Grieving on the installment plan — a love letter to my fading father
Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.
I’m going to miss you – and I can’t tell you that. What if, by saying it, you’ll think I’m hovering like some sort of vulture – even if telling you I’ll miss you doesn’t sound too vulturelike. But I am finding I’m missing you in advance, although I have no idea if I’ll have you for years more or if I’ll get a call out of the blue. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again in this life or if I’ll somehow scrape up the money for a plane ticket for at least a long weekend. I do know that just the fact you are still here – that I can still call you – is more precious to me than I can possibly tell you.
But no, I can’t tell you I’ll miss you. I can’t grieve with you for the losses of age and the ravages of a condition your doctor knew about and could have repaired while you were getting surgery for something else. (And I don’t care how many people tell me “they don’t do surgery for that on people his age – if you could manage to survive the surgery you did, you could manage a little more and I believe your doctor knew it.)
I can’t do any of that because, in the first place, it’s not my role to rail to you against fate, particularly your fate. My role is to be cheerful and ordinary – to support and lend a degree of normalcy. This semblance of cheer has more than once been mistaken for weakness (she just can’t face it!) and indifference (you don’t seem sad – don’t you even care???) because that’s also one of the family roles I’ve been cast in – right along with incompetent, oddly stupid and second-rate. I’d like to think we’ve sort of grown past that – at least in our long-distance relationship, although when I’m there in person, it all comes rolling back in again and I’m fighting the same old battles. (Perhaps the weight loss would help with that. Nobody in the family ever dealt well with fat people and that I certainly was.)
I also don’t think you need to be consoling me over my grief for you. You have enough to deal with. You’re grieving, too, and rightfully so, for the man you were for so long. You were amazing – living like a man half your age from the time that the phrase “half your age” actually had meaning. I was dazzled as a child and then as a young woman as you surpassed men far younger than you in strength, speed, energy and competence. I bragged to people about it – and about how amazing a teacher you were. I suspect you chose anthropology to please your parents, but your true avocation was teaching. You could have taught anything.
“He’s the only person I know whom you can ask a question, get a 45 minute answer and still be glad you asked,” I said of you.
I told people how you could knock out an obsidian arrowhead in 20 minutes, how you taught survival from an anthropological standpoint to honors students once you were a professor emeritus, how you were the third fastest male race walker in the country in the masters category – even including men who had turned 40 the day before.
What I don’t tell them, because it goes too deep, is how you’ve worked to gentle yourself. How the raging young man has gone through enough now – losing first my brother and then my mother – that he’s learned the value of a bit more patience and a bit more kindness. I do tell them that you’ve had, for far longer than you know, my love and empathy because I have a very good idea what made you so angry. Your frustration and impatience with us was barely a patch on the frustration and impatience you turned on yourself.
Funny how we internalize what our parents did to us to the point where we perpetuate it without any help from them – and how we pass it on.
When my mother passed, I reached out with the full intent of taming you. She’d stood firmly between her men (you and my brother) and me in the fine tradition of her family. Her older sister had done precisely the same thing to her own daughter, which helped, to some extent, to keep me from taking it as personally as I could have. I was 43 years old and you didn’t like me – at all. Now and then, when I called you, I’d say something funny and that startled laugh told me that you were taken by surprise when you did find something to like.
I spent the next two years pouring out unrelenting, unremitting, unconditional love on you. You couldn’t be cranky, cynical or mean enough to deter me. Why would you think you could, for pete’s sake? I’ve never been easily deterred – I wasn’t going to start now. I pursued you with the patience of a circling shark and finally, eventually, I began to win you. At 45, I finally knew that you loved me, even if manifesting it any time you actually looked at me proved a bit more than you could handle.
When I called you, you called me “sweetie.” The first time you did that, I got off the phone and sobbed. You said “I love you,” when we ended phone calls. I had waited my entire life for it and it healed wounds you will never acknowledge inflicting.
And now I’m facing losing you and, at pushing 60, I’m not ready to let you go, regardless of my having no choice in the matter whatsoever. There is honestly no good age to be orphaned. I’m not ready and I’m not going to be ready.
I don’t expect to be. I wasn’t ready for my brother’s death. I wasn’t ready for my mother’s. Every one of you had been mean to me on an epic scale, but still, I loved them and love you with a fierce tenderness that keeps the losses anguishing still, despite years of learning to cope.
Yes, we do grieve forever. No, it doesn’t go away.
Thus, as with my brother with his long goodbye, I am grieving for you on the installment plan, before you leave us. I want so badly for you to stay, but that’s not how it works. There will be that last goodbye, as there will be with everyone I love – whether they go first or I do. And honestly, given how hard life is for you these days, I wouldn’t be so cruel as to make you endure any more of this than you have to.
So – for the record – I will tell you all this here, in this missive you will never see, because it’s too raw, too honest, and the time for that is past. It won’t help and the honesty part would only hurt you.
I love you. I always have. Half of what you thought was me being a horrible child was me trying to get through to you. I failed then, but I’m doing better and I hope with all my heart that now and forever that you have learned to believe in love’s possibility as you could not for all those years that came before.