My Grief & My Girls

Posted On: 09.25.12

I wrote this post almost a month ago when I was unplugged and away at Dad‘s childhood home. I wrote it while crouched on the floor of my late grandparents’ bathroom. It was one of those times when the words just fell from me, arranging themselves on the screen. When I finished writing, I hit Save and emerged from that fog, that furious fog of loss and longing and love. I told myself that I’d publish it here, but that I’d wait. And I’ve been waiting and waiting, reluctant for some reason to share these words. I think it’s because they are personal and true, because in some sense, they are sad. But here they are. Edited only to achieve anonymity. My words. Words I’m happy to have written.

August 2012, Libertyville, Illinois

I visited Dad’s grave today. Husband drove me in the old blue Suburban. I rode shotgun, and consulted a map on my iPhone. There was little traffic and we made it to Lake Forest in less than twenty minutes.

Those arches. I saw them there, slapped against the cartoon blue sky, and I felt something. It wasn’t pure sadness. Or fear. It was something though. There was construction on the sides of the road, flags of electric orange waving, warning, men in hard hats motoring about.

I didn’t remember the way but Husband did. He drove slowly along the winding paths, through stone memorials, bursting clusters of flowers, so many names. I read the names, beautiful names, simple names, WASPy Lake Forest names. It was hard for me to attach these names to real people, to real families.

When Husband slowed the car, and then stopped, I knew we had arrived. My memory of the day was blotchy at best, but I had been back twice since, these visits filling in the considerable gaps. There was a fat man in orange on a big lawn mower and he rode along the grass, trimming it down. Husband suggested that we wait for him to finish, but I hopped out and asked him to come with me. He did.

I waited on the path, squinting into the improbable sunshine. I took my phone from my pocket and started taking pictures. I don’t know why. Part of me felt this was wrong to do, to bring such garish technology to this sacred place, but part of me felt, and deeply, that it made sense. That I was ready, finally ready, to remember.

When the man on the mower had moved on to another section of the cemetery, I walked over. It took me a moment to orient myself, to find the small rectangle that said Dad’s names, and numbers. Strachan Donnelley, March 22, 1942-July 12, 2008. Grass was wild around the shape of the stone, errant blades flipping over. The whole image was overgrown, wild. Just as Dad would have liked it, I think.

In the sunshine, I crouched down. I ran my fingers along the raised letters and numbers and I felt them coming. My tears. They arrived with a quiet fury, and I welcomed them, and just stayed there, reading his name over and over, still making sense of this.

Finally, I stood. “Let’s go,” I said to my man, and he threw his arm around me and we walked back to the car. We drove away. And as we did, I lost myself in a place. A place where my father was born seventy-plus years ago, a place that runs along the Lake, a place that boasts big, fancy homes.

We found our way to town and walked a few blocks to breakfast. We were seated in a booth, a booth that had a little plastic cup of crayons ready to go, ready for little fingers, for big imaginations. And this of course made me think of my girls, girls who stayed back at Dad’s childhood home with our beloved nanny. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if we should have brought them. I brought Middle Girl when she was little and it meant something to me. Little Girl had never met Dad and this would have been her chance. But then I decided that this wasn’t about them. This was, is, about me.

We ordered a decadent breakfast of French toast and eggs benedict and when it came, I devoured my share. It tasted amazing, all of it, rich and delightful, the mix of sweet and salty. The coffee was strong, no-nonsense stuff and I drank it down. Husband had to hop on his computer because it was a work day and a client of his was requesting some contracts, but that was okay because it gave me a chance to look around, to think, to feel.

On the walk back to the car, we popped into a real estate office. I walked up to the desk and requested a brochure. We live in New York City, I said, smiling, but I guess you never know. I left clutching some glossy pages picturing glossy homes. For a brief sunny moment, I imagined that they could be mine, ours, that we would move to the place Dad was born, and buried.

Before we reached the car, I stopped again. This time at a fountain in the center of town. There was a statue in its center, a statue of a woman hoisting a small child over her head. A statue of a mother. And it was beautiful. And it was just what I needed.

I realized something as I stood there, snapping away, or maybe it was in the hours after, but it really doesn’t matter. I realized that two things have made me, really made me.

My grief.

And my girls.

I miss Dad every day. In small and enormous ways. But losing him has softened me, and awakened me. It has made me a better, more thoughtful person, and, yes, a better mom. Maybe this is because I am aware that this, all of this, will come to an end one day.

My girls. They have arrived and upended all I know. Everything is seen through the lens of a love that defies excavation and understanding. A love I know Dad had for me and my sisters.

Oh what I would give to have him back just for a sunny afternoon here at his childhood home where I type these words on the stone floor of his parents’ master bathroom. I would ask him so many questions, and hang on his answers. I didn’t do this before when I had the chance, because I didn’t know.

