want that to happen to our kids, and that we needed a will. And yesterday was the day.
As I sat in the lawyer’s office, my fingers and wrists swelling with a combination of heat (the air conditioning wasn’t working yet in his new office) and anxiety, I had one of those out-of-breath moments. Nearly panic. Because one day, one of us will be on the other side of that will. One of us will sit in an office somewhere, discussing the details of the will.
The other will be gone.
And I don’t want it to be me who dies first.
I also don’t want to be the widow discussing the details of the will.
I don’t want death to be a truth. And while we were being mature grown ups about the process, what I really wanted to do was curl into a big, fetal-esque ball. And bawl. About how much I miss my dad and Kendell’s parents and about how once it was my sister who was the widow in a lawyer’s office and how one day I’ll be in a lawyer’s office discussing my mother’s will. And one day my sisters will die. And my friends. And people I don’t even know yet who I will, when they finally make it into my life, love desperately and not want to lose. I thought about Sheila and my cousin and the sweet old lady in my neighborhood who died last week. And I thought about J and what he might think and if I’ll ever see him again before it’s my turn to leave, and what my kids will feel when I’m gone, and whether or not I’ll get to do the things I want to do with my life before it is over.
My rings were tight on my fingers, and my watch was stuck to my plumping wrist, and I had to tell myself to just breath and act normal because probably lawyers don’t like it when people have meltdowns in their new office.
When we got home I was filled with thoughts of death, and the terror of not existing.
So while Kendell was talking to the neighbor about the new roof we need, I did this:
At first I doubted the peace-bringing possibilities of this decision, as I confess: I am terrified of bees. The tree, with its branches loaded with blossoms, was also loaded with bees. So many that you could hear them buzzing from the driveway. But instead of freaking out, I just lay in the grass, feeling my heart pound, trying to slow down my breathing.
And it started to work. As my natural those bees are all going to swoop down on me, with their creepy dangly legs, then crawl all over me and sting me to death response faded, I started listening. (Even though I was ostensibly reading.) The hum of the bees, busy at their work, was the perfect soundtrack to the cool, finally-green grass and the grey-blue sky.
It was peaceful.
And I filled up with it. It trickled into all of my dark corners and brushed aside the fear of dying. The bees’ hum was a sort of chorus, with an undertone of yes you’ll die one day but a resonance of you’re alive now. The grass under my back, the sky above me, those gloriously pale pink blossoms and their faint, delicate scent: I was alive for all of it. I am alive right now, with my still-sore ankle and my greying hair, in my house that is twitching and pinging as the sun starts to warm it, the sun that is just pushing through the slats on the window blinds. I am breathing and happy and I am alive, right now, which is all anyone ever gets. Right now.
I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.
The antidote for the fear of death is to live as hard and as real and as thoroughly as possible.
Last week, something happened that has haunted me. There were two bicyclists killed in Utah. They were friends who were riding their bikes to work together, and were hit by a truck. I didn’t know them, but some of my friends did, and it was so sobering to me, reading their obituaries and seeing the comments on Facebook. Two lives gone, just like that.
I think this story struck me so hard because of that two degrees of separation—but also because it’s something I worry about when I’m out running. I’m careful and I pay attention and I wear bright clothes, but it would be so easy to be hit by a car. Drivers don’t always pay attention, and trust me: they do not watch for pedestrians. You have to assume that every single car does not see you.
This is something I’m certain those men knew, and that’s what I mean: you can prepare and be careful, but sometimes death grabs you anyway.
This week, one of my scrapbooking friends, Monika, posted on Facebook about her father-in-law, who was missing. They found his body the next day. I was so touched by what she wrote:
“While it is overwhelming and sad and unthinkable for us now, we all know that Papa, loved by his family and adored by his many friends, passed where he was most at home, in his beloved mountains on the property his parents worked hard to own and preserve for future generations.”
The way we die is just one part of our life. Sometimes it defines entire years of our lives, sometimes just seconds. In the past five years, we have gone through a lot of illness and death in our family, and it has been painful and sorrowful and awful. I miss my dad and my in-laws so much.
And I hate the way they died.
