I have lived this day before. In a dream. Shortly after my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to pre-grieve. If you know me, then you know I have type-A characteristics and it should make sense that I would immediately try to perfect grief. But months after his diagnosis, a dream slowed this impulse down for me: I dreamed that I was in my family’s bathroom and crouching to clean out the cabinet. I came upon my father’s toothbrushes– the no-frill ones that had his family dentistry business information stamped on them. These were the toothbrushes I used most frequently growing up, and the meaning of the dream was immediate: Soon, these toothbrushes will be what you have left of your father. For now, you have the real thing just feet away in his room. Get up and live.
I woke up and immediately applied the dream to my life. I became present more with my father, willed myself to push the end of his life to a corner as I enjoyed his company. I didn’t always succeed but he lived for 8 years after cancer and I laughed with him more than I cried for him during those years.
I believe time is cyclical and the dream was a premonition. Today I cleaned out the cabinet in my family’s bathroom and found the last two remaining toothbrushes from my father’s business. I wept like I did in the dream but this time there was no waking up to a reality where he was actually there. I can’t feel his stubble anymore when I kiss his cheek and he is not here to tell me my head is too big to lay on his shoulders. Maybe the dream was this moment’s version of myself communicating with the girl I was in that eight year span that was neither BC (Before Cancer) or AD (After Daddy). I needed to be present in those limbo years and I’m glad I found a way to give myself that heads up. But what of today? How to be present with grief?
I am a big, grown Daddy’s girl and today I had to go looking for him in the wind. What I did to find my Daddy today:
1) Cry in public.
This morning, I posted a long, emo post about the struggle of being in the red again when my daughter asks for toys. I felt like my father. He frequently cried in public and only jokingly called it allergies. The difference is that he was very private about financial matters. Although he struggled under the weight of Reaganomics while raising 4 kids, I doubt he told anyone but his closest friends. Hell, I didn’t even know how much he struggled until the limbo years. I wonder now if it killed him. Slowly. The worry over the collapsing American dream (the one Trump’s wife plagiarized) building like cancer in the blood. There are so many other things worth dying for. I will not die in service to the American dream. My first name is not Horatio. My last name is not Alger. I have no investment in this fiction. So I cry about it in public unashamed.
2) Hold a baby.
When my father was first diagnosed with cancer, the meds made his hands shake and he couldn’t work for a while. Dentistry was integral to his identity not because he loved it (he didn’t) but because it was his livelihood. He struggled in those days to feel a sense of worth as he wasn’t contributing as much financially and this society paints financial contribution as the only way to participate in full humanity. I call bullshit and so did he… by holding my godsister everyday. He shared his diagnosis with the family in December and she was born in May. During the first months of her life, he visited her ever day. He held her to stare at her and sometimes he cried. I know that holding her and holding others is what kept him alive longer than his diagnosis. He was given 1 – 5 years and he lived for 8. Today I held my godsister’s baby sister who is a month and a half old. I held her and wondered if my father also meditated on the fragility of human life– on the fact that we were all once this dependent on others to live. On the irony that a few tiny cells gone haywire could render us this helpless again. Back then, he told my godsister’s mother that when the baby smiled in her sleep, she was talking to kinfolks on the other side. He wondered out loud who she could be talking to. Today, when I held the sleeping baby in my arms and she broke into huge grins, I didn’t wonder. I knew.
3) Let people feed me.
Daddy was as much his Momma’s boy as I am Daddy’s girl. During the limbo years, he took long lunch breaks at his mother’s house and she fed him and let him sleep. Daddy was good at being company. He wasn’t funny about other people’s food and he was everybody’s welcome guest. One of his favorite stories is about the only sentence he knows how to speak in Spanish, “La comida es muy buena.” He learned it in dental school when he went home once a week with a colleague whose mother cooked for them. He told me that he said it every week and she always laughed. Today I was my Daddy’s daughter and people fed me and my daughter all day. It was humbling and new and joyous and my new shit. My Daddy was a magnet for “Come on over” friends but I am just growing into this comfort with interdependence… I’m no island. Peninsula maybe (shoutout to Andre)… Being fed by people teaches me to feed folks. I have new dreams for my future kitchen, my future space. I imagine making big pot dinners like the ones my father used to make. I imagine stretching meals like he used to so I can accommodate people who drop in. I imagine people dropping in. Letting loved ones feed me today has helped me imagine my own home. My own couch. My own table. Since I first moved back into my mother’s house, the dream of my own space has grown more vague with every failed attempt to “get on my feet.” Today I know that there is joy to be had even before you are able to walk. And I know that when I am able to afford my own space, it won’t just be my own space.
4) Write a messy blog as if with horse hooves.
Daddy was a musician. He played the piano, organ, and the bass guitar. He read music and played by ear. He listened to songs over and over and picked out their tunes until he learned them. He had a piano and a Rhodes, the first in the living room and the other in the den. What I am trying to day is that my father didn’t have a “piano room.” A place to practice and fumble in private. He worked out his songs in company. Once when he was preparing for a church concert and wearing out a chord that he was trying to get right, I joked that he sounded like he was playing with hooves. He laughed and kept hoofing. By the time he got to the concert, he’d grown enough to play the song he heard in his head. Today I have decided to write like my Daddy played the piano. While it is true that music is both his talent and passion, it is also true that he wasn’t immediately great at every song he tried. He gave himself permission and humor in flubbing and he found joy in practicing– even before a critical audience. This blog post in particular feels like Daddy fumbling through that song. The right way to say this or that hovers just above my head, which is cloudy with grief and exhaustion. This blog post is not the way I like to write. There is little poetry and craft is all over the place. I am trying to get at something and I’m not sure what it is. I am writing to learn, much like my father played that jumbled chord over and over until he learned to control his fingers, perfect his timing, and match his imagined sound to his real one. I am tired of the writer’s room, the lonely coffee shop and the journal corner. I am the daughter of a Baptist pianist. I play to bring on the shout, release the tears, and punctuate the part of the sermon that promises to set you free. But this is living room practice, so I appreciate your hanging around as I fumble through it.