In the middle of the night, Jim woke me up because, he said, I was crying. I couldn’t fall back to sleep, so I began my day a few hours early. As I was puttering around my house, getting ready to drive up north for a North Country guild spin in, I was followed by a bleak sadness that wouldn’t leave. I had a lingering sense of uneasiness, of unfinished business.
Traffic was terrible on the turnpike, worse on 287, horrible on 206. Finally, I pulled onto a desolate US 80. The rolling foot hills of north Jersey, the Delaware Water Gap, are beautiful to me. I love the sense of space driving past miles of undeveloped land, especially as you reach the ridge and can see for miles.
It was while I was enjoying the solitude of the drive that I was able to pin point my lurking melancholy. I miss my dad. How odd that an adult woman would suddenly have her day disrupted by an event that occurred 22 years ago.
I was in the car for four hours today, and I don’t have a radio, so there was an opportunity to exam what was happening to me, what phantom would summon middle of the night tears, and I have to say, it was against my will. Every trick I know of to control my thoughts wouldn’t work. I started to think about death and grief and what it means to people.
Years before Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, my mother chose to deal with her grief by pretending that my father didn’t really die. She says that for a time, she would think and act like he was out of town, on a hunting trip, or visiting his brothers in California. She was able to go on with her life, care for her family, run her business, without too much disruption, for a while.
It was easier for me; I could forget that he died and just deal with it during my yearly pilgrimage to the family home in Michigan. An amazing discovery was that for several years, each time I went home, I felt as though he had died all over again. I hadn’t really completely accepted his death, or grieve ‘properly’, according to the literature.
There would be evidence of his presence all over the farm after he died. He had arranged vignettes so that the visitor, strolling on a path through the woods or around a pond, would come upon a wagon wheel and other found objects placed artistically within a copse of trees, or find a pocket knife stuck in the bark of a paper birch. He loved farm equipment, and had collected quite a collection of old and rusty gadgets, also positioned so you would happen upon them during walks.
Slowly, the evidence of my dad around the farm is disappearing. There is a sign on my mother’s house, as you pull into her driveway that my father placed there many years ago and is actually a memento from my childhood, saying DEAR CROSSING. It came from a camp that was owned by the town I grew up in, a destination of many happy summers. It is one of the last tangible items left that he placed there himself.
Yesterday, as I was driving to Allentown to visit a girlfriend, I passed several old ‘real’ farms. The flat, wooded terrain of central Jersey reminds me of the farmland in Michigan and specifically of my family’s farm. The giant barns, tractors, and many outbuildings, all bring vivid memories of my father driving up the gravel driveway in his pickup truck. My father would have loved knowing that I now live on a ‘farm’ of sorts, and that I have animals, and love to garden.
Suddenly, I was overcome with regrets. Why couldn’t I have appreciated him more when he was alive? I would change so many things about the way I related to my father. I would have tried to meet him where he was able.
Loving my father was a level playing field for all who knew him. I didn’t get more attention because I was his daughter. There was no hierarchy of affection. Cousins, friends, all were treated the same. I remember my sisters and I vying for his attention.
One of his friends had a pretty, blond daughter, who I hated. I remember being filled with secret joy when she got pregnant in high school. I knew he was disappointed in her, but admit it to me? Never. No wonder I have so many emotions about my dad!
Once when I was still practicing nursing, several other nurses and myself came back to the OR from lunch one day to find one of our colleagues slumped in a heap, sobbing for all she was worth. We rushed to her side, soothing her and embracing her; what in god’s name had happened? She was able to babble out the words that her mother had died and she was grief stricken. We were so sorry, trying to console her. One gal said she would go inform our supervisor that our friend was going to go home due to this sad crisis.
She told us that she would be ok, she wasn’t going to go home. Her mother hadn’t died that day; it had happened two years before. Then I remembered that her mom had lingered for several years after a stroke and finally, after causing financial ruin and draining the family’s resources, died in her sleep. Something of the grief that was my friend’s had stayed alive after two years, fresh enough to bring total and exhausting decompensation to a young woman during her work hours.
How people handle grief is so personal, so different. My friend, Beth, says you mustn’t judge another’s grief. She is right. You just cannot know what another is feeling, no matter how well you think you know them, or what your own experience is with death.
And you have to feel it, because although you can trick your mind into getting on with life, the body is fickle and will soon disclose your true motives.
My mother did so well after my father died at the young age of 57. She remained strong for her four girls, comforting us and making life as normal for the two kids she still had at home. She and my father owned a successful antiques shop that she continued to run with the help of my sister. Six months later, she got a case of shingles that even the doctor turned pale at seeing. I think she still has one lesion after 22 years. She was bed ridden for weeks. Grief will not be denied.
The whole issue of death is part of living, and I can see how if one was inclined, the urge so spend the day in bed with a pillow wrapped around the head would be very tempting.
However, today is a new day. The sun is shining. I have three ‘appointments’ with friends! I will put my wishful, wistful thoughts back down into the proper place in my heart for another day. I will hear a man whistling, or see a green pickup truck, or a pheasant, and it will bring a smile to my face and if I am lucky, no tears.