I walk out into the cool, clear night. The cold air slaps my flushed face with the distant bitterness of snow and stars. From their dome of blackness, the stars peer down at me as I walk through the mud next to my Dad’s car, and open the squeaky gate to the alley to bring in the recycling bins.
My nearby house is bubbling with chattering children, playing music, building lego, drawing spiders and superheroes. Now, alone, in the cold and empty quiet behind my garage, the reality sideswipes me, the fact I’ve been busily avoiding catches me with a silent pounce—and I let it tear at my chest.
This was your last night on earth, one year ago today.
I try to be brave enough to stand still in this knowledge. To let myself feel it without running away this time. To honour this night, last year.
A bright object pulsing in the distance draws my stinging eyes to the sky above the end of the desolate alley. Is it the Chariot of Death, come to carry you to Heaven like it did last year? It taunts me by coming closer and closer, almost above me, but fails to stop for me. It has no place for me. I have no ticket. No pass. No way to come with you, Dad.
The bright chariot, disguised as a plane, flies on past the stars, and straight on till morning.
And now it is a sailing ship, Peter’s vessel, flying you to Neverland, where you will be ever young, and true to your boyish heart—your delight in life, your enthusiasm for movies, books, toys and trees and children and peanut butter banana sandwiches—will never, ever grow up. And Wendy will sing you lullabies. And I will cry.
Here’s another poem about my Dad from this summer, written in early July.
The Simplest Things
It’s been nearly eight months but the simplest things can still set me off,
like dumping out Suzie’s Spicy Brown Mustard, which I took out of your fridge after you died and kept as long as possible (even long after it expired) just because I didn’t want to let any piece of you go—
anything that smelled like lunch with you, Dad, like you visiting, like you smiling at me from across the table, and it being the best day ever because you were there.
I miss you so much in ordinary little things…I’ll be deciding what to make for dinner, and thinking I’ll make something you like, and then suddenly remember that you can’t just drop in for dinner anymore. I will see someone in the corner of my eye wearing a reflective vest, and think for a second that it’s you, riding on your scooter. If a car goes by that looks like yours, my heart skips a beat, wondering if perhaps it’s you coming to visit. I still think, “Oh, maybe Dad can drive me to this appointment,” and then have to remember you can’t.
I was there when you were dying. I arranged your funeral and wept over your ashes when I picked up your urn from Kearney. I was there when you were buried, but my head and my heart are having a hard time catching up. It’s like I can’t really realize you’re gone. Often I say to myself, “I should really call Dad and catch up,” and then I remember that I disconnected your phone after you died, and why can’t I remember that? I feel like someone who is constantly waking up from a happy dream, only to have reality slap me in the face.
So many things remind me of you: the garden beds you built out front, filled with brave spring bulbs peeking out, and the planters in the backyard by the garage, your worksop, which contain the mournful remains of summer sunflowers and tomatoes, now scraggly and black, the little hooks on my cupboards which you hung up for my washcloths, and the many books on my homeschool bookshelves, which you were always bringing for the kids, whom you adored. It is hard to realize you’re gone because there are so many signs of your loving presence everywhere.
One night shortly after you died I couldn’t sleep, and went to read on the couch. I pulled a book from my Montgomery bookshelf: “Emily Climbs.” In it was an inscription from you to me as a child, “to my dearest ‘star,’ love + hugs–Dad.” Emily Starr was also very close to her gentle father, and lost him at a young age. Reading this always made me cry as a kid, because it felt like my pain in being separated from you after the divorce. I was four then, and now I’m forty, but I’ll always be your little girl, and being apart from you still hurts terribly, especially each time I momentarily forget, only to remember again.
Loving you always, and waiting to give you a huge hug in Heaven,
There is a common misconception that safety lies in control, and that the more powerful you are, the more you can control. But one thing my Dad’s recent death from cancer taught me is the bravery of surrender.
Let me back up a little to his last month or so of life. None of us realized quite how sick he was, although we had our suspicions. All of us, his family and friends, wanted to somehow rescue him, stop the disease, and make him get better again. After all, he had already recovered from the brink of death twice in the last five or six years.
But Dad, in his quiet, firm way, never making any drama or fuss, already knew. He spent this last year, this year of horrid covid isolation, preparing his apartment for me: purging papers, decluttering, labelling, sorting, highlighting his Marie Kondo books and covering his walls with mindmaps and plans for his home, putting everything in its place so it would be easier for me to deal with when he passed.
He kept telling me enthusiastically how many old papers he had sorted and gotten rid of, and still I didn’t realize. Perhaps it was too difficult for him to tell his only daughter the words “I’m dying” out loud.
When we went to the oncologist, and heard that his PSA’s were skyrocketing, I think he had confirmation that his fight was coming to an end, and he could now let go. He spoke to me of the peace of surrendering, but I stubbornly encouraged him to keep trying. His reaction was not despair, although I know now that the news hurt him deeply, but was his acceptance of a bigger plan, in which he no longer had to grip the wheel so tightly.