My father-in-law suffered with cancer for a long time, but we thought he still had a year left, except suddenly he just didn’t, and even though we knew the end was closer than we liked, we had counted on that extra time. None of us really got to say goodbye.
From his diagnosis to his death, my dad lingered in his deteriorating mental state for nearly five years. I tried to tell him goodbye, and that I loved him, so many times but I don’t think he understood anymore. And he couldn’t ever really tell me goodbye. I wish he could have told me something, but I can’t tell you exactly what. Something only he could say.
My mother-in-law was recuperating beautifully from a double mastectomy. She had been to the doctor two days before she died, and he told her that her heart was strong. Then she had a massive heart attack. Say goodbye? Her death felt like a bolt of lightning.
The two bikers who were killed didn’t get to say goodbye. My friend Monika’s father-in-law didn’t get to, either.
But I keep going back to what she wrote—that he passed where he was most at home.
And the bikers, who died instantly, died doing what they loved.
I don’t know that I believe in fate—that the length a life is already decided. But if we have to die (and who doesn’t), I think there is some tiny solace in leaving that way. In a place you love, or doing something you are passionate about. I would far rather die say, hiking Timp than in a hospital bed.
But no one gets to choose.
So I am lingering in these thoughts of death, which sounds fairly gloomy, but they are making me think in ways I haven’t before. Not exactly. This morning, for whatever reason, I thought what if today was my last day on earth? One of my first responses to this thought was is there writing on the other side? Because I can’t imagine experiencing anything without also wanting to write about it.
So I paid attention today. I thought of all the time I squander—on Facebook or on the Internet. Or just by not really paying attention. I tried not to waste a second, and to be present. And I watched for moments, those numinous moments that really: we have every day. If we watch. If today was my last day and I didn’t get to say goodbye, I would still be grateful for these moments:
- Watching Kaleb walk into school this morning. He doesn’t love school, but he loves having friends, and someone waved to him and someone else said hello, and his whole body was beaming with happiness—but he still stopped and waved goodbye to me.
- The few minutes I had before work, when ostensibly I was reading but really I was watching the way the light was spreading above Cascade mountain.
- Just before I walked over to unlocked the library doors, I noticed that sunlight was pouring in through the windows, lighting up the very-brand-new buds on the magnolia tree and then washing across might desk. I know it’s not prestigious, and the world values it very little, and I don’t make very much money, but I love my job.
- Laughing with Kendell and Jake about a text I sent that ended up sounding like one of those autocorrect fails.
- I went running this afternoon. And since the lone runner is a one-person parade, and because it was grey outside, and a little windy, I decided to wear my cheeriest running pants. The very-bright neon pink ones. I ran three miles without walking, and I hit the busiest light at exactly the right second so I didn’t have to wait to cross, and, you know: I didn’t fall. (That always feels like a success lately!) I still feel like I am running through sludge (heavy and slow, and like my legs are coated in a dense slurry of something), but my pink pants made me happy anyway.
- making jokes with my friend Julie at work, about the things people leave behind. Why someone’s discarded chapstick or lotion tube feels slightly icky is sort of inexplicable, but the truth is that we touched those items very gingerly. And then washed our hands afterwards.
- just now, a late night talk with Nathan, about nothing really specific—his night out with friends, and his recent student council portfolio (he has to wait until April 4 to find out if he made it), and who at school is really bugging him. He forgot to bring me a cookie but it’s OK.
The thing about the numinous moments is that often they are just normal moments. But they are what life is made of. If it was my last day on earth, I think when I got to the other side I would want to write a letter—to my mom, and to Haley, and to Becky, and to Chris To the people I thought about but didn’t see or talk to today. I’d want to tell them that I love them, because you never get the chance to say that enough.
I don’t think it will be today—my last day on earth. But one day, it will. Against all the odds, I hope I get to say goodbye. I hope I don’t die in a hospital. I hope I will fulfill more of my dreams and goals before that day. I hope I see my kids grow up, and succeed, and start their own families. I hope for a reunion of sorts, one day. I hope I live more, both in the small moments and the large gestures.
But more than anything, I hope that when it is my day, however it comes, the people I leave behind will know I loved them. So, just in case you wondered or you weren't sure or I never told you enough: I love you. Don't forget it.
