The Listening Place


christina's world - wyeth

I was at my aunt's house the day she died. Everyone had gathered there to be with her on her last day here. Margaret was just a few months old and I didn't feel much older. I hated to go to that leaving-place empty handed and so spent our grocery money on buckets of fried chicken. The atmosphere in the house was solemn and loving and laughter. I took Margaret to my aunt and that sweet woman held her just hours before she left this world to be born into another.

I was in the kitchen with a few family members when her death began in earnest. I tried to stay light and bright. Laughing and lifting. Suddenly,  I felt a change run through the room. A crashing, enveloping thing. I felt disturbed by it and talked louder through its ripples. A moment later my cousin hurried into the room,

"She's gone."

My thoughts on our  literal spiritual connections to one another are still evolving. I don't know much, but I do know that something told me she'd just left. I talked through that sacred communication because I always seem to think it's my job to talk everyone through everything...including myself. I made a promise that day to never be louder than the things I am meant to hear.

A little less than five years later, I sat in a hospital waiting room with my brother and sisters. My mom was in the hospital room with my dad. I was talking loudly and smiling and teasing. I doubt it did much to help those around me...but I think I was trying to laugh and lift. A nurse walked in and told us my dad had a heart episode - the medical team was working on him. I stopped talking and walked out into the hall by myself...quiet and waiting for the communication I felt certain was moments away. I could nearly feel it...the pull back before an oncoming wave. The nurse came back and met me in the hall.

"He's stabilized."

I went back into the waiting room and told the people that loved him. I tried to talk loudly again, to shout down the ebb I still felt pulling through my veins. A few more minutes and my mom was there in the doorway. It hadn't worked. He was leaving.  As I ran through the hallway to that damn room and that damn goodbye, I tried to keep my footsteps light so that I could hear what I knew was coming.

A few minutes with him in that black wired room and the wave came crashing down.

On Sunday, he had been gone for a year. It was a busy day. Family and obligations and dinner to be made. We went to his grave and left flowers. The girls talked about heaven and Papa's favorite pinto beans. I spent a lot of time giving more volume to my words than they deserved.

But somewhere between loudly talking about how it was "a sacred day, not a bad day" and declarations of peace, I stood still in the center of everything that moves. I breathed deeply and listened closely for the things I'd been too loud to hear.

And they were many. And they were gracious. And they did not stay long enough.

In Grief

My Dad died last weekend.

After a week of chemo, his blood was filled with infection and his lungs were pocked with pneumonia. He was hot to the touch and his heart ran ahead of us all. At two pm on Saturday, his body got tired of burning and his heart stumbled. He had a cardiac arrest and we held him as he left that white room with the cords and the masks and the doctors that scurried.

We cried. But we told him to go. We weren’t ready. But it didn’t matter.

I don’t know that it ever does.

That night, Riley and I held our daughters as we walked away from the front stoop of the house that still holds so much of my dad. He used to stand out there and wave and watch until we drove away. It was cold and I turned to say goodnight, forgetting he hadn’t followed us out. He’s gone ahead, I suppose. I got off the front steps as quickly as I could and then Zuzu looked to the sky.

“Mom, there aren’t any stars tonight.”

“You’re right, baby. There isn’t a damn star in the sky tonight.”

And then I held her against the darkness and ran to the car.

I am learning about grief.

It cuts and cools. It overwhelms and leaves emptiness. It laughs and cries. It is fear and faith. It is upward movement and a long fall to a dark place. It is eating me up and expanding my heart. It teaches and it scolds. It is what I owe the man that lit my sky, it is something he would take from me if he could. I knew it would hurt. I didn’t know I would be able to feel its sorrow in my bones, across the stretch of my skin and breaking against my insides. I didn’t know it would take the air from my lungs and the reason from my thoughts. I didn’t know I would long for an end to the harrowing and then feel guilty for the longing.

At my parent’s house in the hours after my dad died, Viola asked for a drink. I opened the fridge to get her milk and then gasped in pain. How could this food he’d bought be there when he wasn’t? How could my dad, the narrator of my life, be outlasted by a container of yogurt? Reactions like that, in their ridiculousness and suddenness, are the hardest part of my grief. It is without control and is often released by the most unworthy of subjects.

Dad didn’t even eat yogurt.

Today, I brushed the hair from the girl’s faces while we watched a movie. An ordinary moment, and then I could feel the flaying of the sadness against the fleshy parts of my heart. He is missing so much. My dad, the man who drank in every moment with his eyes and hugged us like it was the last time every time he held us, was missing everything. I was sure it was breaking his heart.

I cried and knew that I was holding his grief in my hands, too. Only, it doesn’t belong there. You can’t hold something that doesn’t exist.

There is no grief in going to meet Maker and immortal man. There is no sorrow in questions answered or the feeling of understanding your place in eternity. There is no great tragedy in becoming the man you were made to become. There is only joy.

His mom and dad were waiting for him in that space just beyond mortality. A mother and father that drank in every moment with their eyes and hugged like it was the last time every time they held him. He has mourned them since they left him as a fresh faced thirty year old with too many children and too few certainties. Just last month, I cried to him because I hated that he had no one to call when he wanted to hear a parent’s voice. He cried, too.

My breath was a bit less shallow and the wracking against my ribs not quite as sharp.

Death released him from grief.

And so mine became a little less hard to bear.