Friday, May 17, 2013

In Memoriam, A Daughter's Tribute

"It is such a secret place, the land of tears."  -Exupery
The one year anniversary of my father's death quickly approaches. I can hear the heavy footsteps just over my shoulder. I've learned not to run from grief or try to ignore it. It won't be ignored. It finds its way in around the edges of things, usually in the early morning just before I surface, when my heart is unguarded, and there he is, my Dad, sitting on the doorstep of my dreams, the threshold between sleepy choreography and the world at large. I am usually small and barefoot and he is whole and happy and larger than life. It's a quiet exchange, usually a smile and a light breeze, no words. And he belongs to me again for a moment. A moment, until the glaring sun falls across my pillow and pulls me into the morning, and my Dad fades like a shadow.

Over the months, this has become a familiar dance for me, so that I don't dread sleep the way I did, or waking. I think I've learned to hold onto that moment a little longer each day so that the vacancy isn't so hollow. And maybe I've learned how to let go of it.
Grief was turning my heart to iron ore, the way it set so heavy in my chest and held me under in those early weeks. But I have learned to stand up underneath it. To feel so sad and bruised and lost and so grateful and lucky and warm.
I have learned to greet this grief like an old friend. To sit and remember the most terrible moments in the hospital on his final day, and also the way he smelled of Old Spice aftershave in the morning, his short sleeve dress shirts tucked in over his big belly and his neatly trimmed hair... We remember, my grief and I, like two separate entities, so happy and so broken. Woven together in a way I don't think will ever be separate.

My brother included this in the program for the funeral service. "You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” -Anne Lamott
And these are the words I spoke on the morning of my father's funeral service.

When something of this magnitude happens, life becomes very small. A heartbeat, a breath, a memory. Some of the memories I have with my Dad have walked into the room of my heart that is aching so bad, they sit down with me, and bring me so much comfort.

I remember riding along in his truck as he visited many of your farms. We spent afternoons at his veterinary clinic every week, but he was nearly always elbow deep in pustules or extracting something unfortunate from some creature’s intestines. I was left to my own devices, my own diversions. But in his truck, he was 2 to 6 feet away from me for 45 minute increments as we drove from one farm to the next with nothing better to do than listen to talk radio and talk about my soccer games or he’d tell me stories about growing up, or teach me the Spanish words for things.

My Dad’s trucks were the living room couches of our relationship. This is where life unfolded or it’s where we reflected on the folds. It was a comfortable agreement, he did all the driving and navigating, stopping every so often at hole-in-the-wall donut shops in forgotten towns to introduce me to the world of jelly filled pastries. And I slid from one end of the bench seat to the other as he swerved to avoid potholes the size of public pools or gunned the engine and launched the 2 ton truck down dirt roads like The General Lee. Together, we reveled in the freedom of junk food and windows rolled all the way down.

Dad was remarkably, uncommonly, quietly kind. Unless you happened to be a democrat. If you’re here today and you’re a democrat, he probably didn’t know or he decided to forgive you and overlook your shortcomings. But Dad was remarkably kind. In fact, I venture to guess that if I were to ask anyone who has ever been touched by my Dad’s kindness to stand, we’d all be on our feet. And I’d love to hear those stories, if you’d be willing to tell them to me or write them down and send them to me. Once, while I was in high school, we were driving over the Main Street bridge in Norman, and he told me that some years earlier, he had been driving over that same bridge and traffic was nearly at a standstill. People were getting angry, blaring their horns. Dad noticed that there was a car at the front of the line of cars that was barely moving. He pulled his truck into the median and then jogged up along side the car and opened the driver’s side door. Inside, a man slumped over, a box of sugar cubes in his lap and his son on the passenger side. Dad said he immediately recognized that the man was in insulin shock. He scooted him to the middle of the seat and climbed in behind the wheel. He told the boy that he was taking them to the hospital, but the boy begged my Dad to take him home because the man’s medicine was there and his mom would know what to do. The boy was able to navigate them home and my Dad returned them to their family. The man’s wife was so grateful. She thanked him profusely and asked him how she’d ever be able to repay him. To which, Dad said, “I could use a ride back to my truck.”

He gave me his poor eyesight and his unruly eyebrows. (I chickened out and didn't actually say this bit while I was speaking. But it's true. My daily inheritance. And mostly irrelevant to the world at large.)

Once when I was very young, I sat next to him in the truck as we backed out of the gates of a farm and he ran right over the cast iron jockey that stood sentinel next to the driveway. He threw the truck in park and proceeded to spew and fume and sputter. I tried to be as small and invisible as I could be on the passenger side. He walked around to the back of the truck, stood the jockey back on his feet and then walked back around and got back in the truck where he saw me sitting, my eyes as wide as tea cup saucers. “Emily!” He said. I don’ t remember what he said after that, only that I was in trouble for hearing him cuss.

He was a student all his life. He read text books, recreationally. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He could calculate down to the minute when we would arrive somewhere based on distance, speed, road condition, like a precursor to sat/nav and he was almost never wrong. 

He was a brilliant math mind, always enthusiastic about helping me with my math homework. He’d usually peruse the lesson, disapprove of the way the teacher taught it, and then scrawl a fourteen step “short-cut” in the margins of my math book. My eyes would glaze over, “See.” He’d proclaim, “Easy.”

I remember, when I was small, walking next to my Dad. Well, he was walking and I jogged along beside him, taking 3 steps for every 1 of his. And I was probably peppering him with questions. Eventually, his stride would carry him ever further ahead and I couldn’t keep up. I’d fall behind, find my own pace and catch up to him sometime later. He always got to where we were going first.

As a wife and mother, my family and I would visit his farm. We’d laugh and eat and pet the dogs and the horses and measure the grandkids on the wall in the barn…

Eventually the sun would begin to set and we’d say our goodbyes, load up the car, and drive away. I always looked back and he was always standing there in his front yard watching our plume of dust billow, all the way down the road.

This is the image of him that most frequently comes to me in these last few days. Standing there, hands in his pockets, smiling at us as we disappeared down the road, out of sight.

I love this image of him. I imagine that it’s the beginning of his next equation, the calculation of exactly when our paths will cross again. And he’s almost never wrong.

And so, we’re not ready to say goodbye. I’m not ready to say goodbye. But I know he’s only lengthened his stride. I’ll find my own pace and catch up to him later.