On never quite hitting the wall

When I was seventeen, my dad and I took an eight-hour car ride to San Francisco for the Western Regional Oireachtas. That’s an Irish dance competition, in case you didn’t know. Anyway, my mom was “too sick” to travel with us — as she had been for nearly three years at this point — so it was just my dad and I. We stayed at some fancy hotel where the competition was being held with a ridiculous per night rate. That meant we couldn’t afford to stay the extra night after the competition was over, so we ended up leaving San Fran at around 9p.m. That meant driving all night, after an exhausting day, with no stops.

10608319335_873c725e6dAfter a few hours my dad was zoning out a bit. His eyes kept fluttering. He was nodding off in spite of his best efforts to stay awake. So I ended up just shouting at him and cranking the radio. We had the windows down, too. The icy coastal air helped.

At one point, we encountered some fog. It was sometime around 2 or 3 in the morning and the fog rolled in thick along PCH. My dad wasn’t falling asleep anymore; rather, struggling to see the road. He kept thinking he saw a wall in front of him, just on the other side of the fog.

“It’s weird,” he said. “Like it’s jumping out at me.” He had to resist the urge to slam on the brakes. There was no wall up ahead. Only fog and the endless, dark highway.

Grief is like that imaginary wall in the fog. I have moments where his death slams into me. Moments where I fully realize his absence, which will be a fact of my life from here on out. It’s a fact with soul-crushing weight. And yet, I don’t feel the impact. My body tenses as though it will slam into that wall in the fog, yet I emerge on the other side. Panicked and breathless, but still in one piece.

I keep waiting for some thought to halt me. To make me fully understand. To force me to bear the weight of his death. And yet I slip through. I drive along this highway, resisting the urge to slam on the brakes. I keep going because it’s night and there’s no place to stop other than home — and that’s a long way off yet.

Image source: Thomas Leth-Olsen

On being numb

I’m still here. Still grieving. But I’m moving on with my life. My dad would’ve wanted that. But it’s so hard to speak of him in the past tense. Reminds me of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. That shift in tenses. The “is” becomes a “was”. It’s hard to wrap my mind around, to contain the gravity of existence being snuffed out in the matter of a verb.

My mind wanders to my dad often. I think of him every day. I think of him whenever I come across something I’d have wanted to tell him about. I think of him when I have news in my life. I think of him when I think of my childhood. I think of him when I look at my daughter and find myself saying and doing the same things he did with me. Silly things, mostly. He used to say, “Shampoo! Leaves the sham in, takes the poo out,” and I thought of that while giving September a bath the other day. I think of him every time I hold my daughter in my arms.

And it’s scary. That shift. That I’m now the one doing the comforting, rather than the other way around. Sometimes it hits me hard and I feel very alone. Not actually alone in my life right now, but my memories of the little girl I was and still carry inside me is so very alone.

Most days though I feel numb. My mind drifts to my dad and I picture him in his casket and I shake my head to push the image away. I resolve to think of something else. Anything else. And that makes me feel numb. I’m refusing to feel the pain because I’ve had more than enough of it this year. I feel like I’m maxed out on pain and sadness and I just need to be okay for a while, even if I’m not. Even if there’s a million issues that have yet to be resolved. I need to be okay for a while.

Maybe I’m not numb. Maybe this is just what grief is. I don’t know. I’ve never really done this before. And it’s like a slap in the face when I realize I’ll never speak to him again. It might sound odd but it’s something I have to realize over and over again. The norm was picking up the phone and talking to him every week. The norm was seeing him offer the warmest smile whenever I walked in the room.

51pIm254qFLAnd so now I sit here listening to his playlist and wonder why I was so blind and so naive and why he was so stubborn and defeated. I wonder why I could never tell him how much he meant to me, when all he ever did was give of himself to me as much as he was able. When I first got into Irish dancing, I was into Irish EVERYTHING and he was, too. We came across this one song that was so sad but lovely. I never really paid attention to the words though until I listened to it after his passing:

My childhood days bring back sad reflections

of happy times spent so long ago.

My boyhood friends and my own relations

have all passed on now like the melting snow.

But I’ll spend my days in endless roaming.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free…

…But I’m sick now, my days are numbered

So come all ye young men and lay me down.

                                                    — Carrickfergus, Roly Daniels 

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?