I’ve been trapped in the same hospital room for a year.
I can still see the two rows of glass standing guard on either side of me, my fractured reflection in each pane as I walked past the silent sadness in each room. Doors and windows and off white curtains running into each other down a beige hallway. Dated floor tiles with brown specks become a river as the smell of antiseptic and thin cotton perfumed the air.
I can tell each hospital I have visited over the last ten years apart by the aesthetics Even though they all seem the same to me now. Even if it doesn’t matter anymore.
On my worst days, this is where I end up.
I replay this scene, and many others, over and over again in a devastating loop. And I hate myself for it. For being so weak.
A long road with nine years of hospital stays, visitor badges, and frantic phone calls that came late at night or early in the morning. How else would bad news travel save for 6 a.m. Sunday morning phone calls or 11 p.m. texts on a Tuesday? The faintly blue walls and fake flowers on side tables in hospital hallways were like lipstick on a pig.
Because no one could ever assure us that it would get any better.
It was a slow siphoning. A meandering descent.
Like a giant bucket full of water, with a minuscule hole drilled in the bottom, we didn’t notice the changes at first. We didn’t notice that the silver thread of my father’s life was nearly gone until one day it suddenly was. But we had silently been careening to that moment for nearly a decade.
And still, we weren’t ready for the impact.
On my worst days, I’m back by his side, swallowing a brick of tears and burning anguish as we all waited for the lines on his monitor to flatten and anger singed a bitter blister inside of me.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted him to stay or go, to keep holding on or to infinitely release, even though that had been his life for the last decade. Even though I had already asked that of him again and again. I couldn’t ask that from him even once more because he had done all of that, and more. What else can a father give?
On my best days, I remember that it won’t always be this way.
After his funeral, we made our way to a familiar small, sandy beach. The sky churned in a wild sea of gray, the clouds turning over like a river of lava, like they were hot and flowing until they piled on top of one another, building something unknown. The water was murky. The grainy sand bone white as it crunched beneath our feet.
Somehow, the fact that it was a less than ideal day that we had chosen to spread his ashes was actually comforting.
I’m new to this grief thing.
Before that day, I had thought that maybe, by the time we stood at the edge of the water he loved so much and let him go, eight months and a few mornings after he had left us, that it would begin to feel like true closure. When in truth, letting go of some of the last tangible pieces of him was a painful act more than it was transcendent.
The day was a confusing mess of gray, rain that spit from the sky, and winds that churned the waters below. The air stung our faces, and we let him go into something wild. We gave him over to the uncertainty, and that seemed to make a modicum of sense after eight months of being confused over how someone can truly be gone.
It didn’t mean that it was over. But it meant that we began to accept that truth of the matter. That we all fade, no matter what. That those around us will fade, and we might have to be here to watch. That life was still infinitely mysterious in its at times unforgiving nature. But in the tangled web of uncertainty and beauty, something beautiful still throbs even when we are broken. In darkness, something hopeful and light pulses even still.
We accepted the inevitable that we couldn’t escape. But by setting him free into the mist, right in the middle of it, we agreed that we were trying to figure it out. To discover our way through it. To make peace with everything.
I sat on that same beach, two months later. On Father’s Day.
Aviator shades on, shoulders out, freckled skin hot, the weather and the day could not have been any more different. This was my first time back to that same place, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. Or in what state I would find myself.
Only on that day, in the place of my sorrow months before, I wasn’t alone on the beach. Families lounging on plastic chairs and beach blankets dotted the shore. People played in the warm and clear water. I found a spot beneath a tree and sat. Watching.
You would never have believed this was the same place.
I took my children swimming yesterday. Three busy bodied children in fluorescent swimsuits stood at the edge of the shore. The older two hesitantly let the water lap around their ankles, while my third child alligator crawled through the water, the soft sand pillowing under her knees.
My two oldest were afraid of the jelly fish. They were afraid of what they could not see. My youngest child hardly took notice of their worries, instead enjoying herself on a perfect day.
She hasn’t learned to be afraid yet. She just dives right in – to anything.
I assured my children that I was watching over them. That the waters were clearer than they thought. That they were safe. From jellyfish, from waves and all manner of scaled and clawed sea creatures.
They doubted me, while my youngest continued her fun, soaking up the moments and almost becoming too brave as she inched further out.
I marveled at how brave we are before we learn to be afraid.
I realized that I might never be like that again.
I remember being like them. Being stung by a jellyfish hidden in the gray waters. Rocked over by the waves until I swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater. Raw wounds on my shoulders and knees as the ocean flung me back and then began to pull me out again.
I remember feeling helpless. So many times in the last year, I have felt so helpless.
How weak we feel when life mercilessly knocks us to our knees. How it clutches at us and shakes us until the air is ripped from our lungs. How it rubs us raw even while we still suffer. We feel small, like will never be brave again. Like we couldn’t ever be again even if we had the choice.
But really, it is after life has shaken us, has devastated us, has reminded us that its language was always uncertainty, that we should feel the most brave.
Grief is a torch that will only light our steps so much.
But it is peace the illuminates the way.
Grief is not the end of us.
Even as we make bedfellows with it for many days in the dark. Even as we begin to comfortably wear it. Even as we swallow it, hold it close to ourselves and count it only as ours.
I’ve marked my grief these last twelve months. I’ve made it my own, unwilling to share it. To talk about it. To expose it would leave me helpless. It has become a shield, something to wield. As I let myself cower behind it. As I try to forgive myself over and over again for feeling so weak that I can’t move forward. When I tell myself that I can’t. I can’t move on from when he left me. What if my life is unrecognizable without him? What might he think?
How does one move on without a place for the ones they have lost?
Grief is a torch that shows us the path, but it is peace that illuminates the way ahead. It is peace that compels us to move and find our footing again. It is peace that wills us to be brave. It is peace that tells us that we must trust the uncertainty.
One day, I pray I will be far away from that room. Where our bodies were crowded close together. Where we held his hands and whispered to him as we silently prayed that maybe he heard us one last time. That he heard us tell him that it was okay, that we weren’t going to ask him to stay one more time.
Peace tells me that grief isn’t the end. My ashes become an adornment. The thin soot of my pain. It tells me that fire can be both devastating and cleansing, and that death can make the things left behind beautiful. It can be a catalyst. The fire that sparks. The end is only the beginning, for him in eternity and now for me, still on Earth.
Grief is the end of the chapter. But not the story.
Not of me.