“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
The past year has been my season of grieving. Needless to say, it’s been a long, hard year, but also, in a way that seems impossible to pinpoint, a transformative year, a year of blessings.
Much of 2011 blurs in my mind. It started with my father’s recurrence of lung cancer, then his mercifully brief, anguished last few weeks. It was the first parent I lost, and one I loved intensely. The pain of watching him suffer and of losing him matched that intensity.
On the other hand, many were the blessings of being with him during his last few weeks, offering him comfort, love, and physical relief. For all the world, I would not have been anywhere else. What amazement and joy it brought to watch my mother, usually so reticent with her love and emotions, shower him with reassurance, affection, words of adoration, and comfort. I had no idea their bond ran so deep, naive as it is to admit. To bear witness to your parents’ love for one another in such a raw, powerful way changes you. It has brought me closer to my mother, which is another thing I am thankful for.
My stalwart brothers and sisters stepped up, too. So often you hear about families driven apart during times of crisis and loss. One sibling or the other often feels they are carrying the heavier burden as caretakers of older or ill parents. Not in my family. When we knew Daddy was not long for this world, we showed up. And not out of obligation, but out of love. We showed up again and again each week to help care for him, to provide respite for our mother, to make sure he left the world knowing that we loved him and would take care of each other. Did I know this before about my siblings, about my family? I’m not sure, but I now wonder at how my parents managed to instill in us this deep love and loyalty. If only I am able to instill that in my children, I will have succeeded.
After the loss of Daddy, our Southern patriarch, our family farm, which he had worked his entire life, became my respite to get through the heavy, dense fog of grief. In fact, one moment will forever remain seared in my memory: It was the morning after he died. The house was full, so my family stayed in my aunt’s RV, parked next to one of the hay fields. I woke early the next morning, face puffy from crying, filled with a mix of varying emotions, but mostly dulled with grief and confused about how to go on without the man who had helped bring me into the world. I opened the door to the RV on that cold, bright morning, and the sun was just beginning to rise over the trees beyond the hay field. It was a brilliant sunrise, beautiful over the forest and the ocean of lush, green hay sprouting. The pond, which my father built, was visible in the distance. The scene took my breath away, such beauty in the face of such grief. My first thought was, “Daddy loved this farm. Now he’s gone.” My second thought was, “This is so beautiful. I wonder if someone is trying to remind me that life goes on, that there is beauty in this world?”
I still wonder.
It has been a year of soul searching, leaning into the grief, trying to learn from it, take what I need from it, and then move on. My children are a reminder to me every day to show up for this life, to be present for them. My children and Daddy’s death help me to remember that life is to be lived, that it is precious, and that we only get so much time. Don’t get me wrong, I fail at showing up and being present over and over again, but I keep trying. That’s all you can do.
I’ve found comfort in many things this year. One thing is this passage from No Death, No Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh:
The day my mother died, I wrote in my journal, “A serious misfortune of my life has arrived.” I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.
I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tenderly, very sweet . . . wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine alone but a living continuation of my mother and father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. These feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.
I don’t know exactly how Thich Nhat Hanh meant this passage: Literally or figuratively? I guess it doesn’t matter, but I like answers. The problem is there are no absolute answers about death. No one can tell us exactly what happens, if we live on (literally), although many of us take solace and comfort in what our religion teaches about death. I have faith, but I’m a Westerner too. Cold, hard facts, scientific evidence speak to me.
Nonetheless, I have felt my father with me. I understand what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying, at least in the figurative sense—and I have a lot of hope for the literal sense. My father is me. My grandparents are me. My mother is me. I take forward a piece of all of them in this life, in my life. My children do, too. Throughout this season of grieving, I have come to believe that, yes, we are all connected in some way that cannot be seen, heard, or touched. It brings me great comfort.
I hope it brings you comfort, too.
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