Last week, my sister Becky and I started the seemingly-gargantuan task of finally cleaning out all the stuff in my mom's house so that she can sell it. It seems insurmountable because she's lived in that house since 1976. Almost forty years of accumulated stuff, and it doesn't help that she's a keeper. I mostly understand this impulse to keep things (see my recent struggles with cleaning out our toy room). It's mixed in with the fear of forgetting, because if I don't have every single everything that anyone in my family ever loved still in a box somewhere in the basement, then I wouldn't have the chance to come across it one day and be flooded with that memory.
It's hard to disconnect the memory from the thing. It's hard to believe that the memory really will stay around, even if you don't have the thing. Especially considering all we mourned while we watched my dad suffer with Alzheimer's.
But when you want to go from a home that once held six people to one that's comfortable for a widow to manage, you have to get rid of some of the things.
On the first day of the project, Becky and I started on the sewing room. One wall is lined with cupboards, where my mom kept the fabric for all the projects she was working on. Some of the cupboards stored food instead of fabric. As my mom was one of those domestic-goddess types who bottle green beans, beets, salsa, tomatoes, apple-pie filling, and various other stuff (one year she canned pinto beans for quick—and seriously delicious—refried beans; another year she did pickled cauliflower and carrots which I don't think were quite so good), the shelves were filled with old food. Like: really. old. food. Do you know what beets cut into strips look like thirty years later? Little piles of mummified cat poop in the bottom of a jar. And we'll skip the details of the mixture of macaroni, mouse droppings, dead mice, spilled Italian seasoning, and dust that coated the bottom shelves. Other shelves held cans and cans of a mix of old-ish and still-good products, soups and mushrooms and tomato sauce.
As we worked in the sewing room, I thought about how my mom used to call my dad "ol' gonna-do." Meaning, he was always making plans for things he was gonna do. (Lose fifty pounds, eat healthier, paint more, start his own business, fix the brake lights on my Torino...) That sewing room was full of gonna-do's. In the cupboards of food, which my mom fully intended to do something with, make dinners, feed her family. In the cupboards of fabric, most of it decades old, which she was going to make into dresses or quilts or pants or pajamas.
I so understand the lure of the "gonna do."
I fight it every time I find myself in a scrapbook store. Surrounded by patterned papers and embellishments and alphabets, I start thinking about what I could do with this or that product. How I would use it on a layout. Then I bring it home and I realize, oh, yeah, I could've done the same thing with any of the other 20 million supplies I already have. (Really. Say I died tomorrow. Someone would have to go through all the supplies I own and I'm pretty sure my ghost would be hovering, scarlet with blushing because of the excess.) It's a thought process that sometimes leads me to question what I'm doing with scrapbooking anyway. Does it have any value, really? Or is it like the petrified beets, important at the time but pointless in a few decades?
The second day of operation let's-get-Suellen-out-of-her-house found Kendell fixing Mom's lawn mower while she and I worked on the room opposite the sewing room. Which we've always called the junk room. It's the only room in Mom's house that isn't finished—cement floor, no sheetrock, a naked lightbulb. It's where we've put, over the years, quite a bit of the things we didn't have a use for but didn't want to give away, either. (Like our very own Room of Requirement.) In the framed-in closet was a clothing rack, which held a whole row of ancient clothes. Once we'd worked our way through the junk (bags of flour and sugar as old as Kaleb, boxes of fabric and yarn and old patterns) to the closet, we started going through the clothes.
I wish I'd snapped a picture before we started.
Nearly every piece of clothing had a story to go along with it. The black and white floral dress was the one she'd bought at a store in Salt Lake to wear to a dance she went to during her years at BYU; she'd been sure she'd be the only one wearing it but when she walked in she immediately saw another girl in the same dress. The pink fitted dress and jacket was the going-away dress she made for the day she married my dad. There was the going-away dress she wore for her first wedding. (I told her she didn't even need to look at it, just toss it straight into the donations box.) (Plus: who knew that going-away dresses were such a big thing in the 1960's? I think after my wedding reception I put on a pair of black pants and a sweater!) A purple sundress, lined with white rickrack, that I remember my grandma wearing. The dress Mom wore to Michele's wedding and the one she wore to mine.
