Dying, Grief

Picture Day

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My daughter dressed herself for Picture Day this morning. When I went into her room to check on her, she was wearing the dress I’d bought her for my father’s funeral. She had worn it throughout the mid-April day of my father’s funeral mass, including the fried chicken lunch reception in the church basement. We flew home a couple of days later, I washed the dress and hung it back up in her closet, and she and I hadn’t considered it since. But there she was. She requested braids and help zipping up the back.

I said nothing about the dress. It’s sleeveless and pale blue, a reasonable choice for a warm late August day. It was perhaps an overdressed option for fourth grade Picture Day, but a part of me was just glad we hadn’t forgotten the occasion entirely. We likely would have spaced the whole thing if it weren’t for our carpool-kid neighbor arriving at our door with gelled hair and a polo shirt.

I could think of no reasonable objection that would be fair to a nine-year-old. Don’t wear that dress because it is imbued with my grief didn’t sound like it would do well paired with And find your PE shoes.

My parents died 97 days apart in the first four months of this year. I am often lonely in the wide gap the two of them left, despite being rarely alone. I realize now what a poor steward through grief I was for friends who endured losses before my own. Most of us are not eager to press into others’ grief — it feels messy, private, and, at its core, bereft of remedy. I had started a job three months before my father died. My new coworkers were distant around the time of his death, but seemed sympathetic enough. I told them I was glad to have something to focus on. When my mother also died three months after that, the company had no clue. A coworker commented on materials I had submitted twelve hours before my mother’s death, wondering why I had missed a requested minor change. It took some self-control to not respond just as coldly, to explain a possible cause to her. Reply to comment: “Maybe it’s because my mother was twelve hours from death.” My own mother. The woman who gave birth to me and cut my hair and gave me crooked bangs every single time, the one whose lullabies I mimicked with my own children, the one who sent me to writing camp and who researched every cough and rash I ever had. That woman.

That company let me go a month later, in what was likely the universe’s most urgent “blessing in disguise” possible. Despite being freed from that situation, there are some realities I am stuck with. I am spending these months as The Daughter Whose Parents Both Just Died. I field occasional calls from the hospice company that tended to my mother in her final three weeks. A counselor asks me how I’m doing with my loss. I feel compelled to remind him. “Oh. Um. You know my father died in January, so…” What I leave unsaid: so I’ve got a double. And they didn’t just drop dead. There were years — for my father, more than a decade — of decline. Of loss. Of loss after loss after loss. I can shake free from an ill-suited workplace, and by now I can whip on some sunglasses to shield tears that I often reject. But I can’t ever stop being the daughter whose parents both fell into heartbreaking dementia in their later years. I can’t ever remove the fact that despite being ten years apart in age, my parents died only fourteen weeks apart. And it will always be true that they both died frail and already-gone, the goodbyes to them both drawn out and never announced, their needs many in their final years, their eyes searching through their mutual confusion.

My daughter chose to wear the dress from my father’s funeral this morning. And there’s the thing about grief: we have to continue on in life. We have to remain our flawed selves with teeth to brush and household chores and children growing up. My son had a Boy Scout campout the day after my mother died, and I sent him with no money, no help in packing, no permission slip, and after not so much as opening the door for the family that drove him to the campground. But off he went. And I threw myself right back into life too, driving as planned to my college reunion that weekend, buying dinner for my longtime mentor and crying hardly at all throughout the weekend. And yet. I dropped off my son at an activity the next week, stopped my minivan in the parking lot, and sat there with tears dripping messily from my cheeks.

My brother and I waited two months to scatter our parents’ ashes, wanting to be together in our home state when we did so. The moment he began scattering into a creek not far from the house where we were raised, my phone fell down my pant leg. Right then. I picked it up and wondered what to do with it — I had no pocket, which is why it had dropped in the first place, and I didn’t feel like I should be crassly holding a phone at that moment, and yet I didn’t want to look away just then to put it in my backpack. This is what I was thinking as my brother began distributing all that remained of our parents’ physical bodies on earth, letting them fall into a pool and be picked up by the current.

And so it sometimes has to be. This is all part of this. I’m still here and sometimes I should’ve put my phone away earlier. My parents are gone. And now my daughter’s funeral dress has been reassigned. I have never used the word “battle” to describe a person’s experience with a fatal disease. My parents did not lose battles. Their dying was part of their living, as it will be for all of us. It’s clear that we do not get to choose the circumstances and timing of our births, whether we arrive in health and ease or whether we’re a hard-born baby. I think we expect control over our own deaths, but then life ends against script — someone far too young, or by suicide, or in my parents’ cases, after becoming so relentlessly humbled — and that control is more slippery. So the bravery might not be so much voiced in a contentious fit with a foe, but in recognizing that dying is part of life. We die. Just as our living is often unsteerable, defiant, different than we once predicted, so too is our dying, and it is all part of us.

I focused on my daughter’s braids. I’ve never been good with hair. Today I was happy with how it turned out. I decided to dart into the bathroom to get some hair spray. She looked cute in her braids and glasses and the blue dress. She brought home an essay last spring, handwritten in her 9-year-old scrawl. The topic was what she had done over Spring Break. She had attended her Papa’s funeral, she explained. “The next morning I went to a buatiful church for my papa it felt like you are sad and happy at the same time.” Our lives, our deaths, the moving on and the pushing forward, the looking back, the loss, the joy, the pain. It is all as my child understood Papa’s funeral. This is, all of this, both happy and sad at the same time.

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