I have been expecting a call to tell me of my Dad’s death for several years. The powerful, larger than life man who could swing me around in his arms when I was a child has given way to the frailer, weakened, somehow smaller man that my children have known all their lives. Since his open-heart surgery in 2007 he has gradually lived at a slower and slower pace until one Monday morning in November of this year, when my Mom called to tell me that Dad was finally going to receive hospice care.
I was standing in the dentist’s office when she called. It’s one of those life moments that you remember, like you hear people say when they recount where they were when Kennedy was shot. I felt a tremor in my heart, the first sign of a deep break. It stole my breath, but I was cheerful on the phone and promised to come as soon as I could. I told Mom that I was coming and to tell Dad to wait for me. I heard her relay the message, and he answered her, in a voice as fragile as the ashes of burned paper, “Tell her that I’ll be right here.”
I spoke to my brother and sister-in-law that same day and arranged to fly out that Wednesday. I had one day between to organize my children, my home, and myself for a trip that had no end date. We didn’t know how long Dad would last but I planned to be with my Mom for the duration, no matter how long.
On Tuesday evening I drove to Las Vegas with my daughter to stay with a cousin before flying out the next morning.
The news came when I was halfway to my destination.
Quietly, with the love of family around him, and my Mom’s hand in his, the first love of my life passed beyond my reach.
I’d been running so hard to get to him that it was like hitting a wall at top speed. I kept driving, though the tears began before I had a chance to even think of preventing them. The tears came soft and steady, but I couldn’t speak.
My daughter, without saying a word, reached over, took my hand in hers and pressed it to her cheek. She was weeping too. Together we cried as the need to hurry was replaced by the need to just keep going. Friends called, following a tender inspiration to reach out without even knowing why, and I listened to the counsel to stop and just breathe for a few minutes.
I struck me as incredibly symbolic to find myself pulled over at a truck stop, holding onto my daughter as we both sobbed under a sign that proclaimed the name “Loves”. I felt shaky, unsteady on my feet. As if the person I used to be died along with my Dad, somewhere on the interstate between Overton and Las Vegas, Nevada. I just couldn’t picture this life without him.
So much has passed between then and now.
We helped to dress my Dad; my mom, my brother, and several grandchildren. I consider that act a sacred expression of love. The last we can do for the physical body of those we have loved. Seeing him, cold and still beneath the white sheet at the funeral home, sent a deeper tremor into my heart and I caught a glimpse for the first time, of the break I had felt in the dentist’s office.
We held a wake at home, with children, grandchildren, and friends in attendance. Two funeral services, one in Minnesota and one in San Jose, California.
We waved goodbye to him as his casket was loaded into the hearse and began the long journey, by plane and car, to California for his final rest.
We drove for two days and gathered with family in Brigham City, Utah to comfort one another but I didn’t know how to express how I felt. For someone who loves words as much as I do, my heart and mind have been curiously blank for the past month.
As we met together and planned the last leg of our trip that would bring us to the end of my Dad’s journey, I felt the earthquake rumble again in my heart, and it opened like a chasm.
Deep, dark, and bottomless. I pulled back from the edge. No tears, I thought. If I begin to cry, I may never stop. But there’s just no way to keep that much emotion from spilling over, no matter how you try.
When the long trip to San Jose was over, when we gathered as a family around Dad, and I knew it was the last time I would look on the face that had looked on me so often with love, laughter, and deep thoughtfulness there was no more holding myself on the edge of that chasm of grief.
It flung me off the edge, like a leaf in a thunderstorm, and I could do nothing but try to pull in the sob as I kissed him goodbye and touched his hands one more time, and prepared to fall to the bottom of that rift.
I read his life sketch for the funeral. I felt the love of my brothers and sisters as we all felt the untethering that comes with the loss of a parent.
I stood in the rain and watched as my father’s casket was lowered into the ground.
And then it was done.
Like a seed planted in the ground in springtime. When you can do nothing but step back and know that you’ve done all you can do. When you realize that this is reality and life goes on with the business of change. That powerful energy of pain eased, like a storm which has blown itself out, and I touched down, gently, in an entirely new world.
