Author’s note: “Puzzled, intrigued, and a bit embarrassed by my reaction to my dad’s death, I wrote about it to make sense of it. Through this process, I discovered some of the mysteries and miracles of grief. I found some peace.”
I didn’t think when Dad’s time came, he’d really die; I figured he’d bully God like he bullied everyone else and continue to live, forever. So even though my dad was ninety and suffering from serious congestive heart failure as well as various infections, his death was a shock.
“He’s gone,” my brother said from California after my husband, Bill, handed me the kitchen phone. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2009. Thick autumn sunlight shone through the window over the sink.
“Hmmm. When?” I asked from Virginia. I had no idea how I felt, what to do. I wished tears had sprung to my eyes, but they didn’t. I didn’t even choke up. I nodded my head. Dad was a difficult man to love. Grieving him wasn’t turning out to be any easier.
With Bill watching me, I hung up the phone and said, “Dad died,” though I was sure he already knew. He nodded in silence. Bill stepped closer with his arms open to hug me, but I stepped back and wrapped my own arms around my torso. Undeterred, he took another step and hugged me as best he could.
Once released, my feet moved me step by step out of the kitchen toward the dining room where I could sit down. I didn’t make it. Instead, I had to settle for the doorjamb between the two rooms to prop me up. I repeated the details to Bill, such as they were. The caregiver was turning Dad to prevent bedsores when his heart stopped. My brother was upset because he had been on his way to the house, but he was running late and wasn’t there when Dad died. Bill and I exchanged a glance and small smiles at this. My brother was usually late.
Then I was silent. I didn’t know what to do. Dad was the first of our parents to die. I wanted to go about doing whatever task I had been doing, as if the call had never come, but feared that wasn’t appropriate. Apparently, my silence disturbed my husband, who was accustomed to me being more talkative and active.
“Anything I can do? Anything I can get you?”
I shook my head “no” out of habit. But the offer took root. What I really wanted was a nice glass of spicy red zinfandel. I hesitated. Was this a polite offer I was supposed to decline? Would he really go get me a bottle? I might have been numb, but my brain was still able to analyze⎯hyperanalyze, actually. I felt like I was observing myself as a stranger.
Now, you have to realize my husband is a wonderful, generous man. That said, he is not a “Can I pick anything up for you from the grocery store on my way home?” sort of guy, like my dad in that regard, now that I think about it. I tried to convince myself that I could do without the wine, or I could go get it myself or go with him, but the harder I tried, the more I wanted the wine and the more I wanted my husband to go get it for me. My dad had just died after all.
“I’d really like some wine.”
“OK, what kind?”
“Where should I go?”
“Safeway or Fern Street, I suppose.” Both stores were less than two miles from our house. Fern Street, a small wine shop, was closer.
“I’ll be right back. Anything else?”
I shook my head. After he left, I realized I hadn’t said red zinfandel. I dismissed my concern. Surely, after twenty-six years of marriage he knew that.
And then I was alone, still propped up by the doorjamb. I wanted to cry, tried to cry. I even hugged myself, dropped my head and pretended to cry, hoping this would stimulate real tears. But I had the crying equivalent of the dry heaves. No tears came.
Something else did. It felt as if two unseen hands reached into my stomach, my whole abdomen, and probed for something. I tightened my arms, which were already wrapped around me and bent over in pain to resist this force, but those hands continued to search. The pain intensified. The invisible hands dug deeper. Even in my distress, I was pretty sure whatever the hands were after needed to come out. But still, some part of me resisted. Did I not want to lose what those probing hands were after? Was I just resisting because of the pain? Either way, whatever the reason, part of me wasn’t giving up without a struggle.
I continued to hug myself and rocked slightly, trying to breathe. I was powerless, and I could only wait this thing out. I realize now, I still didn’t cry.
Who knows how much time passed? It felt like a long time and an instant all at once before those hands, with a final tug, left with their prize. I gasped. I remained bent over, my hands on my knees, trying to make each breath a little deeper.
I felt my aching abdomen with my hands. No blood, no particularly sensitive areas. With each breath, a bit of calm entered my body, my mind. Finally, on an inhale, I stood up slowly as if I were in a yoga class. I exhaled, put my hair behind my ears, and looked around the dining room and kitchen. The sun was now blasting in the kitchen window, one last show before descending below the horizon for the night. I was relieved to see everything was the same, no evidence of the attack. Was it possible for an emotional experience to feel so physical?
