Eight years ago today my father passed away. Or is it seven? Sometimes it’s hard to keep track, in all honesty. 2006. Let me do some arithmetic on my fingers… yes, let’s stick with eight.
Eight years ago today my father passed away. He passed after struggling for years with several illnesses including three kinds of cancer, COPD, and Parkinson’s disease. He was on hospice care and had lost the ability to speak or stand, so it’s difficult to explain how his death was still a surprise; but that’s exactly what his death was to me.
Most of you regular readers of this irregularly updated blog know that both Hemstead and I lost our fathers, Hemstead far earlier than I, and you know that we both tend to mark the anniversary of their deaths/birthdays with at least some subtle post. Me, I often just re-post the piece I wrote for the Good Man Project a few years ago and be done with it. https://boomoy.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/irrelevant-things-and-a-birthday-letter/ Time and a healthy dose of introspection has given me wonderful peace with my father’s illnesses and his passing.
This year however, I find myself thinking about the immediate time following his expectedly unexpected death more than usual. A friend of mine told me he recently lost his mother, and while not exactly the same age I was, or the same circumstances, he’s close enough in the latter that it has encouraged me to open up that box and re-live some of what I went through to try and offer support and possibly insight.
He mentioned that he had broken down at work and started sobbing uncontrollably for 20 minutes, and then cleaned himself up and finished up. He said it was bizarre and unsettling and he didn’t much care for it. It made me think of that exact moment I experienced that exact same feeling.
As usual, I’m going to simply word vomit a first draft out that will change tense and person regularly, then will go back and clean it up later. So with that in mind, choose to read forward or move on.
The first and most powerful thing I remember after dad was buried were the powerful waves of grief. Honest grief. Grief in a way that I had never known it. Ever. These waves poured over me like tsunamis, but with the warning of an earthquake. Sometimes they’d last two minutes, sometimes thirty, but always the same feeling of drowning in sadness. Drowning is the word I hear most often associated with the feeling, and it feels the most accurate in my mind. I’ll try to describe it as I recall it happening to me. I feel it’s important to not only someone who has never experienced that kind of grief, but also to people who are finding themselves as befuddled as I was by these emotions.
-While there was no real warning, there were signs – what could best be described as a rumble in my ears a few seconds before and shortness of breath, as though the wind was being sucked out of one’s lungs. These were only moments before, not enough time to really recognize what was happening or react to what was happening in hopes to get to some emotional high ground in time.
-The body goes cold, numb even, and tremors settle in. It’s that feeling of being really tired to the point where there’s a vaguely euphoric swimming sensation, but in this scenario the euphoria is replaced with dread and loss. At this point there is no “stopping it”, you’re underwater, rooted in place by your feet and feeling the water get deeper and deeper around you.
-I personally have a distinct memory of my vision getting darker, but I can’t say if that’s not a revisionist memory or not. But I do know that people suddenly made me feel very uncomfortable, and claustrophobic. They weren’t helping, and therefore they were obstacles to surviving. I’d become very short and snap at the people around me in these moments.
These waves of grief would often leave as quickly as they had come, and all of the emotion was completely internalized, but I’d be left with a confusing absence of emotion for a while after. Well, that’s possibly not correct, I didn’t have an absence of emotion, maybe I just had “normal” emotions? And that was equally unsettling. Where did all that grief go? Am I broken because it’s gone now so suddenly? If I really cared about dad shouldn’t I still be experiencing all this grief? The after effects of this grief left a swath of destruction and ego clean-up that far outlasted the tsunami itself.
Then one day, driving from L.A. to my mom’s house, I got hit with one of these waves and I did something uncharacteristic: I started crying.
No, that’s not accurate, not crying. Crying is a civilized emotion. One could argue that the Leave Britney Alone guy was crying and was civilized about it. No, this was full Spinal Tap, Ours-Go-To-Eleven bawling that would put a hungry infant to shame. This was the kind of cartoonish bawling that Will Ferrell is paid an obscene amount of money to competently fake for our amusement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgNkjv1z6Mg. This was an unrepentant explosion of directionless grief.
I repeated the same pleas over and over, I bargained with the stoic air around me to make things different. I drooled, I leaked from my eyes and nose while my throat issued noises I’d have thought better left for a zoo than a man. I’m not sure how long, but it was from Culver Drive in Irvine to Oso Parkway in Mission Viejo, so I’m going to guess about 10-12 minutes.
And then as suddenly as it came on POOF, it was gone. It didn’t peter out, it didn’t ramp down, it was just… gone. And again, I was left with a din of silence after the tsunami. But instead of ego clean up I was left with… nothing. Peace, maybe? I licked my lips once with the dumbfounded look of a freshly burped newborn across my face, turned the radio back on, laughed a little and continued driving.
I bawled twice more on my drive home. The whole thing was refreshing but uncomfortable. I don’t like crying. Boys don’t cry. Don’t show that weakness, and don’t play all your cards.
I pondered the whole affair the next day, because I don’t function very efficiently in a void of data, and I came to a simple and stupid conclusion: Unfettered bawling is the pressure release valve on the pressure cooker of our emotions. It’s not a human trait, it’s a mammal trait, and it’s there for a very good, and life-preserving reason.
I know, it’s a pretty stupid “aha” moment, but it was a helluva breakthrough for me. I slowly started to accept those moments as cooking off a potentially larger problem. I started to laugh heartily at them, and WITH them. Slowly the tsunamis of grief began to “schedule” themselves when I was in a car by myself. I could give myself over to them completely, and come out the other side laughing. I found that I began looking forward to them.
Eight years later, I’ve not had much use for them, and I seldom find myself tearing up. Every now and again I’ll get hit by a rogue wave, usually triggered by something. Honestly, nearly every time that trigger is Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle, a song that exists simply to break the wills of men. But most importantly I’ve learned to embrace them, and roll with the squall rather than to fight against it.
Experiencing grief didn’t make me less of a man, and I believe embracing it made me a stronger one still.