Every year Memorial Day gets a little easier. My father died on this day, May 31st, seven years ago. He would have been an old man by now. He would have been miserable. He couldn't stand it that his 86-year-old body wouldn't let him skim down the stairs at the Northwestern train station in Chicago anymore. He couldn't stand it that he couldn't figure out how to "work a computer." He couldn't stand that all of his years of service to the freight car industry was not hailed, but rather, that he was quickly being lost and forgotten, even though he went into the city five days a week to try to do what he considered good work. When his younger, more techno-savvy business partner died suddenly of a heart attack, it was no coincidence that my father went home that night and had a stroke. He died a month or so later. We were all there. We helped him die -- with opera and weather shows, Marx Brothers movies and family stories. He had to go and we all knew it. Like I said, he would have been a miserable old man.
I've written a lot about my father in my book, so I won't repeat it here. But I will mention a bit about grief. I have learned that it is as physical as it is mental, and the emotion of it feels at times impossible to control. I talk a lot about powerfully choosing your emotions. That happiness is a choice. That freak-outs are a choice. But grief? Maybe you can teach me something about grief, because to me, it doesn't feel all choice. It feels like its own category, both visceral and emotional. Sort of like fear.
In the first years after his death, it was like my adrenal system was engaged in fight or flight. Like if it wasn't for my adrenals, I would have died in the trenches in what seemed a certain war. Year by year, it has become less so. It feels more like fighting a cold now, than fighting an enemy. I write that pain can be our guide, and I believe this with all my heart. Maybe what I have learned about the pain that comes with grief has to do with welcoming it. Not resisting it. Knowing that it is going to be part of life now. Death doesn't go away. The loss of the physical presence of my father will not go away. I can't call him. I can't tell him about my day. I can't ask him how he is. He isn't.
Last night we had the neighbors over for a Memorial Day picnic. Usually I talk about my dad on this weekend. I raise a glass, tell a story, look through old photos. This year, I didn't want to. Instead, this year, I wanted to be quiet about it. I wanted to keep my grief for myself. We sat around the fire and listened to the frogs in the marsh and the owl in the woods and swatted mosquitos, and did our annual burning of the Christmas tree. That hot roar was what met and blessed my grief. That was enough.
And in the night, while I slept, I had a dream. I was in my childhood bed and my father came in and sat on the edge of it as he often did for storytime, only he was gasping and saying, "Lord Jesus" over and over again. And I knew I couldn't save him. It was between him and his God. Instead, I held him while he died in my arms. Maybe another year of grief died in my arms in my dreams last night. Who knows what the fire did when it roared its heat. But this morning, on the actual day of his death, I feel like I finally let him go.
Cross-linked with THESE HERE HILLS
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