I would ask him about what it means to him to be a father. How it changed him, I would ask him how it was to lose his own dad, and then, ten years later, his mom. I would ask him whether the grief gripped him, and guided him. I would look at him, really look at him, do my desperate best to memorize the blue of his eyes, the shape of his manicured mustache, the tenor of his voice, the rumble of his laugh.

If only.

Are there questions you’d ask of those you’ve lost given the chance? What life experiences have made you who you are? Are you okay with reading more serious/sad words from time to time or do they for some reason make you uncomfortable?

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17 Comments for: "My Grief & My Girls"
  1. C

    Do you know I still haven’t been back to Dad’s grave? I’m almost embarrassed to admit it; I know everyone else has. And it’s not that I haven’t been to Libertyville – I have, plenty of times. For some reason, it just doesn’t cross my mind when I’m there to go. Maybe it’s because I already feel so surrounded by Dad when I’m there. Or maybe it’s because of the realization I had the minute I saw his body after he had died – that he wasn’t there anymore. I know the reasons why Dad chose a traditional burial, but for me, he lives on in so many other places. But I know, too, that one day I will return to his grave, and the floodgates will open. I think it will be when Baby Bulldog and Baby Sister are old enough for me to explain what we are doing and why, but then tell them that they already know where their Potsy is and who he was – that in so many ways, he’s in them, and in all of the places they have come to love. That’s what I hope, anyway.

    I know you know the story, but I’ll repeat it for the benefit of your readers, because it was one of those moments when I was buffeted by the wisdom of my child. When Baby Bulldog was just two years old, we returned to the country late one night to hear the frogs croaking on our pond. Without thinking of what I was telling him I said to him, “Hear those frogs? When you hear the frogs croaking, that’s your Potsy talking to you” (as you know, Dad loved to sit at a frog pond, listening to the natural orchestra and croaking a bit himself). Baby Bulldog asked where his Potsy was and, overwhelmed by the number of explanations, from literal to lyrical, that I could give, I just asked him where he thought he was: “Is he at the bottom, Mama, with the fishies and the frogs?” I was stunned by his accuracy and responded that that is exactly where his Potsy is, where our Dad would want to be. With the fishies and the frogs. Then and there I realized that Dad’s spirit is right where it should be, yes with the fishies and the frogs, but also with his grandchildren, even those he never met.

    I too think of Dad’s death as one of the most profound experiences of my life. And yes, motherhood too. I think it is because they have been the most human and elemental experiences that have rung with a truth about what it means to be human more than anything else.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Oh, C. Thank you. For writing these words this morning. This was one of those posts that was hard to write, and to publish. It is easier sometimes not to feel, to deny that we are feeling, huh? I don’t have the time to respond to this in the manner I would like at the moment, but it makes me smile so big to think that we are navigating the same loss, a different loss too, and that we are rearing these little Donnelley babes with a wisdom we didn’t ask for in the wake of losing Dad. Now that you have moved (sob), when I see your words here (or in an email), I get a huge rush because I miss you so much. I think that hunch we had a while back about getting even closer despite the geographical distance might have been right on. Love you.

  2. Hope

    This may just be my favorite post yet. You never cease to amaze me with your words and I so appreciate you sharing them with all of us. Your family is amazing!

  3. Sam

    This is really beautiful. I like reading your sad and serious words sometimes. Occasionally I think those of us who blog forget that, more than anything else, the blog is where we chronicle our own journey so that we, and hopefully our kids, can go back one day and read our words, and remember. The sad and the serious is as much a part of life as the fun and the frivolous, and I think you do such a good job balancing the two in this space.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Thanks, Sam. I always feel a little shaky posting my more sad/serious words, but then I always feel really good when I do post them because this is an important facet of who I am. I think of myself as a fun and upbeat and optimistic (of late) person, but there is that more ponderous, philosophical, inky side of me too and it is important that this side is reflected here. I am pondering a post about my own inner contradictions – about how I have both light and dark in me, how I swim in shallow and deep waters – and I think I am not the only one.

      Really appreciate your words today. xo

  4. Connie

    I appreciate the serious/sad words. They are real. And reading other people’s stories have always helped me get in touch with my own feelings of grief or loss or what-have-you… they are like a portal for me. As for questions I would ask those who I have lost, I am lucky not to have lost too many people in my life… but I do wish I had paid more attention to my grandmother’s stories about her life growing up and the life of my father as a child. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how valuable they would one day be to me, and now I cannot go back and ask her to tell them again. The things that have defined me as a person — my parent’s divorce and the birth of my two sons. Interestingly, my emotions about those two events are intertwined… Thanks for sharing your beautiful post today.

