Archive | Grief RSS feed for this section

The Distance

6 Oct

DSC_1023 (2)

“It isn’t what’s left to do at the end, it’s the things left unfinished along the way.”                                                     — Deadwood, by Pete Dexter

Driving in darkness, I hug the road as it rises and falls through the night.  We plunge downward and as trees blow past, I am in a mountain pass, my mind creating walls that can’t possibly exist, for this is Wisconsin, and surely we are surrounded by farmland.  But the road tells a different story.  Veering right, my headlights glare off the window of a small cabin before sweeping back to the asphalt, trees, and the staccato white line I desperately try to follow. Tired, I flash my brights whenever possible, scanning for those little bounces of light along the roadside.  Because the deer are out there, and tonight they’re feeling lucky.

*     *     *

When we were kids, my siblings and I would occasionally find mom face down on the laundry room floor.  Familiar with the situation, we would stand around her.

“Mom?  Mom?  We know you’re joking mom. Mom?  Come on, mom, get up.”

And still, she would remain motionless, to all appearances having suffered some sudden cardiac episode.  This would continue until someone’s voice took on an edge of panic, and then her body would begin to quiver, the movement growing ever more convulsive, until, finally, we’d realize she was laughing.  Releasing the sound as she got to her feet, she’d laugh so hard tears would come to her eyes.  And while down through the years this story has been met with universal horror, it’s always made me proud.  Even at a very young age, when it came to death, no babies we.

 *     *     *

Having eluded the deer, and found our hotel, we continue on the next morning, refreshed.  Unable to find a diner in downtown Janesville, we settle for a chain restaurant out by the highway, the kind of place where the portions are huge, but it seems they occasionally run soup through the coffee maker.

Chicago is Chicago.  Rain, road construction and the slow tide of humanity crawling down through the northwest suburbs, past the rusty overpasses and the neighborhoods of my youth.  Occasionally I miss it.  There’s no better place to make friends, and of course it gave me Amy.  But nevertheless, Chicago and I never warmed to each other.

Back on familiar ground, we fly.  The Skyway, Gary, and around the lake into Michigan.  That great gray swath of the world where the steel plants have been silenced but the smoke never seems to go away.  Cars, campers, exits and boats; a great world of motion that always seems to be going fishing.

And then we’re at Mom’s house.  A quick repacking, hiking boots and dirty clothes boxed up to be dropped in the mail, and off to the airport.  But even before I reach the counter, they tell me my flight has been canceled.  The storms, currently raging over Lake Michigan, have followed us all the way from South Dakota.  There will be no flight home tonight.

 *     *     *

When my father died I was not nearly so well prepared as I’d imagined.  It effected me in ways I still don’t understand.  I know it created a distance.  A safety zone, as it were, from the people I love.  My kids have chopped this down a bit by simply refusing to recognize it.  And Amy, trail-blazer that she is, has grown familiar with the terrain, and is willing to cross it when I cannot.  But my mom, my sister and my brothers are still out there, loved, but at the distance they were placed by a fourteen year old who could not bear another loss.  Each of us, in our ways, living these past 38 years with slowly mending hearts.

But we’re not alone.

From the unexpected death of Amy’s father, which started this journey, to friends along the way, and their stories of prairie wind, blinding snow, and the sudden loss of the people they’d thought to spend the rest of their lives with, we are not alone.  From the families of others, further back, buried beneath the mud of a collapsing dam, to the loved ones of those lost in the violence of a place and time that valued gold above human life, we are not alone.  And with the stories of a family who struggled, built a life, and died, leaving quiet houses, a few gravestones and the fields they worked, we are not alone.

*      *     *

You know when you drink a lot of coffee in the morning, and about an hour, hour and a half later you really need to go to the bathroom?  You know what that’s called?  Prostate cancer.  — Lesson from my mother

Our first days on the road, I was struck by her calm assurance.  Like a bird aloft in strong winds, her mind, of late, had seemed unable to settle and find rest.  But the woman beside me was different.  Seemingly free of worry, she was less a mother, and more a friend.  The comfort of her presence was palpable.  The ways in which we are alike, and the simple pleasures we share, brought days of quiet enjoyment.

But on our return the serenity slipped away.  When I pointed this out, she replied, “Well that’s normal.  To return home is to return to your worries.”  Which I understand, but can’t agree with.  Home is a refuge.  I struggle to make it so.  Where did I learn this if not from her?

*     *     *

It had rained, and the cabbie splashed along the quiet streets of my neighborhood.  He was chatty, which I enjoyed.  I love how easily people talk here.  If the best journeys bring you home, I was glad of his company these final few blocks.

He pulled up to the curb, and as I grabbed my bags I looked up at our house.  Not a worry in sight.

 *     *     *

A few weeks later, in response to something I posted on my wedding anniversary, my mother writes:  “I feel your love for each other when ever I am around you!”

Pleased, I think of Amy, and the gentle chaos that is our life; of Hallie, and the feeling I get when she sleeps across my chest, and of Heath, and how my love for him seems to never stop growing.   Then I write, “When it comes to love, I had two very good teachers.”  And, by just a bit, I feel the distance close.
Todd 4 folks 2

Sycamore

22 Apr

Sycamore_tree_bark

 

“Why is the cross the symbol of Christianity?” 

