grief

spring forward, fall back

When my father died, I was in the middle of a punishing Toronto winter. Salt caked the bottoms of my shoes, my knuckles split from the dry air. It was my first one away from the West Coast, and I was unprepared both practically and emotionally (for the winter, that is – but I suppose also for death). The next morning I was on a flight home to Vancouver. As the plane took off, the man next to me immediately tried to pick me up. I told him my dad had just died. He persisted. When we landed for the layover he asked me if I wanted to go to the bar with him. A flight attendant found me hunched under a chair at the gate and asked me what was wrong. She booked me into a new seat for the next flight, sitting in a row by myself. As soon as the plane took off, a man moved into the aisle seat, spreading his legs so that his knee touched mine. I took off my parka and stuffed it into the seat between us.

It was spring in Vancouver. My friends were already waiting at my apartment when I arrived, ready with snacks and magazines and distraction. My eyes kept drifting to the open window, and so we went for a walk in our t-shirts and jean jackets. The cherry blossoms on Victoria Drive were raining sweet-smelling petals on the sidewalk. Cliché would have me had me believe in that moment that it was all a cruel irony, something along the lines of how-can-things-be-so-beautiful-when-life-is-so-unkind or perhaps if-only-he-were-here-to-see-this. But branches snapped, synapses misfire, somehow all I could quite get out is ‘look at that. Look at that.’

I was 28, half my father’s age, when he died. The symmetry of this young death set in motion this thought, this undercurrent, slow like sap – what if I were already halfway done? I was always an empath, but this part of me has been set on fire. I am constantly in a state of this relentless feeling of being alive, and if sometimes too numb to feel alive, at least consistently not dead. I am overwhelmed now by the colour green. Green like my eyes, which every person at the funeral took care to tell me are just like his. (For the record, my mother’s eyes are also green – but fathers’ contributions tend to eclipse mothers when they are sparse enough to be named). Green was in short supply when I returned to Toronto the next day.

And now, two years gone, the smell of spring is now tied to the bright horror of that day. So much of the memory is redacted that the final cut makes little sense – the boozy breath of the man on the plane; cherry blossoms falling on my friend’s upturned face; standing outside the bar crying with only a sweater on. I look for myself in the frame, but it feels like a soap opera where they replace an actor mid-season and hope no one will notice.

For every part of me that didn’t make it through that winter, something new has grown in its place. Something that is too new to fruit or flower, but is growing nonetheless. The dead parts I’ve shed are like things that grow and see their season pass before their utility is known – like chestnuts, like dandelion puffs, like fallen leaves. I itch and ache from these new appendages that have not yet shown me what they do. I feel it most in the spring.

It’s the harsh glory of the sun on subterranean winter eyes, it’s the splitting husks of bulbs making way for a mighty green shoot. It’s cherry blossoms crushed underfoot on pavement.

It hurts.

But look at that. Look at that.

Beginnings, grief

The Losing and Lost

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I walk swiftly out of a room and pause.

My finger tips twitch – like the tail of a cat, like typing on a phantom keyboard, like…

I walk back into the room and sit.

I

I

 

I was raised by my parents to question authority and institutions. Or rather – they modelled it, punk rock kids turned into uncomfortable adults, while as parents they encouraged me to play nicely in the world.  It’s taken me a few years into my own adult life to identify that sudden electric pulse of resistance that lights up my electrons every time I come across a rule, a form, a chain of command. I resist as a reflex.

You cannot argue with grief.  No matter how intrinsically counter-culture, no matter how self-designed a whimsical rogue you may be.  Cliches come, unbidden.  Everyone’s loss is unique, a matrix of circumstances between two people that create a singular chasm of said and unsaid, of regrets and triumphs, of questions unasked.  But grief visits in ways that are humbling in their universality.

It’s not necessarily what it looks like from the outside, per se, but the impulse.

Did you know there’s a ‘club’?  There’s a club.  They found me before I could recall whose battered membership card I have held for them on rough nights or intimate coffee dates.  Like battle-worn nurses in a triage ward, they stepped forward, hands on open wound, applying steady pressure and checking vitals.  I send texts.  “What’s happening to me?”  Mere minutes later they respond, always ready for the call: “You’ll see.”

I caught myself reading Hamlet on the beach.  Shakespeare, a true and steadfast friend.  Prose so visceral I had to put the book down and look at the thoughtless hot bodies parading on the beach, the exhausted, shrieking children wrestled by haggard parents, the fat seagulls feasting on abandoned fries. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.  But I’m not one for melancholy.  I rolled my eyes at the contrivance of turning to a famous dead father narrative for guidance.  I texted a member of the club, looking for a better role model.

I can’t decide if I look older or younger.

I make lists.  Is it a Virgo thing? I don’t know.  I’m an atheist and a brutal pragmatist, but these days I look up, out, anywhere but inside for some lists and some answers.  I buy plants and tend to their mysterious needs, watch their leaves reach for the sun, grow and fade.  I download an app that shows me the stars and crouch at my window looking for planets.  While trapped at work and spinning out, I make a list of things that I think I would like to do.

  • paint toenails
  • yoga video
  • read for 30 minutes

When I get home, I have forgotten making the list.  I lie on my carpeted floor and flip through Hamlet.

It keeps happening.  I find myself moving, full force, having just summoned the strength to stand and walk, with no idea where I’m going.  A perfect blankness of the mind as the body, a husk ruled by synapses, continues on its path.

Did I mention there are metaphors?  There are metaphors.

  • Plants: Helping living things to grow
  • Cleaning out belongings: letting go of the past
  • Astrology: finding a larger order to seemingly random events

There are more but they’re not coming to me right now.  Also, some of those are not metaphors.

For someone who makes a living from the things they say (either scripted and memorized, or painstakingly crafted) I’ve been wildly entertained by not being entirely sure what will come out of my mouth at any given moment.

I have a friend who I worked with years ago who would make jokes constantly about their late parent.  I found them funny and yet also inherently unnerving.  Never sure if they were an attempt at levity, a cry for acknowledgement, or a signal flare for help, I just made sure they knew I was listening, and laughed if I could.  Now in their shoes, I realize it’s a tough crowd out there. I am the orchestrator of the suspended drum fill, a creaky silence as my gallows humour swings confusingly in the social atmosphere.  A tip for future members of the club – making a dark joke and then yelling “but I’m fine!” is the worst possible way to end your set.

I was barely learning how to be, and now I have to do it all over again.  I don’t know anything anymore.  I don’t know how to write, how to make food, how to talk to people. Who to forgive, what to forget.  The script is blank.  The stage directions are crossed out.  I’m going from memory now.

I clutch old t-shirts.  I turn pictures face down.  I light candles.  I spend sleepless nights.  I cry to my counsellor.  I stay home.  I make lists.  Cliches follow me like the frame of a Hallmark movie, but I am one parent down and no longer afraid of being just like everyone else.

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

I walk swiftly out of a room and pause.

I

I

I take a deep breath, and wait.