  5. Laura

    This was a really beautiful post Aidan. I did not go to my father’s grave until 20 years after he had died. I’m not sure why really. Perhaps because I was so focused on “moving on” from the experience. But now as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize just how much his death impacted my life and what it’s meant for me. I sometimes wonder how different my life would be if he were still alive. Would I have the same relationships? Would I be in the same career? It feels strange and awful to say, but I’m happy, for the most part, with the way things have turned out for me. And now, as a 37 year old, I feel more sadness for the 45 year old man whose life was cut short rather than how it’s affected me. The thoughtfulness that comes with grief is a very powerful thing.

  6. Meg

    Lovely and sad — and C’s bullfrog story made me cry. I can’t imagine the loss of a parent, though I know it is something we will all face. I try not to dwell on those sorts of thoughts/worries because it seems I’m very easily drawn into the muck and mire of anxiety these days, but I appreciate you, Aidan, and everything you share with us.

    A beloved uncle passed away in January, and it was the first “immediate” loss I’d experienced in my family. Though he had been ill for years, it was still a shock — an upheaval. I haven’t been to the cemetery since his funeral, though I pass it twice a day every single day. Sometimes I can see his name out of the corner of my eye as I’m speeding to work or errands, and I prefer to think of the many memories I have of him from a better time. I feel guilty, thinking of how I could stop but never do… but I feel like he would understand.

    I hope, somewhere, he does.

  7. This is a beautifully written post, Aidan. Raw, emotional, beautiful. And I absolutely think you should write like this if and when it moves you. It makes this blog feel real, gritty, honest and helps readers get a feel for who the real Aidan is.

    I think the death of my father’s mother was a huge moment in my life. I was almost 30 and for the first time, I saw details to the relationship between my dad and his two younger sisters. The closeness that was our small family was cut open at the seam, where I saw raw, long-lasting emotions. I now see my father and his siblings in a very different light, having gained perspective and appreciation for my father and having lost some for one of his sisters. Not exactly what I expected, but I guess that happens when families lose someone they love.

  8. Kristen

    I like that you post serious/sad words because serious and sad are important elements of life. Everything isn’t always rainbows and unicorns, and it is important that we acknowledge all aspects of life – even the most painful moments.

    Beautiful post today, Aidan. Thank you for sharing.

  9. This touched my heart, thank you for sharing.

  10. Jess

    As I sit here by Dad’s brother is in his last hours or days of his fight against cancer. I think of my cousins, 5 of them, saying goodbye to their beloved dad. This was beautifully written and poignant for me. As always, sending you lots of love. xo

  11. Monica

    Yes, I’m sure we all have questions we would have asked our beloved ones before they passed. I wish I would have said “I love you” and hugged her more. It’s been a little over a year since my mom passed and although some days are better then others, we continue to perservere. Afterall, that’s what mom would want, to stay busy and keeponkeepinon. God bless you.

    Eternal rest grant unto them Oh Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen

  12. I didn’t have a chance to respond to this yesterday, so chiming in now. As always, I’m awed by your writing, especially with these posts, the ones that are raw, that are vulnerable, that are messy and hard.

    Then I read what Sister C wrote and I had to think that this is what your dad would have enjoyed (though I never met him, from everything you have us about him). You putting this out there, and her responding, sharing, both of you discussing this heavy, almost too heavy for words thing, with wisdom and with emotion (and a bit of humor).

    Then end of Sister C’s comment, about profound moments struck me. What it means to be human. Death and birth. The grief that is carried, the everyday experiences as we guide kiddos and witness their world. These are those parts of our lives where we teeter on an emotional tightrope, the fine line between being amazing and providing such change for us, in us, while at the exact same time, create paralysis and become overwhelming — with joy or sorrow (odd that both can bring those gushing tears, yet for different emotions). But that also means we are alive, we are fully living this life.

    Of course, on that tightrope, we carry many other things with these profound ones (insecurities, worries, confidence, everything). Perhaps, that tightrope becomes a little wider as we age, or we become more adept at walking it, who knows. Maybe both.

    And that tightrope, even after walked on for a while, can wobble us with questions or moments where we lose our balance. But that is when we look ahead and reach out to a hand from a sister or friend or husband or within us and begin to traverse it once more.

    Ah, apologies for another rambling comment, but thank you for sharing this, Aidan, thanks for walking your tightrope and sharing when it is going along just plummy and when it gets wobbly. xo

  13. having a grief-filled ‘dad day’ as my sister and I call them.
    popped over to your page and stumbled on this post..
    loved it.
    what I wouldn’t give for one more moment too, one more conversation.

  14. Thankfully, grief passes and eventually all you will feel is the warmth of happy memories. My father was very witty and I wished I had recorded the stories he told about this childhood. My mother was able to create beautiful designs in hairpin lace, I wish she would have taught me how to do that.

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