Noth­ing but Thank­ful

Pasatiempo - - Essays - by Erin Sin­de­wald

It’s al­ways a phone call. De­spite our world’s ever-in­creas­ing in­fat­u­a­tion with e-mail­ing, tex­ting, and so­cial net­work­ing, when some­one in your life dies, this in­for­ma­tion will most likely be de­liv­ered via tele­phone. With my fa­ther, it was through my cell­phone. It was just af­ter 8 p.m. on Dec. 13, 2007. I was a se­nior at Grin­nell Col­lege at the time, and like many a stu­dent in the days be­fore Christ­mas, I sat with my eyes glazed over my lap­top screen, fever­ishly typ­ing away at one of the many fi­nal pa­pers I had due over the course of the com­ing week. (This spe­cific pa­per ar­gued that the Cen­tral Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment would spell Bad News Bears for Nicaragua’s agri­cul­tural sec­tor.) But then my phone rang, my mother broke some rather un­pleas­ant news, and that was that. One phone call for­ever di­vided my life as I knew it into two cat­e­gories: Be­fore my Dad had died and Af­ter. Into when fam­ily din­ner reser­va­tions were made for a party of five and when our party dropped to four. Into when I could tell my Dad about the ex­traor­di­nar­ily at­trac­tive young man I had spot­ted at a nearby book­store and when I couldn’t. Two years later, I still can’t help view­ing my life through th­ese lenses.

As I mud­dle for clar­ity dur­ing the un­fa­mil­iar land­scape of what comes af­ter the Af­ter, I pon­der the unique chal­lenge posed by the last weeks of the year. Los­ing a loved one can chill the hol­i­day sea­son in a way that has noth­ing to do with the Earth’s tilted axis and the slanted an­gle in which the sun’s rays hit the North­ern Hemi­sphere dur­ing the win­ter months. The hol­i­days are times of cel­e­bra­tion, of fam­ily to­geth­er­ness, of count­ing one’s bless­ings, of giv­ing, of grat­i­tude. So when a sea­son that is sup­posed to be joy­ous is in­stead clouded with grief, some­thing as small as a par­tic­u­lar song lyric of a Christ­mas carol on the ra­dio— say, “through the years we all will be to­gether, if the fates al­low”— can elicit sad­ness, re­morse, and even anger. Af­ter all, one might ar­gue in­ter­nally, why haven’t the fates al­lowed me to be with my loved one this hol­i­day sea­son or with any of those who re­main? Fur­ther, fam­ily gath­er­ings can be a cruel re­minder of an empty seat at the ta­ble that can never be filled, while the sug­arplum salvo of hol­i­day cheer spew­ing from tele­vi­sion sets and shop­ping malls can make those who ap­proach the sea­son with heavy hearts feel any­thing but cheer­ful.

How then, does one find heal­ing dur­ing the hol­i­days and through­out the other 11 months of the year? In her book, Good Grief: Heal­ing Through the Shadow of Loss, Deborah Mor­ris Co­ryell states that, “Heal­ing is an ac­tive process, not a pas­sive one.” In other words, los­ing some­one is not some­thing we “get over” with time, but rather, some­thing we ac­tively live, some­thing that should be hon­ored. Now, as I re­flect on how I can best heal as ac­tively as pos­si­ble as the year 2009 draws to a close, I couldn’t think of a more fit­ting way to honor my fa­ther, his life, and his mem­ory than to ex­plore the art of good­bye. In­spired by Dr. Ira By­ock and his book The Four Things That Mat­ter Most, I plan to bid adieu us­ing what he con­sid­ers to be four es­sen­tial phrases: Please for­give me. I for­give you. Thank you. I love you.

So, to my fa­ther, I’m giv­ing one last gift, that of a proper farewell.

Please for­give me.

Please for­give me for all the times I was im­pa­tient with you, for when I would dis­miss your lec­tures by rolling my eyes, for promis­ing to com­plete a task and not fol­low­ing through. Please for­give me for the time I broke the lamp in the fam­ily room and blamed it on the dog, for spilling that Diet Coke from Burger King on the all-too-re­cently cleaned beige up­hol­stery of your Grand Prix, for fight­ing too much with Kerry and Bill. For­give me for not want­ing to go into law or medicine or en­gi­neer­ing, for caus­ing you to worry when I’d run at the for­est pre­serves by my­self, for all the times I may have dis­ap­pointed you in any way, for any rea­son, in any con­text.

I am sorry.

I for­give you.

I for­give you for show­ing off your ri­fle col­lec­tion to ev­ery sin­gle boy I ever brought home, for your tem­per that was of­ten much too short, for the times your sour mood and the shout­ing matches that re­sulted made Mom cry. I for­give you for be­ing too hard on Bill, for your ag­gres­sive driv­ing that made me ner­vous, for the time you opened the Star Trek DVD we bought you for your birth­day and you re­sponded with, “This isn’t widescreen,” in­stead of “Thank you.” I for­give you for your oc­ca­sional nar­row­mind­ed­ness and for all the times you dis­ap­pointed me.

It’s OK.

Thank you.

Thank you for loving me un­con­di­tion­ally, for sup­port­ing me al­ways, for call­ing me Doll, for telling me I could live at home for­ever and that you’d never turn my bed­room into an of­fice or ex­er­cise room. Thank you for all

the sac­ri­fices you made, in time, money, and dreams de­ferred, so that I could have ev­ery ad­van­tage and op­por­tu­nity that you never had. Thank you for mak­ing me laugh, for kiss­ing my belly when I felt sick, for invit­ing me to take the van around the block to test the brakes you had just re­paired. Thank you for mak­ing me a sling out of old tow­els the night I sliced my fin­ger in half while help­ing Mom cut up a cu­cum­ber for the salad and for all the times you used the tweez­ers on your Swiss army pock­etknife to ex­tract var­i­ous items I had mis­placed up my nose.

It’s much ap­pre­ci­ated.

I love you.

I love you for loving me and let­ting me love you. I love how you’d say “br­ef­fast” in­stead of break­fast, your ten­dency to plu­ral­ize nouns that gram­mat­i­cally needed no plu­ral­iz­ing, and how you’d cir­cle all the items you longed to buy in the Sun­day pa­per’s glossy ad­ver­tis­ing leaflets. I love how you’d ac­ci­den­tally shut off the lights on me when you didn’t no­tice me read­ing in the front room, the way I could see the mus­cu­lar Marine calves I didn’t in­herit con­tract and flex when you’d walk around the house wear­ing your cut­off jean shorts, and all the times you fell asleep on the couch watch­ing the His­tory Chan­nel. I love that you lived your life rooted in love, and I love that my love for you con­tin­ues to grow in your ab­sence.

Please for­give me. I for­give you. Thank you. I love you. Good­bye.

And that’s that. I may never be able to re­turn to Be­fore, and the un­fa­mil­iar land­scape of the Af­ter that looms ahead can and will over­whelm, but to­day, I am re­minded that, de­spite the losses we all in­evitably face, the hol­i­days still call for cel­e­bra­tion, for count­ing one’s bless­ings, for giv­ing, and for grat­i­tude. And to­day, I am noth­ing but thank­ful.

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