And not just dresses. Two coats of Grandpa's and his favorite flannel shirt. My dad's brown wool coat that I remember him wearing. A beaver-fur-lined coat that was my grandma's which Mom couldn't decide what to do with.
Every item had its story. She told me the stories, unbidden, unstructured. Then she'd decide if it should go into the D.I. (the Utah version of the Salvation Army) or to the second-hand clothes store downtown. It was one of my favorite moments I've ever had with my mother: I handed her old clothes, she handed me old stories.
And just like seeing all of those dessicated beets was sad (so much work for nothing but dust), seeing all her dresses being sent away was sad. Whomever buys them won't know the stories. They might make new memories in them, but my mom's connection to them is broken.
Later, we found a box with pictures stuffed inside. I managed to contain my ire about photos being stuffed into a box by remembering that's just how they did it back then. Luckily the mice hadn't gotten into it, because many of the pictures inside I'd never seen before. Random pictures of all of us.
Down near the bottom were some older black and whites: my mom and her brother dressed in their Sunday best, my mom at about twelve years old.
My mom with her date, in that black and white dress.
As we sat on the floor and sorted pictures, I thought about my gonna-do's. The projects I've bought the stuff for but haven't yet actually made. There are still a lot of them—a pink and black quilt, a hand-pieced quilt, quilted tableclothes for every season. My tall pile of library books is a gonna-do. My unwritten novel is, too, and the essays I've written but never submitted anywhere. The list of hikes I want to take is a list of gonna-do's.
And definitely, my scrapbook supplies are simply gonna-do's.
I thought about the dress, the elegant black-and-white dress. I thought about the photo of my mom in the dress. I thought about my mom in the junk room telling me the story of the black and white dress. And I thought about scrapbook pages.
It's so simple to lose your focus in this hobby. It's a quick switch, the lure of something new and pretty. It's almost completely about, in fact, pretty. Or it can become that way. About the supplies. About the outcome—a pretty page.
But what I continue to learn, especially in the past year, is that the pretty doesn't matter. The design doesn't matter, balance and composition and visual triangles. Because what if sometime, in some fashion, my mom had written down the story of the black and white dress? What if she'd put it with the photo?
The design wouldn't matter. Embellishments wouldn't matter. The pretty wouldn't matter. Just the story would.
So there on the floor of my mother's basement, surrounded by photos and newspaper clippings and funeral programs, I reminded myself again: the stuff doesn't matter. Even though it's pretty (or elegant or stylish or hip or just-so-perfect-I-can't-ever-use-it). The thing that gives scrapbooking its value isn't all the money I've spent on stuff. It's just the stories, paired with the pictures. Written down, kept somewhere safe and mouse-free.
I want less gonna-do's in my life. Not in the sense of doing less. But in accomplishing more. I want to finish that black-and-white quilt I've been buying random quarter-yards for. I want to snuggle underneath it and make it a real part of my life instead of a thing that's still unformed, in pieces.
I want to write my novel and publish my essays.
I want to use my stuff so that when I am in my mother's shoes I won't have a bunch of unfinished gonna do's.
This afternoon Kendell and I drove out to my mom's house so we could take her Christmas lights down for her. Hers is the only house that Kendell will deign putting icicle lights on, as he hates hanging them, the tangling and the shorting out, but when we pulled into her driveway I was enchanted for a moment: her icicle lights were spiked through with real icicles.
As Kendell likes to remind me when I complain, our usual lack of icicles is simply proof that our gutters work like they are supposed to. We almost never have icicles on our house, except for a tiny one every now and then during extra-cold winters. This year, however, has been extremely cold. And we received 12" of snow on the day after Christmas, and then an icicle grew, on the corner of my house where the garage meets the front porch. It grew longer, and thicker; it grew a few spurs and became a tentacled, twisted glorious thing, and when I would admire the icicles on other houses, my own made me feel less winsome.
They spark a sort of delicious shiveriness for me, icicles. I see them hanging and the urge to knock them off is nearly irresistible, and yet I want them to stay and grow. They are beautiful, violent things, temporary and vulnerable to sun and yet glitter so appealingly in its light.
