I had a dream last night about going home. The house of my childhood was almost unrecognizable, and the landscaping was so overgrown that I had to park on the street. There were stacks of books, newspapers and files on every shelf and surface and clothes hanging to dry from every doorway. People were standing around, chatting idly in every room of the house, many with a drink in hand, seemingly oblivious to the chaos. I felt as if I had stumbled into a party I hadn’t been invited to. I couldn’t move. I stood still, staring blankly, overwhelmed by the noise, the mess, the humanity, and then my cousin came to my side and gently touched my shoulder to get my attention. When I turned to look at him, I realized that the house was quiet, and I asked where everyone went. “Oh sweetheart,” he said, “they’ve been gone for half an hour.”
My father died two months ago, and the usual post-death arrangements, notifications and paperwork have pretty much been my focus. I have busied myself with phone calls and appointments, and I have distracted myself with trips to Goodwill and the lawyer’s office. We’ve hosted lunches and met for coffee and celebrated Dad’s birthday without him. I’ve done a reasonably good job of taking care of logistics and being patient and compassionate with other people’s sad feelings. But now, the party is over, the hoopla has died down, and everyone has gone home. Things have gotten quiet, fewer condolence cards arrive, and when the phone rings, it’s an automated telemarketer and not the voice of a long-lost-but-much-loved cousin. Gone is the busy-ness, and the real business of grieving begins. The spinning top has spiraled to rest and toppled over on its side. My heart aches. I’m falling apart.
It’s not a bad thing, this falling apart. I’m just sad. In some ways the maelstrom of paperwork is simpler to handle because there’s no time to think or feel. I can be numb and in denial and interrupted. But this administrative place does not actually tend toward healing. Soon enough, reality presses and grief demands its toll. This is the moment when I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Now that the service, the phone calls, the obituary writing, the stuff is all done, I exhale. I don’t have to hold it together for anyone else any more. Which in itself is a gift. First the falling apart, then the healing. I can fall apart.
I order my son’s AP Physics book, and that’s when I start to cry. Partly, of course, this is exactly what it seems on its face. Son Number Three is a senior in high school, and this year is typically an emotional roller coaster for the parents. I know this path. It is painful, but it’s also everything he has worked for. It is a difficult, but welcome, transition. As I click through the book order, it’s not so much the graduating senior that brings me to tears, it’s the fact that my dad – with his PhD in Nuclear Physics – was supposed to be here to tutor the boy. Our family physicist is gone. So I cry.
I suppose I might be able to help the boy. After all, I took high school physics once. Then again, that was 30 years ago, and my own father taught the class. Sigh.
I didn’t want to take physics. I wanted to take choir. My parents, however, insisted that I sign up for physics. When the registrar later informed me that the class was cancelled due to low enrollment and that I should choose a replacement class, I was delighted. I chose choir. Several of my friends were in choir. I had always wanted to sing, now was my chance, and I happily reported the good news to my parents that night. I remember my father’s crestfallen face at the dinner table. “They cancelled physics?” He couldn’t believe it.
Dad marched down to the high school the very next morning and arranged to teach the class himself, for the hour before the regular school day began in order to avoid other scheduling conflicts. All for the annual salary of one dollar. I couldn’t believe it.
My favorite yearbook photograph from that early morning class features the back of my head resting on the desk. I am sound asleep. My dad is smiling at the front of the classroom, the chalkboard covered in equations and arcs, the professor dusted in chalk. There were only six of us in that class, getting up early our entire senior year, and I must have learned something of physics, because I did well enough on the AP exam, but I’ve forgotten all the details. What I do remember was that Dad loved to share his passion for physics. Personally, I didn’t get quite so excited about the subject, but I learned what it looks like to be so passionate about something that you cannot help but share that enthusiasm in how you conduct your daily life. I hold on to that lesson. But still, I miss my dad.
I take my grief for a run, and as usual it’s hard. I want to stop and walk, but I keep the momentum by choosing incremental goals, just a few steps ahead of where I am, from this little crack in the sidewalk, to that yellow leaf, to the black mailbox, to the oil stain on the asphalt, to that acorn up ahead, and I inch forward until I reach the Spanish house at the top of the hill where somebody who loves me lives, and this process, I think, is much the same as getting through the languid days of grief. One day at a time, sometimes just an hour, from today to tomorrow to Thanksgiving, through an anniversary.
I move through the sludge. Intentionally. Slowly at first, but gaining ground. There will be other “physics” moments along my path, when memory and gravity will work against me, but I know that sadness is not a force that eliminates joy. On the contrary, feeling the sorrow is the healing trajectory that leads to laughter and song. I will get it together. I promise. But right now, I’m falling apart.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wholeness, eventually.