So much can happen in a day. Contrasts which highlight the breadth of life; rich and wonderful things that fill emptiness somehow, even as the outline of loss remains.
As my dad slowly disappeared into the fog of dementia my perception of the fog was of its thickening in fits and starts, with glimpses of the man who was my dad unpredictably visible or obscured, the fog inexorably becoming more thick over time and then he is gone entirely, the waiting for another glimpse eventually replaced by an understanding that he has been completely and forever consumed. My grief likewise played out over time, slowly, gradually, to the point of final acceptance and goodbye. His physical death was an afterthought. Or so it seemed at the time.
His religion and my mom's, his wife of sixty-three years, anticipated an unveiling at which, a year after his death, family and close friends gather at his gravesite for ritual prayers. It was a practice that was not important to the entirely nonobservant me. But of course I intended to participate, as to my folks, to my surviving mom, it was important indeed.
She had her own serious health problems. Perhaps that was the reason she decided to observe the rite several months prior to the usual twelve months after death, though she never said so. Setting a date was not without complication. There were important holidays around which to plan during which custom and religious law prohibited the ceremony. There was the need for a religious person to attend to lead the prayers and her choice had his own scheduling conflicts prompted by his own medical needs. The only date that fit coincided with my younger son's, one of her cherished grandsons, birthday.
"I'm sorry, but it's the only day."
Her health continued to deteriorate and her supplemental oxygen was now constant. She struggled with simple activities. I feared she might not live to participate in something so important to her.
The day before the scheduled ceremony I drove to her home unannounced. It was the day that would have been their sixty-fourth anniversary and I thought to surprise her with a bouquet. I walked into their home, her home, and found her without oxygen feeling just fine. Was it a miracle? I chose to attribute it to a medical regimen of steroids but as the therapy had been ongoing for some time by that point who could say?
The next day we gathered at the cemetery. After the ritual prayers came an opportunity to say something about my dad. My mom expected me to offer a few words and so to please her I had mentally prepared the thoughts I would impart. As I began, I found myself suddenly and entirely without warning overcome with an overpowering emotion of sorrow. My grieving had occurred over a long a time and was completed with my dad's death. Or so I had thought. The sorrow, so acute, was intense.
Finally I gathered myself and went on, remarking on the marriage anniversary of yesterday and the birthday of today, appropriate in a way as my dad had said many times that having his grandsons was the best thing in his life. My brother then followed with incredible eloquence. Beautiful, perfect, from the heart. I listened with quiet amazement and deep appreciation.
The ceremony over, the cemetery party returned to my folks' home for a small reception where my mom, still without oxygen, carried on as a vivacious and engaging hostess. Towards the end everybody sang happy birthday to my son.
After a time, the guests having departed, we left my mom home with my brother and drove the forty miles to my son's home where we planned an evening out to celebrate his birthday. What a lovely time, a festive meal at a fine restaurant, favorite food and drinks, my sons ordered things that they knew I favored, and we ate and drank and laughed and celebrated. How happy a time together, my wife, our two sons, the married older's wonderful wife, and me.
As the evening was reaching its end, desserts having been eaten and coffee refilled a last time, I sat back in my chair and quietly went from face to face, silently reflecting upon how the day had begun and how it was now ending. I considered myself to be very fortunate as I settled back and basked in a few moments of personal contemplation.
Usually I consider, when I stop to think about it, myself in a front row seat riding life's roller coaster, a participant in the adventure. But that day, sitting there and regarding us all, I saw myself rather as sitting in a movie theater, leaning back in a comfortable seat. The theater is darkened of course so while there may be others in the audience I am not aware of them.
On the screen plays a movie, one of those big budget generational epics, grand in scope and production, a story of a family covering many, many years with characters young at the start becoming older as new characters join the story. Characters exit, characters enter. The movie is very long and goes on and on. I sit and watch.
Originally published in Evening Street Review
Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-01-13