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.
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.
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?