Mine stayed, and grew; it stayed despite my boys’ repeated beggings to knock it down; it stayed until a warm day last week, when the sky got blue again (real, smog-free blue) and the cold broke a little, and it fell when no one was around to witness it.
But my mom’s icicles hadn’t fallen. They lined the line of her roof, thick and sturdy, delicate and fragile, an entire gallery of ice artwork.
But to take down her icicles we had to knock down her icicles.
I stood under the eaves, roping the lengths of icicle lights as Kendell unhooked them, looking at the icicles before he knocked them down. Dad would love these, I couldn’t help thinking, and then his brother, who lives a mile or so up the road, drove past in the car that was Dad’s, back when he could still drive without getting lost, and he waved and I thought Roe would like them, too, and I caught myself up in the mythology of the Allman heritage, how we are, because our father’s father was an artist, the kind of people who notice things like the shape of an icicle, how it is ridged or carved or fantastical, how that is a part of who we are and so maybe because I noticed the icicles and Dad would’ve noticed the icicles, would've noted their form and the way their color changes depending on where the sun is, and the perfect image one can find, standing behind a veil of icicles, with naked trees still holding snow and the blue sky beyond—because he would’ve seen his own version of that image, it was a sort of solace; it didn’t bring him back but it made him come back to me there, anyway, listening to the icicles fall. It makes a sort of music, cracking from the eave, a beautiful protest, each icicle before it impales itself through snow into frozen soil, an arpeggio that is remarkably like grief, like loneliness, like the shadow of a person passing through you.
I had to look it up to make sure, but I gave Haley the right answer when she asked me this week when the last Grandparents Party was that included all four grandparents. Kaleb's third birthday party. The following autumn, we moved Dad into the care center where he lived for nearly two years, and Nathan's party in November, when he turned nine, was the first one with just three grandparents.
I started the tradition of the Grandparents Party the year Haley turned four—the year she got her little mermaid two-wheeler. I put into place a family dinner on the Sunday before each child's birthday when I realized that I am awful at doing birthday parties. All the little kids! and the planning! and the endless shopping! and the feeling of mediocrity in my abilities! I decided that I'd only do friend parties once every other year, but the Grandparents Party would be a way to still celebrate birthdays.
Things didn't always go as I planned. Sometimes we went out to dinner instead of me cooking. One year we had to reschedule because of the stomach flu; one of Jake's was postponed because of a heavy snowstorm. I usually made too much food and took too long in making it—I never finished cooking when I thought I would. But the tradition remained: the birthday child always chose his or her favorite dinner and dessert, and I always insisted on a photo of the child with each of the grandparents.
(I am so grateful to have those photos! They were inspired by one of the very few pictures I have of myself with both of my grandparents, on my twelfth birthday.)
November 21, 2010 was the first Grandparents Party with just grandmas, but the last one when the two grandpas were still alive. Even though Kent was at home being cared for by hospice workers, Beth came to Nathan's party; not twenty minutes after she got home, Kent passed away holding her hand.
Nathan's next Grandparents Party, in 2011, was the first one after my dad died. If you had told me then that his next birthday would find us down to just one grandma, I would have never, ever believed you.
I still don't believe it, really. When we go to Beth's house to check on things, it still smells like her and it still feels like she's just in her bedroom and will come out at any second.
But time moves forward. Boys turn 13. And last Sunday, we had Nathan's Grandparents Party. With just my mom. We followed all the same traditions of course: he chose the meal he wanted (roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes, carrots with brown sugar & butter, my mom's Jello with raspberries and pretzels, and fresh dinner rolls, with carrot cake for dessert) and we took the photo with grandma. I worried about not having dinner ready on time and we ate too much and sang happy birthday and opened presents.
Beth wasn't there.
My dad wasn't there.
Kendell's dad wasn't there.
And we all tried to be happy but we all felt those absences.
When Beth passed away, one of the things that Kendell inherited was her pink flowery dishes. So to make sure she was included even though she wasn't there and they didn't match the tablecloth, we ate dinner using her plates.
