It’s been 5 years since my father died.
12 years since I saw my father. 22 years since my father felt like home.
It’s been a long time since my father was anything but a longing I couldn’t let go of, a hollow space in my heart I couldn’t locate, fragments of memories I couldn’t quite sew together into something with weight, something that could keep me warm.
Every year of the grief that I’ve known since childhood is different. Some years I hated. Some years were angry, indignant. I’ve yelled at my grief. Kicked and screamed. I’ve gone so numb that some years I didn’t notice my grief. It wasn’t even there. I wasn’t there. I’ve had to fight with my grief. Some years were so heavy I couldn’t drag myself to face me in the mirror. I’ve had to fight for my grief, fight for it to be tender and soft. I’ve rocked myself to sleep with my grief. I’ve wept for my loss, for his loss, letting my eyelashes collect hot drops like morning dew.
If I’ve learned anything about grief it’s that it doesn’t ever go away. It ebbs and flows. It fades to the background but it always emerges again, reborn. Grief looks different every time it arrives. Sometimes it shows up unassuming, silently dressed for the rain, in a long trench coat without an umbrella in hand. Other times it’s loud, in medieval body armor, with an iron heart, wielding a shield.
I’ve known grief like an old pair of clothes that I can’t stop wearing. Comfortable but only because it’s familiar, not because it’s welcome. Like a curse, a ghost that can’t be exorcised. It follows me no matter how many places around the world I’ve gone hoping to lose it. As if I could outrun it somehow, by collecting adventures, like enough feel-good could make it disappear.
But my grief isn’t some unpredictable external force. It’s not like the weather. Grief might disguise itself as an outside storm–but the storm is within me. My grief has little to do with the person I grieve, whether they were young or old, sick or healthy, how well I knew them or how much I loved them (as if love can be quantified)–grief has everything to do with my capacity to grieve. The storm is me.
My father isn’t the only person I’ve loved and lost, but my grief for him lays the foundation for everyone else. I process other deaths through him. He is the stock that flavors the soup. It is because my father died too soon and was gone long before he died, that I am able to hold all the grief of each new person I’ve loved and lost.
Two Augusts ago I lost a dear friend. I fell to the ground on Illinois Street behind the American Industrial Center with my cell phone glued sticky with sweat to my hand. I felt so acutely the pain of losing someone I loved. Again, and not for the second or third or fourth time. I felt it inside my chest, inside the space between my ribs. I had never felt grief quite like this. I had never heard myself do that kind of crying. That slow and sorrowful, sweaty and staggered crying, erratic breathing. I roared.
A month later I lost another dear friend. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t cry. I didn’t listen to music or write pretty words. I didn’t have access to the kind of grief I had felt a month before. My heart had to keep its walls up. It was a safety hazard.
Dressed for rain or dressed for war, silent or loud, just like love, grief doesn’t obey orders.
My grief used to come disguised as guilt. I’ve spent most of my life trying to capture the feeling of having a father. Through movies, TV shows, books, other friends sharing little stories-each of those movie scenes and casual anecdotes from friends, a betrayal, a new loss. An intimacy I’ll never know–I’m well aware. What would it have been like to have had him around through all the bumpy stretches of road, for all the big moments like graduating from schools or getting new jobs, moving to new cities, falling in love? But for all the small moments too, for the car rides and the casual pep talks, to get to roll my eyes at a dad joke. Since I was 12 years old, my grief has asked who will walk me down the aisle?
I always find myself joining in on other people’s rationalizations. “You’re better off without him”. “You turned out ok”. I guess that’s all people can think to say when I tell them I had a deeply depressed, absent alcoholic father who was incarcerated on and off for so many years, who rarely remembered my birthday, and couldn’t manage to be a part of my life in a way that felt acceptable. That somehow this should lessen my grief, but it doesn’t. I used to feel guilty for even missing my dad, for wanting to cherish the few good memories I had left.
My grief used to come disguised as shame. Because when you lose someone you love, the rest of the world just keeps on turning as if it never happened. In a culture that shrinks away from grief, it’s isolating. I am familiar with the way people bristle at death, at someone’s grieving. They wish I’d get over it. At least stop talking about it dear, stop carrying it around so obviously, so loudly, so that we can all pretend it never happened and won’t happen again to someone we love. They avert their eyes, shift away from me, avoid conversations, send a courtesy message to be done with it. Or they offer me condolences that always made me feel gross on the inside. “Sorry for your loss.”
Grief always brings friends with it guilt, shame, denial, rage, to name a few. And yet, if I keep digging under my grief to get rid of the circumstances, the saga of the situation, the person who’s died and whether our last words to each other felt sufficient (grief doesn’t grant you a goodbye), I start to discover that what’s under this grief is what’s most human, what’s most me…this impermanence that seems to have no source–but is everywhere.
Over time my grief has matured. It’s gotten sophisticated. I’ve had to nurture it like a houseplant that always needs something new. I’ve learned to slow dance with grief as I come to recognize and even appreciate, its nuances, its paradoxes, its truth. Grief might come with loss, but it comes with powerful gains too. My grief has taught me to keep my heart open at all costs, to remain porous to life, to let it all in and to let it go when it’s time, even if it doesn’t feel fair that the time has come. Because of my grief, I can love the people I love, fiercely, and with relentless wild abandon. Love without strings. I can cling only to the moments of loving, and not to the love that happened yesterday or that’s promised tomorrow. My grief has made me alive.
I’ve idealized what it’s like to have a father, that it’s heartwarming and secure, that he teaches you how to change a flat tire and how to never let anyone take away your worth. That he’s some sort of safe haven during a storm. An anchor back to yourself. But now my grief has given me that same anchor. The intimacy I crave with my father, I’ve found instead with grief.
When the leaves start changing colors, I start anticipating my grief, for it’s my season. I start wondering how it will show up this year, will it be silent or loud? Harsh or soft? Intense or subtle? Will it come early or late? Will I cry at another Thanksgiving dinner that I felt obligated to attend? Will I want to be alone or with people? At home or out of town? I’m someone who loves to plan, but grief isn’t something you can plan for, it doesn’t come when called.
But once it’s here, I can invite grief in, leave the door open and a seat at the table. I treat it like an uninvited guest, who is welcome nonetheless. The truth is I did “turn out ok”. Better than I really should have. Girls without daddies aren’t meant to get this far. But here I am.
Long live the tribe of fatherless girls*
*title of a memoir I enjoyed by T. Kira Madden