At first, when the pain intensified and his body no longer wanted food, he wanted to hide away by himself. He told me he felt like a grumpy bear who kept getting woken up while trying to hibernate.
But when I begged him, weeping over the phone, if I could not come and do something to make him feel better, not offering food or solutions, but merely comfort, he admitted he would perhaps like to be sung to.
So the next day, with the promise of a song and a gentle massage, he let me come and see him, lying in bed with his cozy toque and scarf, and very little able to move.
The next few days were a painful dance of trying to soothe, while also encouraging him to try to keep eating…pulling out all my best mom tricks, giving little sips of juice, convincing him to let me feed him minuscule bites of kiwi on a tiny grapefruit spoon.
“It’s your baby bird diet,” I joked, while blinking back tears.
After three days of this, I was able to speak to his oncologist over the phone and ask him the hard question:
“What is my role doctor, to try to save him, or simply to soothe him in his parting?”
His clear answer was given gently and honestly: “To soothe. Within a month, he will be with the angels.”
I was devastated—but also freed. No longer did I have to fight, but to surrender, and to walk my Dad as gently as I could to the gates of Heaven.
And Dad, you let me walk you there. You didn’t hide your weakness from me, nor your pain.
A few weeks before you had been hard on yourself, feeling like a terrible disciple, because you’d fall asleep every time you tried to meditate, even now, as you were trying to prepare your spirit for the next world.
Having a gentle, loving father like you has helped me understand the tenderness of God, so I said to you:“But Dad, don’t feel bad. God knows your heart, and he knows all you’re going through. He knows you want to spend time with him. Just tell him so before you settle in to pray, and it won’t matter if you fall asleep. Just imagine you’d come over to read to your granddaughter, and she, being only two, fell asleep on your lap. Would you be mad at her?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, it’s the same with our father God. He loves you and is so happy when you seek to be close to him, even when you’re asleep.”
Not long after, you found the courage to not only be a little child before God, but before me. You let me soothe your aches and gently stroke your head until you fell asleep. Thank you, Dad, for this honour.
Thank you, Dad, for surrendering to getting more help, when things became too much for me alone, playing nurse when all I know how to do is be a mom. The bravest thing you did was give up the comfort and control of your own home to enter hospice care, so that I would not have to worry that you’d be alone, in pain and unable to get a sip of water at 2 am.
You surrendered and let yourself be carried to the hospice by the friendly ambulance guys, and after six more days, in an atmosphere of peace and prayer, you let yourself be carried to Heaven.
Since you let me accompany you to the steps of Heaven, I know you’re still so close to me while I’m on earth. Together we struggled, we surrendered, and in the end, everything was perfect.
When I was in the depths of grief after losing my baby daughter Josephine five years ago, I found it was very hard to go through holidays that focus primarily on being joyful. The pressure to be happy was too much. Christmas is cosy and lovely and normally a huge favourite of mine, but not when the pain is still too raw. In times of struggle, I prefer Easter.
Why? Those of you who know me might be thinking of one thing: chocolate! All the chocolate without all the work of Christmas. I am definitely a believer chocolate’s ability to comfort and to express affection when given. I almost always include some chocolate in the grief baskets my friend Julia and I make for bereaved moms, along with my baby loss poetry book and other encouraging books and self-care items, but no, chocolate isn’t the reason.
Although these days, when things are extra stressful around the world, there are times when I’d like to simply bury my entire face in a Tuxedo chocolate layer cake, there is something chocolate cannot do: accompany me in my suffering. Share my grief. Give dignity to my tears, by saying, “I, too, have suffered. You are not alone.” This is something God can do. This is something Jesus does from the cross.
“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.” – St. John Paul II
Despite all the wild and crazy things that happen in a complex world where there is human freedom, and also the realities of pain and death, we can be consoled by knowing that we do not suffer alone, for we have a God who is compassionate. As I would tell my kids in homeschool, compassion comes from the Latin “cum” (with) “passio” (I suffer). But why would God want to enter our mess, instead of remaining “aloof in icy splendour,” as the archbishop of Toronto poetically asked yesterday?
Love. A personal love for each person ever created. A tender love for you and for me individually. A desire to accompany us in our hardest moments, and to help us bear them.
I have experienced this same desire myself. After losing Josephine, I had an intense desire to be with others who were in pain, to accompany them in their mourning, to hold their hands on the long road to recovery. I could not make their pain disappear, but I could feel it with them, and let them know their grief was valid–was in fact a beautiful sign of their immense love for those lost.
So if you are in mourning this Easter, I encourage you to reach out to the source of love through prayer. God truly cares about your struggles, and wants to help you carry your crosses, as once he carried his own: with blood, and sweat and tears, but also with the dignity of one who gave his life for others freely, out of love. By reaching out to console others in pain, you, too, share in the healing power of God’s generous love, a love stronger than death.