Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Successful Grief

Five years ago today, I was answering phones and taking orders at my desk, flirting with the UPS guy and wishing I made more money. Somewhere over the course of the workday, word reached our little office that Michael Jackson had died, and I remember being instantly struck by the memorials that cropped up across the interwebs: what a legend he was, how he changed the world of pop music forever, how he inspired a generation. And I remember getting really annoyed, because a day earlier, had you asked just about anyone what their knee-jerk reaction to Jackson was, they would allude to the various questionable-at-best news stories that had hit the wire over the previous decade. But suddenly the man dies, and he's a god, remembered as musical perfection.

(No disrespect to the legacy of Mr. Jackson--I don't know enough about pop music to have an opinion--and don't worry, this post isn't about Michael, anyway.)

A day later--five years ago, tomorrow morning--I arrived at work still irked (and, admittedly, self-righteous in my irkedness), and began answering phones and taking orders and preparing for the UPS guy. My phone skittered across my desk, "MOM" blinking across the screen, but I ignored it, it not being uncommon for her to leave me a message. A moment later, it skittered again--had she forgotten something?--and again, I ignored it. And a moment after that, my work phone rang, and her voice was both blood-deep comforting and oddly off-key.

I remember her saying, "I don't know how to say this," and I don't remember how she said it but in short words laced with tears she told me my father had died the night before. The details were few at that point, but I think she knew I'd only be hearing half her words anyway and so she kept them brief. I hung up. I went to my boss's office to calmly explain, but my mouth arrested at the the word, and at "my da--" it was overwhelmed with sobs. My coworkers ushered me out the door with assurances, and not being ready to go home and explain to my roommate, I went to my church, where I bumped into a friend and sobbed some more. And then I went and sat on the floor of the sanctuary and sobbed some more. And then another friend came and sat with me, and I sobbed some more.

It was a weird grief, even then. I had to give myself permission, not to cry so much as to cry without direct reasoning. It took some days to arrive at the right words. "I started losing my dad twenty years ago," I would tell them, "and now I'm finishing losing him." Having never used the term "estranged," I found that it bound things up neatly now: "My dad just died" results in hugs and casseroles and tears; "My estranged father just died" provokes a twisted face and a hand squeeze, brief words and respectful distance.

And this is where Michael Jackson proves helpful. Because death forces a summary on life. "He was a good man" is spoken over caskets; "She was an awful person" whispered at gravestones. And I felt, especially in those first couple days, the magnetic pull to one side or the other: to summarize him as good or bad, all or nothing. And it was that silly, self-important frustration that kept me balancing the truth, somewhere in the middle: my father was a very good man, and, to be fair, he wanted to be a good dad... Just not enough to be one. This, especially five years later, isn't said in malice or bitterness--only in truth. He may have been wonderful in the first three years of my life, but what I remember are well-meant (but brief) vacations and awkward phone calls, frustration and glimpses of what might have been but wasn't. And after death, and five years after death, it's hard to avoid the summaritive: "He was an awful father" or "Ya know, things were really fine." Neither of those things are true, but both have been tempting to say.

But this is what's on my heart tonight: does forgetting the day--as I did; my brother reminded me this afternoon--mean the grief is over, the process complete, the book closed? "I started losing my father when I was three," I've said, and I made entries and inserted sketches in that book of loss until I was twenty-five. If the book has been so closed that I forget to trace its spine on the shelf with my fingers, does that mean I've finished my sadness? Or that I've closed down to it? Or something else? Is something lost--or found--when I neglect to draw my fingertips over a name carved in stone on a particular day of the year? Is he less known, less loved, less remembered?

This isn't a justification or a guilt trip--just one of those questions that flits in front of your eyes, insect-like, for brief pondering before something averts you back to the present. What's a blog for if not for musings like this, where I can brush the words off my hands and into a world that can read and think and judge and reflect and reply... :)


  1. True, true, true. But the helpful thing about the book metaphor is that even a book "so closed that [you] forget to trace its spine on the shelf" can still be taken off the shelf when rediscovered, to be reread and remembered as part of what has shaped us.

    1. Mmmmm truth. Oh, perfect metaphors!