As I write, my 86-year-old Dad died of a blood disease six years ago today, at about 6:30 a.m. at the Maine Medical Center. It was time. His mind still sharp, his normally robust frame then skeletal, his usual muscular arms spindly, his body shaky, frail, falling and done. Yet is it ever time?
For months– no, years after he died– I missed him. He was no longer here. I sensed his absence everywhere. I’d go to his grave site in Westbrook, look at his head stone, feel the Earth under my feet and know his ashes were below in the gorgeous wooden box one of my brothers had so lovingly crafted. Dad had been an amateur woodworker, had learned a lot and taught a lot with my four brothers “in the shop.” They talked wood: texture, grain, colors, hardness and softness, how to cut dovetails, the importance of patience and practice, tool sharpening, and essential shop skills. They also talked patience and practice in golf and work, how to sharpen problem-solving, and essential life skills. At first I missed the sweet scent of freshly cut cedar chips, the buzz of the saws, the buzz of their chatter. Every time I sat at the golden meditation bench Dad made for me, I thought, “he will never build another.” Every time I used the striated cutting board, I said to my husband, “we won’t get any more of these.”
I would listen to “his music:” Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole. And I would miss Dad’s trumpet joining in with the jazz musicians’ tapes. Never again would I hear him scat along with “his tunes,” thrumming his sure surgeon-hands on the steering wheel. He was gone.
When he first died I missed how he smiled when I walked into his den as he sat in his worn gray leather chair. I cried when I couldn’t call him with some Red Sox news or an easy fudge recipe. I wrote and spoke some words about him at his funeral. Every sentence began with “I will miss….”
Then one day I heard a sermon in which the clergy said that maybe, when we die, we don’t go anywhere. A shocked congregant asked her, “What? Really, where do people go when they die?”
She repeated. “No where. Split that word differently. They are now here.”
That moment my grief process changed. I heard and saw Dad everywhere. I now feel his presence. As I walk today with my EMS hiking poles, I sense his energy in the grips, as he wanted to look “sporty” in his last days, needing support to stand up. So he used them for a few months rather than a cane. They leaned next to his bed at MMC the morning he died. His nametag still on them, I feel his hands on mine.
Years ago, during training to run a half-marathon, my right hip hurt. I asked Dad which kind of doctor I might go see. He said, “It doesn’t matter. They’ll tell you to rest.”
Not wanting that answer I asked, “Maybe an orthopedic doc?”
He repeated, “Doesn’t matter. They’ll tell you rest.”
I pushed, “How about a sports medicine person?”
He said, “Susan, did you hear me? Rest.”
Last week my back went into spasm. I asked myself, “Who should I see? My primary care doc? Maybe a pain specialist? Go to a spine clinic? Call a physical therapist?” I laughed as I heard Dad’s echo. This time I went to bed.
A picture of his smiling face, held in one of his mitered inlaid poplar, teak and birch frames, is one of the first images I see as I wake up. I start my day as Dad melts my heart and warms it as he did when I popped into his den.
It’s a mystery of grief that, six years out, I miss him more and more. But, on this anniversary of his death, I am aware that he didn’t go anywhere. And there is a huge difference between the absence of “there he was” and the presence of “here he is.”