My Odes to Grief

“I used to be a great and powerful man”, my father said to me the third-to-last time I saw him, in October of 2021. I walked into his room and he looked so old: white as a sheet, with slightly pink skin, hair all akimbo, eyes wet with tears. He spent those last few weeks crying so much of the time.

I said, “you ARE a great and powerful man, and you know as well as I do that strength comes from here” (pointing to his heart) “and here” (pointing to his head). He apologized for crying and I said, “well you know me, I am the most emotional person in the world and I cry all the time“.

He would die about 6 weeks later, about one week after speaking to me oh-so-clearly on the phone from his hospital bed in Bar Harbor, Maine for the last time.

I have had a hard time writing lately. I am not sure if it is the pandemic, the death of Cody’s grandmother who lived with us, teaching during the pandemic, graduate school, the nonstop droning length of COVID19, or my father’s death. But now, I am faced with two immediacies. I am gripped by grief: it is holding on to me something fierce and fast. It will not let go. People keep telling me just to “let it all out” but I am afraid to let it all out lest it consumes me and renders me a puddle of tears on the floor.

Those people who know me or my father, Michael Blythe, know that we had a very difficult relationship. He was a difficult person; he was highly intelligent in all areas except for emotions and communication. He was afraid of emotions and so diluted them, and he was afraid of communicating his emotions so he covered them with anger and rage. Ask his friends, the breakfast crew, about how much they loved him while recognizing the fierceness inside.

At the same time that my dad died and I came to understand the grief of a child for her parent, specifically the grief of a daughter for her father, especially a daughter who is so like her father minus the rage and anger, one of my best friends, my sister, really, has taken a turn in her cancer journey and now is in the hospital, breathing with the aid of oxygen, and worrying us all very much.

Death comes a-knocking. We must welcome it as an old friend, as one of the only guarantees of this life, and yet, we don’t talk about it because it is so frightening and so utterly sad.

I was speaking to a friend last night about my feelings of grief. She said, “you aren’t writing”. I said, “I know. I am afraid”. She encouraged me to start again.

I feel I am of two minds. One of them is rational and logical and understands that everyone dies and that it is ok. That brain says: everything in life is fine, and it is just sad that you can’t talk to your father anymore. The other mind is a tiny animal with gnashed teeth and sharp claws whose heart is outside her body. I had an internal analogy at first that I was a reverse pincushion; instead of the pearly ends facing out to protect hands and fingers, my sharp ends were facing out to catch me, gouge me deep, and feel the horrific bottomless pain that is losing your father.

The night that he died I stayed up so late, drinking a whole bottle of wine by myself over the course of a long evening (this was when I thought that alcohol would help: turns out, it makes everything much worse). I spent the evening looking at photos of me and my dad, especially of photos when I was little. I looked at photo after photo and I began to ask myself: what did we even fight about? I could not answer the question; I still do not know. I think it was that I was a headstrong teenager, and he was going through a crisis after losing his job, and those two storms met head-on and became thunderclouds that brewed for twenty years. I am so blessed that we smoothed those clouds out the last three years, he attended my wedding to Cody, and we talked all the time. I am so thankful to Cody for showing me the importance of healing my relationship with my dad, because he had lost his many years before, and was, like me now, always wishing he could call him.

The night he died I cried and cried. I felt like I was drowning under a heavy wave of water that would not let me up. I felt I was on a cliff’s edge about to fall. I felt a huge weight, like a stone, on my heart. It pushed deeper and deeper down and in, like what I imagine a black hole does to matter: I was collapsing. I went to bed at 2:30 and my mom woke me up at 4 to go to the hospital. I went downstairs and sat on her couch and said, “pull yourself together, kid. You have to drive your mother to the hospital where her husband has just died”. I said, “I am driving you to the hospital”. She said no. I said, “yes, I am” and she handed me the keys. We arrived at 4:25 and he had passed just a few minutes earlier at 4:19.

In that room, he was so peaceful, laying slightly to his side. His face was pink, pinker than it had been anytime over the last few months. When he finally was medicated for pain, he received so much medication that the nurses told us he must have been suffering for a long time. This was no surprise: he was always a pain in the ass about admitting anything was wrong. The nurses had cracked the window to let his soul slip out into the air, up to the mountains, out to the sea. He was so peaceful. He never had been so in his life. I sat next to him and smiled. In my mind, I said, “Daddy? Where are you? Are you on a plane? A ship? Traveling somewhere first class on an adventure?” I suspected so, and still do.

Grief is grabbing hold of me and won’t let go, and one of the only ways I have ever found to discover what I really feel and am thinking about is through writing. I also know that writing about death is hard for others to read, but perhaps that can change. Another friend and I were talking today about our friend in the hospital, and she told me that she envisions me as someone who writes and gardens, gardens and writes. In other words, she was the second angel to appear with the same message: write, Patience, write.

As I walk through the stages of grieving my father, experiencing an immense, tangible, and tragic shift in the public schools in which I have worked for 16 years, and support my friend who is also, perhaps, transitioning away from this reality into another one, I will write it all down. I hope you will join me.

Thanks for your patience.

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