Falling Apart

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.

Soundtrack

You mustn’t be frightened
if a sadness
rises in front of you
larger than any you have ever seen;
if an anxiety,
like light and cloud-shadows,
moves over your hands and over
everything you do.
You must realize that something is
happening to you,
that life has not forgotten you
that it holds you in its hand
and will not let you fall.
~ Ranier Maria Rilke

I love listening to Pandora radio when I run. It’s the perfect balance of control (I create my own “station”) and surrender (the algorithm takes it from there). It is surprising to me just how often the soundtrack along the way matches the theme of my day. On Sam’s deathaversary, there were songs about sadness, goodbyes, resilience, stamina and even suicide. On Tim’s and my wedding anniversary, the soundtrack featured an unusually high proportion of love songs. Maybe I’m just in tune with the songs that suit my mood, but I am starting to think it’s more than that. I don’t think it’s coincidence. It’s almost enough to believe the Psalm’s promise, that Life might actually hold me in the palm of His hand.

On the last morning of my little black dog’s life, I was out on a run with the defective hunting dog. Every, single song featured death or goodbyes. Each and every one. Death. Goodbye. Nary a hostile Indigo Girl or Dixie Chick in the bunch. After “The Day the Music Died,” I noticed the consistent themes. By the time Natalie Merchant was singing “My Beloved Wife” (about a man grieving his wife’s death after 50 years of marriage), I started to worry. In truth, I was already worried. Tim and I had been up early with the little black dog. By “early” I mean the middle of the night. He was having trouble catching his breath, but he perked up when he saw me trudging sleepily up the stairs. At one point during his ordeal he dashed – and I mean like a young pup – down the stairs to steal cat food. He also climbed up on my – I mean his – favorite chair. It was as though he was snatching of few of his life’s little pleasures just one more time. He eventually settled down for a nap.

By then the sun had risen, and it was time to wake our sons and get them off to school. I called the vet to get an appointment for the little black dog, thinking that the good Dr. Doolittle would simply adjust the heart medications to solve everything. I had enough time to run the pup before the vet’s office opened, so I put on my headphones and out the door we ran.

By the time Paul and John were crooning in my ear, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…” I let out an involuntary gasp. The uphill grade might have contributed to the gasping. “… whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” Tears started to well in my eyes, and I thought, Not today. Please, not today.

It is always too soon.

Several death and goodbye songs later (I’m not making this up), I return to my front door, with Phillip Phillips singing, Gone, Gone, Gone. “I’ll love you long after you’re gone” (key turns in door), “gone” (door alarm), “gone” (look over left shoulder to dog’s usual waiting-for-her-to-come-back-home place). He’s perfectly still. Gone. Like the soundtrack in a movie, uncannily coordinating the music, lyrics and action.

I’ll just say right now that I would like Helen Hunt to play the role of Charlotte in the movie of my life. She looks beautiful even when she’s crying. The real me, however, did not appear nearly so attractive, crumpled next to my beautiful, pet-quality, Cavalier, sobbing no, no, no. Sweat, tears and snot dripping together into that whole grief-stricken mess. It is not a pretty picture.

Or maybe Ellen DeGeneres. Because I love her. And she makes me laugh no matter how sweaty, teary and snotty I am.

Because even though I have crumbled down to the floor, even though nobody knows that my sweet dog is gone – not a neighbor, not my husband, not my kids – the synchronized soundtrack makes me feel that I am not alone. While it is somewhat unnerving, it is oddly comforting to hear the perfect song.

My son asked me recently if I hear God’s voice audibly. Not yet. But I often “hear” what I think of as angel messages, sometimes in song, often in the voice of the people I love most in the world, and occasionally as an idea that pops into my own head. It can be enough to make me think that somehow the universe still holds my little black dog. And me. In the palm of His hand.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the perfect song to go with you.