There is a memory that rises often, tender companion, when I think of my dad. In the five years since he’s been gone, it remains a favorite, perhaps for its unstinting sweetness in the sprawl of so many aching moments, too many fractured dreams.
We have been swimming in the ocean on an afternoon jaunt to Vigie Beach during one of my brief trips to St. Lucia from Philadelphia to visit him. And because his body is becoming a map of surgical scars, he tires more easily than usual, gets chilled in the water well before the sun begins its bronzed goodbye.
As he stands near the surf, waiting for me to emerge, he smiles, marveling at the strong swimmer I’ve become, though I’d hardly consider myself such. It is just that the things he might know about me, the ordinary ones, like my favorite color, that butterflies make me happy, that I spent all three years of my swimming lessons in the beginner’s class, have slipped between us — lost to distance, the schism of lives in a busted home, dissolved marriage, the words that we never did say.
But now I let the small praise fill me, take a towel from the lounge chair and wrap it around his shoulders. We face the ocean, me at his back, running my hands up and down his arms to pump more warmth through the towel, while a hushed comfort settles over us.
Before we leave, we stroll along the beach, hands linked between our softened bodies, words a lazy lilt on the creep of twilight air. And I am happy, the kind of unfettered, uncomplicated happy that after all these years still stirs at the center of this memory, a pure gift of solace.
It perhaps should be no surprise then that this is how my father comes to me, as I float in the blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea, with the sky a cerulean stretch above me.
Almost five and a half years after I buried my dad — just days after arriving in St. Lucia to find him in a hospital bed withered and wearily resigned to the end — I am back home. And, much to my surprise, where I thought I would be swallowed by sorrow, bruised by every memory of fading light and letting go, I am buoyant, loose, joyful even as this rich land welcomes me back.
I grew up in St. Lucia before my parents moved with my brother and me to the U.S. And while early returns there were fun, wrapped in all the laughter and ease of being with cousins, reconnecting with aunts and uncles and grandparents, once their marriage began to unravel, home was a weighted joy. My dad moved back to St. Lucia while we remained here with my mom. And visits to him were a tangle of love and longing, with regret and the spin of every bitter, recycled story he kept forever hovering above the moments we shared.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, after surviving a heart attack and a potentially paralyzing car accident, his spiral into depression created even more of a gulf between here and there, between a thousand unspoken possibilities and the ghosts of all we wanted the other to be. The fierceness of our love for each other never wavered — and there were reprieves, like that afternoon on Vigie Beach — but it wasn’t until he lay dying that we gave up our wanting, our hurting to press ourselves into a seamless surrender, a communion with vanishing time.
I will forever be grateful that I was by his side in those final days, that I was there to read to him, cradle his face, help him brush his teeth. To watch his face grow luminous, to hear his shallowing breath.
But for all the beauty and unexpected largess of those moments, his death remained my last memory of home. And it is this that taunted as the weeks drew nearer for our family trip, this that undid me time and again, with a flood of anxiety, the erratic rush of tears.
So when I find my feet hitting the ground there with brisk and cheerful step, when I turn into every excited embrace with bright gratitude, when the sun and the sea and the taste of fresh coconuts sweep me up in a flagrant rapture, I am surprised.
On the afternoon where I drift into the deep blue waters, feel every gentle, rolling wave, like a benediction and liberation, I know my dad is with me in a way he’s never been before.
I feel his spirit close, so blithesome, so light. It’s as if he is saying, “Welcome home, darling. The home I always wanted you to know. The home that was and is a song in our hearts. Apart from all my suffering, my sickness. Apart from our brokenness and struggles. This is the land I love, the one now soothing you with its beauty, reshaping what was and what will be into something we both can hold.”
I hear him on the breeze, his voice whispering “Cocoa,” his nickname for me. I think of how we danced in the streets of Rodney Bay as we have dinner there one night. Know that if he had been here for my cousin’s wedding, which we’ve come to attend, we would have gone out after the reception and stayed out until at least 2 a.m., eating and dancing some more. I feel him as the charismatic man he was, munificent of spirit and filled with unbridled zest for life. I see him as all he was before years of illness ravaged him.
And though there will be sad, and even hard, moments to come, where absence will swing its blade, memory will lose its luster, this knowing, this sensing, this being with my dad is a blessing that feathers its healing into every sorrowing place that misses our earthly shape.
So heartwarming and beautiful, Naila! I’m thrilled you can feel your dad’s presence in such a positive way when you go to St. Lucia. This struck a chord with me in the way I remember my dad. Thanks for sharing this sweet story. Lots of love, Gayle
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Thanks so much for this, Gayle. I’m glad it resonated with your heart too. Love right back, Naila
Oh Naila, You’ve done it again. You made me cry with your melodic words that invite me into your heart and soul. This reminded me of the complex emotions I dealt with after my father died–also from cancer. I was 19 and wasn’t able to really process and write about my grief and what the loss meant to me until after I became a mother myself. Your words always seem to tap a vein of a river that runs through us all.
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Oh, Bev – I can’t even imagine being 19 and having to face such an immense loss. Yet it is the story of several others I know as well. Thank you for always being such an open and present traveler on these journeys I share. It means so much to know how much they evoke and that in writing “my story,” there is a thread of our universal story to tap into. Blessings and hugs to you, my friend.
Very moving piece that is so well finished: ‘this sensing, this being with my dad is a blessing that feathers its healing into every sorrowing place that misses our earthly shape’. Lives for me are about the energy put into them, and the momentum that energy gives to the loved ones that carry the banner – and the genes – into the future. It is a consoling sense, it is a being this energy.
Aaah, thank you for sharing this reflection, and this solace. It is a beautiful fragment to tuck into my day. And thank you so very much for reading and your heartwarming feedback.
I pray that I can feel this way about my father’s passing as the years add on. I’ve finally, just in recent months, made peace with all he was and all he most certainly wasn’t. I’ve accepted him humanness and his flaws while still being able to understand the broken man that he was. I love him more for having lost him, if that makes sense. I think sometimes it is in the loss that we gain some extra intuition about who a person was and what their life was about. I cried reading this. I’m slightly jealous- Your family was broke in a different way than mine and I would love to have such rich happy memories to call upon. As we bravely move forward our lives are more free with each lesson we learn. Thank you for sharing yours.
Oh, my friend…I pray that you will find this softness and light too. I didn’t arrive here without struggle and work and yet I know exactly what you mean about loving your dad more for having lost him. I feel that way about my dad, that somehow I did come to see him in all his brokenness and beauty in losing him…I think often of this line of a poem from Gary Bowelhower:
“This grief is a long loneliness of not
feeling the touch you so wanted to give.”
After my dad died, I would get so angry inside when people kept telling me to hold onto the happy memories…there seemed to be so few of them, so little that I could access. So I treasure every one that I do have all the more and the ones that come to me through the stories of us or unexpected openings in my grief. I am sorry you do not have the solace of happy memories, and what a gift the awareness and openness and willingness to learn as you move on. Sending you a big hug.
Your words are such a beautiful blanket of the love, which flitted down to you from heaven, from your dad, as you journeyed home for the first time since losing his earthly light. I can almost feel his warm smile, filtered through the sun on your beautiful coffee skin bouyant in the waters of his, and your, youth.
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Thank you, most magnificent sister. I am still in awe of this blessing and gift. And, there is so much poetry and beauty in your words…I so look forward to where that gift will carry you.