Later, when Kendell and I were cleaning up, we discovered that each one of them had been numbered with a red label maker, one through twelve, with seven, nine, two, and four missing. I don't know what those numbers meant or why she numbered them. It was, for a brief moment, a sort of communique, a flash of thought passed on to us from beyond the grave, as if she still had something to say.
As if she knew we hadn't forgotten.
I'd forgotten something of him, the way he moved his body perhaps, or the space in a room he took up with his thoughts. I remembered that I'd forgotten when I saw the man in the chair at the library and recognized him by his hat and even though my dad never wore a black suede cowboy hat like his brother Monte's, I still for a second thought, Dad's come to visit me at work! before I knew it was my uncle Monte and not my dad sitting there.
I put onto the correct display shelves the armload of books I was carrying and then I went to say hello to Uncle Monte, knowing it was risky because he is, like Dad was, known for talking. For talking for a long time, regardless of where the other person might need to be. But of course I said hello because even though he doesn't look just like my dad, he looks like my dad in that similar way siblings have. The way they move their bodies, the space their thoughts take up in a room, as if all those years of living together caused them to form the same way of being.
Mostly though it is right in his eyes, it's in the way he looks up at me and it is something about his smile and looking at my dad's brother in a chair in the library where I work and have thought about my dad but never seen him. It's that look that makes me remember all the things I've forgotten about my dad, the sound he made when something seemed stupid to him, the way he drank a soda before his mouth forgot how, how his back looked crooked when he walked. The way he walked. The way he moved his body, the space he took up in a room.
The sound of his voice saying my name.
I didn't forget I had a father. But somehow I forgot I had a father, had that father who was maddeningly long-winded, who once backed Kendell's truck into a pole at a gas station, who kept to himself. Who loved me like no one else ever did. I keep him with me but the particulars, the details, slide away; he's only been gone for one year, three months, and eleven days, for one Thanksgiving, one Christmas, four birthday dinners, two anniversaries, two Halloweens and a thousand photographs, but he's been gone for so long.
When Monte looked at me and we talked about the weather and why he was in my library and what he was reading in the newspaper I could tell his thought was my thought and if this was a movie instead of just writing you could hear how they overlapped: I miss my brother/I miss my dad/I miss my brother/I miss my dad/I miss him.
I miss him, I miss him, I miss him.
Maybe, try though a person might, maybe the particulars always slide away. Maybe it is inevitable. But the missing. The missing never goes away. I wouldn't want it to, because if I didn't miss him that would mean that all the particulars were gone. Not missing my father would be like I never had a father at all, and I hope desperately to never be so stripped of memory that I forget I had a father. Even though he forgot, in the end, that he had a daughter. That he had any of us.
Maybe, though, there will always be reminders to bring back some of the particulars: the way his body moved, the space in a room his thoughts filled up.
I’m not sure where I saw the photo—a scrapbook layout somewhere, maybe, or on Pinterest, or maybe in a magazine ad. A three-generation photo, nothing unusual, but it sparked something in me, a memory that I once took a four-generation picture of Kendell and his daughter with his mom and his grandma, a realization that it would be nice to have a three-generation picture, a whole series of them in fact, Kendell and his mom and each of his kids.
When she's recuperated from her surgery, I told myself. Then I'll take them. When she's feeling pretty and confident again, despite the missing body parts, but before she starts the chemo.
And that is how death tricked me, by letting me think I’d have more time, a future that included (among so many other moments I didn’t even imagine yet) a photo shoot that would have been unbearably frustrating (one husband who hates having his picture taken, one teenaged son who does, too) but rewarding, too, in the end. Processing the photos, having them printed, giving some to my mother-in-law Beth, who would’ve hung some on her fridge and scrapbooked the rest.
But I didn’t take those pictures yet
was, ridiculously, one of the first thoughts I had when Kendell called to choke out the words "she’s gone."
But tomorrow is her birthday and we were going to take her to Red Lobster for lunch to celebrate
She can’t be dead because I just took her some library books on Saturday
I also thought.
And someone made a mistake and they just need to fix it and then she’ll be OK.
Of course, none of those thoughts hold back death. My mind’s inability to accept it: here/not here—despite its unbearable inescapability, here it is, another grandparent gone.
