At times, my aloneness feels unbearable. The illusion of isolation looms like a hidden disease. The loss of my parents and sister out of natural sequence has left me feeling like the lone survivor of an apocalypse. I look around at others asking, “do you ever feel this alone?” Is this feeling because of my losses, or because I’m just a human waking up to the fact that I’m a human? We each only have our own one life as a gauge, this one experience to guide us, this one life to live. But that’s not totally true, is it? We all also have each other. We have a whole history of human stories. And the more we share our stories, the less alone we feel.
This time a year ago, I was just starting to think about writing my story. Still knee-deep in leather goods, I signed up for a 4-class series on memoir writing through our local bookstore and community college (note: this is going on again RIGHT NOW! If you have any inkling to write your story, I HIGHLY recommend this series.). Through these classes I found Cami Ostman and The Narrative Project, which I was a part of for most of this past year. I knew that this program was right for me when, in her first class, Cami shared the Maya Angelou quote:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
My untold story was eating me alive.
I thought it would come out of me, surging, like a flood, that the dam holding back my story would break with one whack and fill up the pages until I was empty. But it hasn’t happened that way, exactly. The process for me has been more of an ebb and flow. Somedays the story is so clear in my mind and flows out into thoughts. Other days the dam seals up again. But if I wait until the story all comes out and makes sense, none of the words will ever see the light of day.
So, here’s a little piece of the story that piggy backs on a quote I read the other day that reflects so much of my grief these days:
“When someone you love dies, you don’t just lose them in the present or in the past. You lose the future you should have had, and might have had, with them. They are missing from all the life that was left to be.” –Megan Devine
If you knew my dad, I hope this makes you smile.
Late July, 2006
The beautiful distraction of new love kept me afloat during the darkening days. My dad had been sick with liver cancer for nearly two years; my mom’s MS was worsening with the stress. Experts probably would have cautioned against beginning a relationship under the circumstances, but I was in desperate search for an anchor. When Kevin and I started dating, my dad was just weeks from his death. Part of me didn’t even want Kevin to meet my dad in this state. He was a fading shadow of his former self, on so much morphine there were days he thought he was a truck driver (he was a pastor). But he was alert and chipper the day I brought Kevin home.
“Hi Papa,” I called as I came through the door, my dog, Zion, pushing past me to secure the area.
“Hi Hon!” my dad called from his usual spot in his recliner.
I noticed the nurse’s clipboard hanging on a nail by the door. “Are you alone?”
“Yeah. The nurse just left. I took a shower so I could be all fresh and clean for my baby girl.”
Kevin followed me into the living room, and I crossed over to give my dad a hug.
“Oh, you do smell good!” I could smell the Irish Spring soap he had used all of his life. I moved aside so Kevin was in full view.
“And you must be Kevin!” my dad stuck out his hand. “I’m Bob. I’d get up, but, well, you know.”
Kevin grabbed his yellowing hand with both of his. “I’m so happy to meet you.”
My eyes immediately filled with tears, and I made and excuse to leave the room. “I’ll just get some water. We had a long border wait.” I couldn’t bear the thought that this was how Kevin would remember my dad. They would never watch football games together, or shoot hoops, or fawn over our future babies, or gang up against me. He could not possibly tell Kevin all of the stories he needed to hear. My dad would never be a father-in-law. This, this right here today, these hours, would be the extent of their relationship.
I regained my composure and listened from the kitchen as my dad repeated all of the facts I had told him about Kevin. “So, Nicki tells me…” Kevin added things here and there, my dad asked a few questions. Looking back, this was the one time these huge pieces of my heart were sharing space and time.
“Hey, Nic!” my dad yelled. Being mostly confined to his chair, he had taken to yelling from room to room, something that I was never allowed to do growing up. “There’s a whole tree full of golden plums in the back. Why don’t you make some plum-blackberry jam? The blackberries are ripe, too, and big as your thumb.”
That was what he always said, ‘they’re as big as your thumb’. My dad and I had the same thick thumbs. “Ok, dad, just give us a minute to settle in.” I walked back into the living room and handed them both a glass of ice water.
“No ice. It makes my tongue weird. You drink it.” My dad’s speech had been affected by the metastasized tumors pressing on his nerves. He was finally forced to quit preaching when he developed a severe lisp.
“How’s Mom?” I asked. Kevin and I sat together on the loveseat facing my dad.
“She still hates it.” She had been moved to a care facility shortly after my dad was diagnosed with cancer. “The nurses say she is losing weight because she chokes on so much of her food, which she’s kinda proud of, losing weight, that is. She always wanted to be skinny again.” This was true. She was always warning me to watch what I ate. “And she can’t come home as much because I need so much help, too.” There was distance in his voice, like he was talking about people we didn’t know.
“Dad, I’ll move home. You just say the word,” I offered, as I had every time I was home.
“Absolutely not. You need to live your life. We’ll figure things out up here,” my dad said. He leaned his head back against the soft brown upholstery of the chair and closed his eyes. “I need to rest. You guys go pick some berries. And don’t forget the plums.”
Nothing about this situation was easy, and none of it was going to get better. In fact, it was most certainly getting worse.
We grabbed buckets and headed across the road down the ravine to the railroad tracks where the blackberries sprawled out along the waterfront. You could look across the water and see the United States on the other side. I had been here with my dad many times to pick berries or to walk our dogs. My dad would never come down here again.
I stopped when we got to the bottom of the ravine, the view of the water spreading out before us. I closed my eyes and shook my head, breathing in deeply. “It feels like life is just one long series of ‘lasts’ right now,” I couldn’t hold in the tears. “And one of these visits is going to be the last time I see my dad alive.”
“I’m so sorry, Nic, I can’t even imagine how you must feel,” Kevin pulled me into a hug, inadvertantly hitting me in the head with his bucket.
“Ouch!” I rubbed the spot.
“I just wanted to distract you for a minute,” he said sheepishly. He kissed me on the head.
There was a whole world of emotion I was unwilling and unable to let Kevin enter into. I had only known him a few months, but I felt sure that he was the man I would marry. As much as our pasts had in common on the outside, loss and codependence in my family had given me a very different emotional landscape. There was so much he needed to know, so much I couldn’t possibly put into words. Maybe a day would come. That day was not today.
We picked berries in silence, me glancing at Kevin’s bucket every now and then to make sure he was only picking the ripest berries.
“Quality control!” I said. “We don’t want sour jam!”
We returned to the house, to find my dad resting quietly and a bucket of golden plums overflowing on the counter.
“Dad! Did you pick these?!” I shouted.
“Well, you guys were taking too long. Somebody had to do it,” he said with a shrug.
“I see where she gets her stubbornness, Bob,” Kevin said.
“Yeah, you watch out. She’s even worse than I am!” my dad smiled. “Ok, well there’s work to do. Get busy.”
My dad barked instructions to us from his chair, and we made ourselves one hell of a batch of jam.
That is the last clear, happy memory I have of my dad. I was 28. He was 56. I was with him many more times after that, but he was never again as lucid as he was that day. There was something about meeting Kevin that allowed him to let go. He saw Kevin as someone who would take care of me, someone who I could love. My dad never spoke about having fear of leaving me alone. Perhaps he couldn’t handle that reality any more than I could. Sometimes not saying things out loud makes you believe they won’t actually happen. Or, perhaps, he knew I was going to be okay.