Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday, and he would have been 87. It is his first birthday that he’s not here for; the first birthday in which none of us will call and sing Happy Birthday to him, or be there with him while he blows out candles on the pie because he was a pie person and not a cake person.
My daughter asked what we would do to celebrate Papa’s birthday, and suggested we get a cake, but then I said no, a pie. Then I remembered that she’ll be gone the night of his birthday and a pie for three is a bit much, especially when two of us have given up sweets for Lent. But I thought Dad and Jesus would be okay with us celebrating his birthday a little, so we compromised with miniature lemon tarts in lieu of the whole lemon meringue shebang.
So far I’ve made it through my first Christmas without him. It was okay. It wasn’t terrible and it certainly wasn’t great. It just was. Slowly all of us who loved him are trudging through this new swamp of grief. Some days we find a solid patch of dry land and we get through the day pretty well, and something we see might make us remember him and laugh. Other days it’s all muck and quicksand and gnats in an existential stew of remembering he is not here and won’t ever be again.
I am grateful that I was able to be with him in his last few days, and especially grateful that I was able to look him in the eye, and tell him I loved him, and say goodbye, while he looked right back at me and told me he loved me and nodded his head in understanding. As hard as that was, it was also a gift, a gift I would want for everyone.
I think about those people who have months or years to say goodbye to their beloveds as death takes its sweet and inevitable time with cancer or ALS or Alzheimer’s disease. More often, though, I think of those who have no opportunity to say goodbye, or thank you, or I love you. In this last week I’ve been thinking especially of the families and friends of those seventeen beloveds killed in Parkland, Florida. As if those deaths weren’t horrific enough, violent and sudden and meaningless, they left so much unsaid. I hope all those people who were killed died knowing that they were deeply loved. They are now deeply missed.
Grief can be an extraordinary motivator. We’re watching those grieving friends and parents put their grief into action, and it hurts when their grief is mocked or belittled. If death doesn’t make us weep, we might as well turn in our humanity card. I hope for these brave friends and parents that all they are doing and saying turns out to be healing for them, and for us. We cannot stop death, but maybe we can stop it from coming too soon or too violently.
My personal grief over my father’s death is a smaller motivator, I suppose. I am aware of making sure the people I adore know that I love them. I’m working to say thank you more often. I’m aware that there is an end to this life, that we don’t have unlimited time to love well and practice forgiveness and reconciliation often. I am trying to keep my goodbyes current, as a chaplain friend once advised.
Big grief is a motivator too and every single morning since December 14, 2012, when my daughter goes off to school in the morning, I tell her I love her. And I mean it more deeply than she can know. I do not want to celebrate a single one of her birthdays without her here on this earth, or any Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or Easter.
My heart goes out to those families and friends who have begun their first year without. May their words and deeds begin to drain the swamp, at least a little.