With grief, a tether of goodbyes is frayed by yet one more

My father has been a faithful companion these last few weeks. As I’ve entered this new chapter, it hasn’t surprised me that he’s taken up residence in my dreams, flashing through them with all the fiery purpose and brazen confidence he carried here on earth. Often, upon waking, I do not remember specifics, can only hold the cascading strength and vibrancy of his appearance, like light filtering through a hazy morning. But even that shadowed memory is of comfort.

In the two years since he’s died, he’s never been such a frequent nocturnal visitor. Yet now I imagine him invigorated by the precipitate passage before me, slipping through the somnolence to encourage me on the path that has veered from the deeply familiar. When it became apparent, after all, that it was time to make a change, it was his words that found me — his message of reassurance that crackled, via a phone call from his sister, into a chaotic churning to lull the voice of fear. If he were so certain, as he always had been, that I were amply prepared to steer my way through such sudden vicissitude, I knew I would be fine.

And so if I am dreaming of him almost nightly, I am grateful to have him close, a celestial echo of all his efforts to bolster my ease and success.

My father and me in a rare happy moment in St. Lucia following one of his many medical procedures.

My father and me in a rare happy moment in St. Lucia following one of his many medical procedures.

But one night, I awake with tears streaming down my cheeks. And as the diaphanous scraps of my dream begin to reassemble, I feel surprisingly bereft. I remember my father packing his things — clothing, books, toiletries, trinkets — more than one person could ever need for a brief trip. We are in a bedroom I know is the one he occupied in St. Lucia, though it is more spacious, swept through with light from the thrown-open windows. Watching him move about with leaden resolve, I am filled with a prescient sense of finality.

I don’t say much, and neither does he. Yet the words we don’t speak still fall between us, cold and heavy, searing us to the bone. He appears healthy, robust even, the full swarthiness of his cheeks defying a desolate truth. Its irrefutable bitterness is a bellowing in my ears, and I want to rush at him, still the hands that are working with such fevered calm, kiss them, cling to them, burrow against the length of him, as if I could brand his burnished skin with all the locked up love heaving at years of restraint.

But goodbye has rendered me mute and still. Though my eyes take in everything, occasionally colliding with his in a mirror of anguished acceptance and yearning, I can only watch. To help would be too tacit a gesture, even with my hunger for some generous salvo to leaven the silence we keep.

My father is dying. I know this, and when I awake in my own bed, hot tears trailing onto my pillow, it’s as if I have witnessed my own version of those tender hours before he was taken to the hospital, where he would spend his last days. I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for him, packing that suitcase — the one that had accompanied him on so many hospital visits in his years of fighting cancer and one body-wracking ailment after another — and looking around the rooms of a house stacked with heartache and dusty possessions. I couldn’t imagine the tangle of terror and hope, the startle of resignation that at last his time had come. I thought of how alone he must have felt, even with his siblings near, to know his children were an ocean away, the possibility of one last embrace, one final conversation face-to-face already a ghost in his mind.

I would get to St. Lucia in time to sit with him for four days before he let go, to quietly lavish him with a love that roared, miraculously, past every immobilizing fear and sorrow. In the 27 months since, I’ve come to realize how strange and unpredictable a path grief is. But I never expected it to assail me with such fierceness in the throes of a job change.

I cannot remember the last time a dream about my dad woke me up crying. The awareness that he was packing for a journey from which he would not return pierces me with profound sadness. It’s almost as if I am losing him anew, and though I am initially bewildered by how leaving a job I’ve had for 15 years can stir up such intense emotion, I see that this, too, is a loss.

Yes, I’ve recently acknowledged it’s healthy and natural to mourn closing such a significant chapter of my life. Though doing so has meant relinquishing a constant connection to my boss, after more than a decade of being an engaged and supportive presence through each other’s joys, struggles and adventures, I hadn’t considered that walking away for something new would tap the pooled grief of the last four years. The death of my mom’s partner, followed by my father and then the letting go of a long-term relationship have sometimes made me feel like captain of a ship of sorrows.

But in weathering such suffering and heartbreak, I’ve also deepened my capacity for joy, compassion and connection. The reinvention grief invites can be exquisite, as beautiful as it is challenging, as rife with bright potential as it is a bleak and lonely despair.

On the two-year anniversary of my dad’s death last October, I was able to celebrate and honor him, even through my tears and the sharpness of missing his physical presence. My brother and I both remarked how we were in a stronger, more peaceful place than the year before. I suppose I believed I had somehow turned a corner where I would no longer be pinned to moments of great melancholy, stormed by a black and aching bluster.

But it seems this recent loss, even if deliberate, has stirred up all the others, a tether of goodbyes frayed by yet one more. It isn’t only the absence of long-standing routine but the detachment, at least daily, from another paternal figure. My father roams that space with a raw and unexpected immensity. On some days, my heart feels paper-thin, the mere thought of him starting a seep of tears. On others, I drift along open to every small sweetness life has to offer.

There is ample room for both: the longing and the living. I wonder if this is what my dad is trying to tell me when he comes to me in sleep: that it is OK to let go, that who and what has shaped us will remain forever indelible. Nothing we’ve held dear or sacred can ever be lost, not a job, a lover, a parent. They are all the soul’s filigree, shaping this very moment, spinning our lives out in full.

 

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9 thoughts on “With grief, a tether of goodbyes is frayed by yet one more

  1. Beautifully written Naila. I, too, lost my Dad a few years ago. Have you ever read this poem by Wendell Berry? It is lovely, especially the last line. I see my Dad in all that is beautiful every day. And I see where you get your beautiful smile from too! xoxo

    He goes free of the earth.
    The sun of his last day sets
    clear in the sweetness of his liberty.

    The earth recovers from his dying,
    the hallow of his life remaining
    in all his death leaves.

    Radiances know him. Grown lighter
    than breath, he is set free
    in our remembering. Grown brighter

    than vision, he goes dark
    into the life of the hill
    that holds his peace.

    He’s hidden among all that is,
    and cannot be lost.

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    • Oh, Brenda — this poem is exquisite! And yes, that last line resonates deeply. I am sorry for the loss of your dad and the ache you must carry…and so grateful that he shimmers through your every day. Thank you for sharing this Wendell Berry poem and a glimpse of your own grief journey. xo

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  2. Oh, Naila. My heart aches for you, for me, for the human-ness of loss and grief and…the need to move through it and move on to whatever opens before us.

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  3. Oh, Naila. This blog so spoke to me. I have been dreaming of Jack almost every night. Last night I dreamed that he put his arm around me and asked someone to take our picture. I was so happy he did that because, in the dream, I knew he had passed.

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    • Oh, Marge — what a reassuring dream, even if tugged, too, at the heartache of your loss. It seems like a direct message from Jack to you, and a reminder that you are together always. Wow! Sending you a huge hug and lots of love.

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