Not quite two years ago, our dad succumbed to cancer and passed away.
Or, as I like to think about it, he’d written his story and reached the maximum word count. And, did he leave a good story behind for all of us to pick up and reread as necessary? Yes, he did. I keep it within reach.
I’m tempted to say “Grief is a journey,” but is there a less original way to characterize the year after a loved one leaves? No, there isn’t.
Let’s call it a work in progress. Grief is a work in progress.
It still makes me stop in the middle of a day, a drive, a walk, to feel the absence because he was, for decades, a place for me to go for affirmation, reassurance, comfort, and much advice that always started with the words “You know what?”
We’d make a lunch date. I’d arrive, take off my coat and open the menu. We’d ask to hear the specials and then choose the usual things. Our conversations were that way; updates first, and then the usual.
My Father’s Favorite Three Words
“Tell me what’s going on,” I’d say at those lunches.
“No, I want to hear about you,” he’d say. “How are you?”
My dad said “How are you?” like therapists do. You just started talking, telling your story. The jury is out on how much attention he actually paid past the point of knowing that you were “okay,” because no one had a shorter attention span, or a busier mind. But let there be the time or two when you weren’t okay, is what I choose to remember.
In the years before he died, still fully in the moment, he made a point of talking about how much we all meant to him. Pointedly, he’d interrupt me when I was talking and place a hand on my wrist, “You know what? I love you so much. I love how we can talk about anything.”
I brought my life to those lunches, like a work in progress, and countless times, he was my editor, reframing an experience, bringing out the subtle points that were pivotal, telling me when to rewrite, when to bring in a new character, and when to strike this one or that.
There was a time when I began to know that he was saying goodbye. His conversation began to turn to earlier times, of childhood milestones and people he missed, of regrets and mistakes he’d learned to view as invaluable experience. He talked about his proudest decisions, his most impulsive acts, and of the abundant meaning of his relationships; who he loved deeply, who took care of him, and the ones who changed his life with their words, or the simplest of acts.
It was not a long enough stretch, but I knew it for what it was. I had become a place for him to go, where he could tell his story as he still remembered it. I was now a member of his audience, a hand raised, “Tell that one again about…” When he couldn’t, I helped him.
It’s been a year. In my dad’s absence, I haven’t lost the need for those lunch specials, I still look for the right place to go for the usual.
But grief is a work in progress, I know now. It may start with missing, painful missing. But eventually, it can be a comfort to turn that vase, let other flowers get the light. Today, I remember the comfort he needed at the end of things, the patient reassurance, the touch of a hand on his wrist, the affirmation from another of what he meant in the world.
I think less about how he comforted me, I remember how I comforted him, the difference I know it made.
If we can’t have someone back, if we can’t have their comfort, or know again what they meant to us, it can help to remember that love is as much about giving as taking, and the memory of loving someone is as important as how they loved us.
Today, I hear the echo of my great editor’s words in my ongoing story. They come from my mind and my soul and my heart where Dad remains, asking still, “How are you?”
You know what? I’m fine, Dad.
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Susan Bonifant is an essayist, mother of four grown children, and recent college graduate who writes about the discoveries we make, relationships we love, and happiness we find in our own company beyond the years of child-raising. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and the Concord Monitor among others. Susan lives with her husband and writer-cat, Gus, in Hopkinton, NH. Visit her blog, “Worth Mentioning,” at atticview.blogspot.com.