When it comes to grief, I often feel there is something I am missing.
I watch my friends and relatives deal with the loss of a loved one and often they are drenched in sorrow, tears, depression, and anger. I just passed the sixth anniversary of the death of my dad, and I have lost some friends and colleagues about whom I cared deeply. In fact, as I enter my 60’s, I find myself attending too many funerals as social events. However, in watching the grieving of others, I have been surprised (so far) by my own sense of detachment, as if I’m failing at grief.
My dad, Jack, was a wonderful man. He gifted me with his sense of humor, an indispensible tool in my experience as a teacher, and he lived his 86 years with a sort of joyful kindness and a true affection for others, especially his grandchildren. When we gathered for his funeral, the same comments came up over and over. No one could remember ever seeing him angry. No one could remember him uttering an unkind word toward another person.
As a child, he came to know the things I cared about and made sure I got to experience them. He was never a sports guy, but he could see my interest grow. So he made sure I got to see the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine (unfortunately a guy named Joe Moeller was pitching that day instead of the great Don Drysdale or even greater Sandy Koufax). We made regular trips to Westgate Park where the minor league Padres played their games. We experienced hockey, professional basketball, and the Harlem Globetrotters together. When Bill Cosby broke on the scene, and I began to memorize his comedy routines and perform them at Scouting events, he surprised me with tickets to see him live on stage. I am positive he would never have spent that money on himself just for his own enjoyment.
My dad’s last three years were difficult ones. He became increasingly crippled by arthritis and was in constant pain. Dementia began creeping in. He kept punctuating conversations with phrases like, “I bet you never thought you’d see your old dad all crippled up like this” as I’d help him into the car on the way to endless doctor appointments. More and more often, even at holiday gatherings, he began to express his desire for his life to be done with. Hearing every one of those woeful comments was a moment of grief for me.
He passed away in the hospital, sneaking away suddenly and quietly. He woke up in the morning, began teasing the nurses and talked one of the pretty ones into helping him with his morning coffee. He got on the phone to my mom to find out when she was coming in to see him and took time to tell her once again how much he loved her. And then, when no one was looking, he died. It was May 2, 2008.
I expected to have a wrenching, emotional response even though he had been through three years of suffering, and we had had numerous close calls during that time. Instead, I found myself consumed with the details of his funeral, keeping an eye on my mother and my children, and in writing a eulogy that would give him all the credit he deserved.
That emotional response never came for me, not entirely. My good friend Stephen noticed it and told me, “You can’t just be the tough guy through all of this. You have to allow yourself time to feel it.” But it just wasn’t there. Not then.
The first time it hit me was in June. I was on a walk through the neighborhood and mentally working on a “to do” list, and it hit me that it was almost Father’s Day and that I needed to be sure to get by the store and pick up a card for……oh, yeah. I didn’t need to do that. I would never need to buy a Father’s Day card again. Suddenly, his loss began to feel real.
In September, I was chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year, a truly memorable recognition, at a televised, gala event at the Balboa Theater in San Diego. In accepting the award, my thoughts went right to him and how proud he would have been to see me receive that award. He was never the kind of father that I had to work to impress or please, but someone who always gave me the confidence that came with knowing that my father believed that I had already exceeded every expectation that he could ever have for me. I missed him there, on that stage that night.
One of the most trivial, but most painful moments came when I grew tired of seeing “Mom and Dad” on my cell phone every time I had to call my mom. It was inaccurate. Dad was gone. Dad was not going to answer. I needed to delete my father. Every press that removed the “and Dad” felt like a rejection and a betrayal.
Even today, I will catch myself thinking of an odd encounter or a pleasant moment and how I need to get on the phone and call my dad and tell him the story. And then I catch myself in mid-thought and lose him once again.
I began to realize, early in the process of writing this, that not only does everyone grieve differently, but that my reactions to grief are packaged all around the history and circumstances of the loss. There are potential losses that I refuse to even think about much less write about. I can’t begin to imagine how crushing they might be.
For now, in my way, I still grieve for my dad. This grief continues to be doled out to me in teaspoons, painful ones. Perhaps the next one will be a tidal wave.