The sharp edge of pain, the one that broke, like an earthquake in my heart, dulled to a deep and throbbing grief. A seeping wound, rather than a fresh one.
I have known sadness before.
I grieved for my Grandparents when they passed away. I looked up an old friend from junior high school several years ago, only to find that he had been killed in an accident over a decade earlier. Too young, with a full life ahead of him. I grieved for him and for his young wife left widowed at 25. I grieved for the young camper I served with at Camp Quality, who lost his battle with cancer when he was just 10 years old.
But this grief, for the man who made me so much of what I am today, is life-altering in its scope. And even in his passing, my Dad has accomplished what he always did in life: he has helped me to adjust my perspective.
Life is short.
No matter how long you live, no matter how many anniversaries and birthdays you are privileged to celebrate, there are always too few.
No matter how well we have lived our lives or how ready we are to move on to the next act, there is always the longing, for more time.
More time to say the words that mean the most to those we love. More time to serve others in the way that they need. More time to help, to comfort, and to live.
I didn’t know before, though I thought I did, just how precious and how precarious our time truly is.
There isn’t enough time in this life for grudges or for regret.
No time for delaying what is most important.
This Christmas has felt so different to me. We have gifts under the tree, but they mean less to me than they have in years past. The love behind them has brought me close to tears several times, as have the simple Christmas cards I’ve received.
I’ve opened them in the past with no more than a cursory glance. Read the Christmas letters with interest, but little more emotion than that.
That has changed, and I have grief to thank for it.
I didn’t know, not until it picked me up and threw me off the edge of my broken heart, that grief was a gift rather than a trial.
If not for grief I wouldn’t know how deeply I have loved and been loved.
Without grief, my heart would not be as tender towards the seemingly small gifts of a friend’s arms around me or the kindness behind a gentle word.
It is grief that has brought me to stillness. A stillness in my mind and heart, here at the bottom of that chasm. I thought it would be dark, and at times it is. I thought it would be lonely, and sometimes I do feel incredibly alone.
But here, at the bottom of the ravine that is my broken heart, is where the soil of love comes from. And it is deep, rich, and full of the power of living.
If is the brevity of life that makes it so precious.
It is the knowledge that our time comes to an end that pushes us to make the most of every second.
Loss is the opportunity cost of life and we don’t have the option of not paying. We can mourn how dear the investment is, but we cannot avoid it.
Our only option, is to nurture the only thing we truly possess: our time in the here and now.
That is the gift of grief; to know that all we have and all that we are is determined by how we act today, in this moment.
When given the opportunity, do we love instead of hate? Do we offer forgiveness before it is asked for or earned? Do we offer compassion instead of condemnation?
I ask myself these things and realize that I have not always been tender. Grief has given that to me. A softness in my heart where I thought I needed to be strong. I have learned from grief that kindness is not weak, and strength doesn’t have to make us hard.
My father knew grief.
He knew it intimately, and it made of him the man he was. Grief took his broken heart from a long-ago Christmas day when he lost his wife and his daughter in a horrific accident, and turned him into a man who could reach out to others who suffered and offer them hope for a brighter future. He wasn’t afraid to be tender. He wasn’t afraid to love, to show that love, or to speak it. That grief tuned his heart to be open to love and after the pain of loss came the rebirth of love with my Mom and 5 more children.
My Dad knew what it was to lay the seeds of love to rest in a grave and harvest more love, grown from tears, grief, and hope.
Grief is a precious gift.
So, I will cry my tears. Breathe through the moments when I think my heart can bear no more, and feel in this pain the tender stirrings of more love to come.
Life is hard, but God is kind and in my sorrow, I feel the beginnings of joy. To have loved so well, that those you love grieve your loss, is a better legacy than anything else on earth. It is my hope that when it comes my turn to pass beyond the reach of time, that every moment of my life will have been spent in the things that will leave behind me a promise of better days to come for those left behind.
We all come to grief in this life. It’s what we do with that grief that tells the story of who we are and how we live.