Dad died four years ago today. He died at four-something in the morning which, apparently, is an hour at which many people die, or turf it, as Dad would prefer. I wish I remember the exact time it happened. For whatever reason, I long for this detail.
We’d all been waiting for this moment to come, this final moment. The hospice nurse with the kind face that’s now blurry updated us in smoky whispers that were ostensibly meant to soothe. It will be days, hours, anytime now. We sat around the long, wood dining table in my family’s kitchen, alternately giddy and groggy with the delirium of anticipatory-grief, taking turns tiptoeing up the rust-colored stairs to the second floor to perch on the side of the bed, to hold his hand, to say things. Ironically, we’d just installed a mechanical chair lift so that Dad could go up and down. Now, all the chair did was block the already narrow stairs and remind us of the time we suddenly didn’t have.
As I predicted he would, Dad finally died once we all hugged Mom goodnight and dispersed to our respective and nearby homes. I was fast asleep when the phone rang and I shot up in bed, clutching my pregnant belly, and I knew of course. I answered. It was Mom. Dad died, she said. At least that’s what I think she said. I wish I could remember her exact words. I long for this detail.
I slid out of bed. Dressed quickly. Kissed Husband goodbye. And I walked the short distance to my childhood home. At the corner, I paused. I saw Mom, in her red nightgown, and robe, walking our dogs.
Inside, we gathered around the wood table. And I remember my sisters arriving one by one, stunned and sleepy-looking. And I remember the avalanche of hugs and the coffee pot crackling. I remember how it was dark outside in the garden, but then so quickly light. Day again. I don’t remember what we talked about in those first moments without him. I just remember all of us sitting there, around the table, drinking coffee from mismatched mugs, surrendering. I remember going upstairs, squeezing my pregnant belly by that godawful mechanical chair that was never really used, and seeing him there.
Honestly? I expected to be scared, but there was nothing scary about it. He looked like himself still. The sick version of himself, but himself. He wore an awful putty-colored t-shirt with a whale on it. It was a shirt he always loved and for some reason I remember thinking, I want to remember this shirt and what it looks like and what it says. But I don’t really. I don’t really remember. I long for this detail.
I do remember when the team from the funeral home arrived later in the morning. It was several big men and one blonde girl. They all wore black and appropriately somber faces. And it amazed me, and intrigued me, that this was their job – to arrive in people’s homes, in people’s lives, and take people away. I remember locking eyes with the blonde girl. She was at the end of the hall and waiting at the bottom of the stairs to go up and maybe it was that I met her glance or that I was pathetic in my sadness or maybe it was that I was pregnant, but her eyes started to water, and she looked down, away.
I remember hushed discussions of how they would get him out. Whether they’d be able to bring him down the stairs with that terrible mechanical chair in place, or whether they’d have to go out through the second floor. I don’t remember what they did. I do remember wondering what would happen to his shirt.
I do remember that after they left, the strangers from the funeral home, Husband arrived with my little girl and pastries from Starbucks. My babe was eighteen months at the time and Husband dressed her in a gray tutu and a white tank that morning and when she saw me, she flitted toward me, arms outstretched. And when I saw her, this smiling and oblivious thing, and scooped her up, and she wrapped those little legs around my round belly that held her soon-to-be sister, I knew that somehow I would survive this. I said some words to myself: You will be okay.
You will be okay.
And I am. I am okay. That tiny thing in the gray tutu? She’s off to Kindergarten in the fall. That baby that was snug in my belly, that baby that turned somersaults to Vivaldi as I sobbed through Dad’s funeral at his childhood home, that baby I named after Dad? She is going on four. And there is another girl now, a third girl like me. A creature Dad never knew about, or maybe, somehow, he did?
And there is a life. A life I am leading and loving and struggling with at times. There are many questions and some answers and scores of memories that slice through the fog of good and busy days and remind me of where I have been, and what I have made it through.
The wonderful thing about time is that it softens things. Hard things. Impossible things. I am able, finally, to look back at that day four years ago and see it a bit more clearly, a bit more lovingly even. I am able to see its characters and its colors, its core sadness and its core sweetness. I am able to point to that day and say that was then and this is now.
Today, what strikes me most, and makes me smile, is that all of this happened at home. Dad was lucky enough to turf it in the home he loved, in the home where he and Mom raised the five of us. He was able to fade out fishing in that exquisite stream of odd antiques and beautiful bird prints and family photos and weathered wine guides, near his stacks and stacks of big books and big ideas, near the messy piles of notes he’d scribbled for the book he’d never have time to publish, in that stupid and perfect whale t-shirt that was so him.
Today, I celebrate, and understand now more than ever, that he surrendered – or moved on, or decided, or embraced, I don’t pretend to know – in that quiet pocket of night, or technically morning – when he was next to one person and one person only: the woman he loved complexly and truly, his bride. Mom.
Today is a beautiful brute. A brutal beauty. My mind is a mess, mangled with mourning and meaning, awash in deep love and lingering longing, stuffed with daydreams of little girl tutus and monstrous mechanical chairs, of bitter coffee and a life-changing goodbye.
Today is Gray Tutu Day. And I want you to know, I want me to know, that those words I spoke four years ago were true.
I am okay.
Have you lost anyone close to you or gone through something particularly painful in the recent past? Has time helped? Have your kids helped? How long did it take you to feel “okay” after the loss or experience, or are you still on your way to “okay”?
Today is one of those tricky and vulnerable days where I’d really love to hear from you, so if at all inclined, please say something. Even a few words will make me smile