The last time I saw my father, he looked as I had seen him countless times, dressed in a crisp blue shirt, red tie and black dress pants, looking “so fresh and so clean, clean.” (He prided himself on sprinkling his every day vernacular with hip hop lyrics.) Except he was lying too still and there would be no gentle whirring of his heart if I rested my head upon his chest. Most striking, however, was how cold he was – my fingers automatically recoiled from the temperature of his hand.
“You’re cooler than cool; you’re the chilliest,” my dad would often exclaim. This particular Ray Romero-ism rang through my mind as I saw him for what would be the last time on this earth. I leaned over the casket to kiss his forehead — something he had done to me countless times throughout my life — and I could think of nothing else. Perhaps it was semi-disrespectful; perhaps I should have played a mental montage of our many happy memories; perhaps I should have collapsed in a pile of tears; or perhaps this was exactly how my father would want me to react. My father, the man with the big personality and even bigger sense of humor, would have retorted he was the chilliest of the chilly. I like to think this was the best way to honor him then — with a rueful smile, laugh and nod to his off-beat sense of humor.
I wish I could say this is how I always am — sad, but focused on the happy memories and the blessing of 28 years with my father. As many can attest, grief is many things, but it is not always pretty. It can be heart wrenching and make a person confront many painful truths. I could attempt to sound profound, but for lack of a more poetic description, it is simply a topsy-turvy experience. It is as predictable as snowfall in the Sahara.
One moment, I was driving a windy road through upstate New York, merrily basking in the brilliant array of fall colors, and then in the next, I recalled the last time I was in this area was with my dad, visiting colleges (and the Baseball Hall of Fame). The tears began cascading down my cheeks and the grief became so overwhelming, I was convinced I would never laugh light-heartedly again. I mourned all of the stolen memories that would never be, such as walking with him down the aisle on my wedding day, or watching my (future) children play with “Papa.”
I took him and his love for granted for 28 years. What would I do for 28 more seconds, even a few more seconds to hear those three words — I love you — that make a person feel whole and safe.
Sometimes grief consumes me to the point that I am unable to focus, obsessing over futile questions. Did he know how much I loved him; how he was the main man in my life for as long as I can remember? Did I make him proud? Was I a terribly selfish daughter for moving so far from home?
Sometimes I reach for my phone to call or begin to compose an e-mail when I find an article he would have enjoyed. It always takes a few seconds before I realize I will not find his mellifluous voice on the other end, ready to tease me about the superiority of his beloved USC Trojans (a love of USC was by far his greatest sin). This realization stings the harshest, because I immediately dwell upon the fact that I meant to call him the day before he died. I had every intention of doing so, and I did not.
Conversely, it has been through grappling with my father’s death that I have experienced moments of immense grace, when I truly felt the enormity of God’s love and presence. I have been increasingly humbled, mostly by the amazing people in my (and my family’s) life and their outpouring of love and support. Walking behind my dad’s casket as we entered the church, I found myself thinking, This was not the walk up the aisle I envisioned with you, Dad.
I stared at the casket, as if trying to a bore a hole in the wood to mirror the one in my heart. When I glanced up, I saw the church filled with a sea of people who loved not only my father but also my family. God’s love was enveloping us, comforting us, and affirming and assuring that He was with us. I felt the overwhelming impact my dad had on each of those present — how one life profoundly transforms and affects so many. It was awe-inspiring and one of those times when you have to catch your breath because your heart skipped a beat. Walking behind my father’s casket would have been an impossible feat were it not for the love and support of those surrounding my family and me.
I often find myself awash in a strange mixture of sorrow and joy, leading me to believe these two seemingly contradictory experiences can only be understood in the context of one another. There was something unbelievably wonderful and sorrowful in witnessing my sister-in-law, who was pregnant, standing next to my father’s casket. And the following week, when we learned she was expecting a baby girl, the granddaughter for whom my dad so fervently hoped, there was simultaneous happiness and sadness. These moments will forever be bittersweet. While we celebrate with everyone present, there will always be a missing piece.
Other times my father seems so close, as if I were to strain my ears enough or crane my neck in such an angle, I would hear the timbre of his voice or see the curve of his smile. This has been the single most comforting part of this entire experience. My faith tells me he is much closer than I could comprehend. But I grieve for his physical, bodily presence. As C.S. Lewis aptly stated, “Grief is the price we pay for loving someone. If you dare to risk to love someone, surely your heart will be broken.”
Grief is a peculiar process: At times it feels like an emotional free-fall and at others like a paperweight permanently affixed to my heart. I willingly pay this debt; having 28 wonderful years with my dad was surely worth it. And though my heart shattered the day my father died, it has bit by bit begun to heal with the knowledge that my father’s love for me still remains.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.