“Well, it’s supposed to signify the sacrifice Christ made for all mankind.” 

I know, but it doesn’t really seem like much of a sacrifice.  He was only gone for like a week.”          

—  Conversation with Heath, shortly before our trip to Oklahoma

I notice the tree as we pull into the driveway, its hacked limbs struggling over the roof and into the sky.  John and Sue bought this house shortly before I married their daughter, and the tree over their back deck shaded our wedding festivities, a party for which her father and I drove to three different places, including a gas station with a smoker out back, to get just the right assortment of barbecue.

They’ve been waiting over an hour for the ambulance.  Battling pain and plummeting blood pressure, John is struggling with both his illness and its treatment.  I call the ambulance again and go back to see him.

“Hey John, how you doing?”

“Oh, I’m doing OK.”

We talk for a moment, and he does seem, not great, but OK.  Heath has been worried, so I ask, “John, do you feel well enough to see Heath for a moment, he’s been asking about you.”

“What? Sure, sure, I’ll talk to Heath.”

When we return, things have changed.  Now in pain, Amy is helping him back onto his pillows.  Not recognizing the situation, Heath begins.

“Hi Pawpaw.  I’m sorry you don’t feel well and that the chemo is making you sick.  Dad says you’re even having hallucinations.”  Amy shushes him with a look, and I lead him back out of the room.  Through the front door I see the ambulance pull up.

In the days that follow, while the rest of Amy’s family camp out at the hospital, Heath, Hallie and I take care of her parents’ house.  I open windows, tie back curtains and lift shades.  Heath plays video games while Hallie and I watch T.V., walk down to the mailbox, or play catch out on the driveway.  Amy calls, we visit the hospital, and then return to await more calls.  Two days in, late at night, I get the one I don’t want.

I don’t want to tell Heath his grandfather is dying, but I have promised never to lie to him.  So when, in the darkness following Amy’s call, he asks again if his Pawpaw is going to die, I wait, remembering Amy’s firm denial of the possibility only hours earlier, and then, looking into his open face, say “Yes, it looks that way.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it buddy.”

After a moment he breathes, and with his breath comes a high, animal sound like nothing I’ve ever heard.  My ten-year old son is keening.

“No!” His face is a grimace of teeth and tears, his voice a howl.  “Nooooo! Are you sure?  Is there no chance?”

“I don’t think so Heath.”

“No chance at all?”

“I don’t think so.”

And then he starts to pray.  I have never seen Heath pray, but he is praying now, laying on his back, his knees pulled in toward his chest, his clenched hands held above him.

“Please God.  Please!  Don’t let my Pawpaw die. Dad, do you believe God answer’s prayers?”

I hesitate.

“I believe he hears them.  I don’t think he always answers them the way we want.”

“But there’s a chance.   At least there’s a chance.”

“A very small one.”

“Well what are the rules?  Are there a limited number of times you can pray?”

“No, no.  You can pray as many times as you want.”

Though still crying, he is quieter now.  If he prays more, I do not hear it.  We must have slept, for when I look out the window the sky has begun to lighten.

“Dad, do you think God will answer my prayer?”

“I don’t know buddy.  But I do know it was a really good prayer.”

Silence.

“If Pawpaw dies I don’t know how I’ll ever be happy.”

The evening skies of Oklahoma go a fair way toward making up for everything else.  As the day cools, the air slides from a clear robin egg blue down into warmer pinks and oranges while the wispy clouds shade into gentle swipes of purple and gray, a vibrant display that, for a time, makes everything below seem irrelevant. Occasionally on such evenings John and I would talk, sometimes on his front porch, other times out back beneath the shade of the sycamore.  He’d always want to know about Heath and Hallie, his kiddos.  But though the skies are lovely over the following days, we don’t have a chance to talk again.  John does not make it home.  It’s just the kiddos and I.

The Monday after the memorial service a hard rain sweeps across the neighborhood, great gusts of wind snap limbs, damage the back fence, and struggle to carry away the stubborn old patio umbrella no one wants to run out and close.  After years of drought, the storm is too late to save the sycamore, and serves only to remind us of the danger it poses.  Sue tells me that over the past summer the tree “just burnt right up.” She couldn’t water it enough.  But she hates to see it go, for one limb is still alive, covered with buds and young leaves, offering the hope of a bit more shade in the days to come.

Sad for a few days, Heath finds happiness again in the family he loves.  He’s a different kid though –  more open, more present, and more thoughtful.  He won’t talk about John, though.  It makes him too sad.

Amy and I don’t talk much either.  Every time we try, I feel my own distance.  She did ask if I believe in heaven and, shamefully, I dodged the question.

But should it come up again, I’ll tell her that I don’t feel like her father is gone.  He’s here with me, much as he always was.  The conversations we had, the times we shared, and the solid feeling in my chest that I have for that man are strong.  Whatever he taught me is there.  The confidence he gave me as a husband and father is there.  He is with me, he is real, and he is not going away.

Heath and John Easter 2013

Walking the Dog

IMG_2850 (1)