And I could tell the story about her death, how she’d done so well with her mastectomy a month ago, sailed through with no complications, and how she was trying to decide if she’d have chemo or not. How the heart attack seemed to come out of the blue, how her daughter was with her and gave her CPR and called 911 and did everything she could and how it wasn’t enough and Beth just did not make it.
But the other story is what I am in now. That inability to know it is true, because when we walked into her house it still smelled like her and so it seemed like she was just in the other room. Having to share that inability with each of my kids, who loved her in different ways, and how my grief grew because of their grief, a breccia lodged in my rib cage. How they don’t know it yet, the hundred thousand moments they won’t get to have with her: no Grandma Beth at weddings or baby showers or random Sunday afternoons hanging out on her couch. No three-generation photograph, but this isn’t about pictures. It’s not even about death. It’s about sorrow, right now. It’s about grief and how we are in it and how it is the only thing left that binds each of us to each. And how there is that whisper, which my kids can barely hear but which is loud in my ears: it is Margaret you're grieving.
(For my mother-in-law Beth, who passed away at 10:30 on Tuesday night.)
I ran today with my dad in my heart.
On the day he died, I went to the mortuary with my mom and sister. After we had filled out all the paperwork and answered all the questions, the mortician led us upstairs to the coffin room. Imagine a room you'd find in the upstairs of an old home, with that quiet, sequestered, old-wooden-beams feel, a high window and a squeaky floor and a dozen or more coffins on pedestals. Up another three stairs there was a smaller room, with a low ceiling. The coffins there were on lower frames, close to the ground; this made them feel shorter. I had a moment of terror there in that room: my heart pounded and my lungs gasped and I had to go back into the bigger room.
I don't want to be in a coffin. I don't want to be laid on my back, my body stiff, my hands in that doll-like pose. I don't want the lid to close on me, locking out light forever.
I didn't want my dad to go there either.
That moment of panic and heartbreak—for myself and for him—kept me company while I ran this morning. I thought of how, just before the casket was closed at the funeral, I slipped an arrowhead into Dad's pocket. This was to keep him company in the darkness. Under his burial clothes, his thigh was just like a stone. I had expected it to still have some softness, but it was granite.
I thought of a poem, The Truth the Dead Know, by Anne Sexton, which I have long loved but not really understood, especially this stanza:
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
They are more like stone than the sea would be if it stopped. I still can't tell you what it means, but I know what it means exactly. He is gone—but, yet, he's still there, in the dark, in his casket, the one they closed above the man with the arrowhead in his pocket. And I am still striding the world, running my paths, wearing out my skin in blisters. Breathing and thinking and moving. And he is like a stone there in the cold dark.
The truth the dead know: they teach a little bit of it to us by their very deadness. It is a knowledge there is no words for.
On Friday, August 5, 2011, my dad passed away.
There are so many things I want to write about, but I'm not ready to share yet. Still, I want to say this quick thing.
I've spent hours since Dad's death looking through photographs. Old pictures stuck in those metallic photo pages—some I have never seen before. My own pre-digital pictures. Every single folder on my computer. I've been working on this:
I have so many good pictures. Photos of Dad with Mom. With Kendell. With my kids, and even by himself.
You know what I don't have? One single, solitary photograph that includes just me and my dad before he got sick.
Not even one.
A few weeks ago, Kendell took this picture of me and Dad in the courtyard at his home:
And of course: I love it. I'm grateful to have one last picture.
But oh, how much I wish I had one photo of the two of us together, before this hideous disease got a hold of him. This realization makes me weep.
So here is what I have to say: just go and do it. No matter how fat, grey, wrinkled, shriveled, or otherwise unattractive you might think you are. Get a photo. Not a group photo. Not an event photo. Just a picture of you with a person you love. Then do it again with another person you love. And then, again. Don't worry about feeling self conscious, or that someone might think you're weird for asking to have your picture taken, or that you want to lose five pounds first, or get your hair done, or at least put some make up on.
None of that will matter when that person you love can no longer be in a picture—because he or she is gone. What will matter is that you have it, that image. You won't look at it and think "look how fat I am." You'll look at it and think: I miss you, so how glad I am to have this picture of just us.