I made my wobbly way to the dining room table, planted both hands on its surface before sitting down. I shook my head. A ridiculous smile spread across my lips. I must have looked like an idiot. I felt like one. My dad had just died, and I couldn’t cry and now I couldn’t stop smiling.
I didn’t know why I was smiling then, but I think I do now. I wish I could say that I was smiling because those hands had ripped out all my fear of Dad and anger toward him, but that wouldn’t be true. It took me years to replace those feelings with compassion and forgiveness. But I like to think those hands at least started the process. I was glad he was out of pain. I was glad he couldn’t hurt me anymore. And I was glad I had survived his death and those hands ripping from me something deep within. Perhaps I was smiling at the irony that it wasn’t easy for me to let go of the man I’d kept at arm’s length for so long.
There were good reasons I kept Dad at a distance. I think back to the evening of the Fourth of July when we had just arrived home from a long trip. I must have been in my late teens. We hadn’t unpacked when my best friend, Meg, came up the driveway.
“Do you want to go to the beach and see the fireworks?”
“Yeah, but I’d better stay and help unpack.” I didn’t even want to ask Dad if I could. I knew better than to ask.
Meg and I were looking out at the ocean. The moist air felt, smelled, and even tasted good, a welcome change from the desert we’d returned from. We didn’t see or hear Dad come up from behind, a beer in one hand.
“Hi Meg. What’s this about fireworks?” Dad asked with a cheeriness he reserved for nonfamily members.
“Oh, Meg’s going to the beach to see the fireworks and wants me to come. I told her I couldn’t. That we just got here. Need to unpack.”
“Go ahead,” Dad batted his hand at us. “We can unpack tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll be back right after the fireworks,” I assured him.
“Have fun, don’t rush.” I gave Dad a quick hug and a peck on his cheek without his usual prompting.
A few hours later, after saying goodbye to Meg, I walked up the driveway to the front door and found a very different father waiting for me.
“Where have you been? You left your old dad here to do all the work…”
He ranted on and on. I listened. I knew if I said anything, it would make things worse. It couldn’t go on forever. I waited for him to lose steam while I listened to the waves and repeated to myself over and over in my head: I knew I shouldn’t have gone. I knew I shouldn’t have gone. I just knew I shouldn’t have gone.
By the time Bill came home, the smile was gone, and I was sitting at the dining room table, exhausted. Bill triumphantly pulled a bottle of white zinfandel from a brown bag and offered it to me. My lips flexed into a fake smile, but I didn’t reach for the bottle. I was too numb to be angry.
“It’s white zinfandel,” I said. He looked at the bottle.
“Yeah, so? Isn’t that what you drink?”
“No, I like red. White is sweet, cloying.” A hint of annoyance made its way into my voice. I knew I couldn’t pull off a thanks anyway sounding the least bit sincere, so I didn’t try.
Bill remained amazingly good tempered given my displeasure. Under different circumstances, he would have been hurt, upset. He would have said, “Well, I’ll drink it,” before putting the bottle in the fridge and going off to read. But he remained and chatted as if I weren’t being totally ungrateful.
“I wondered. I saw the red too. But I thought you liked white. Don’t you like white?”
What did he think? That I was mistaken? I had misspoken? That he knew what I liked better than I did? I knew he was trying to make things better, but I only felt worse.
“I’ve never bought white zinfandel,” I said with a hardness in my voice I instantly regretted. I had no control over my emotions. I felt angry one moment, giddy the next, just not sad. At least not the respectable crying sad I longed for.
Didn’t he know me well enough to know what kind of wine I liked? Still a part of me knew I wasn’t being fair to Bill. I hadn’t said “red,” after all. He’d tried. Plus, he was probably upset too. He and my dad got along fine, each respecting the other, neither wanting more than the other could give.
I didn’t have the energy to fight, but I also didn’t have the energy to say my usual Oh, it’s OK. I said nothing.
Again, my silence spoke for me.
“Do you want me to go back? Get the red?” Bill asked while his eyes pleaded, Please, no, no, no.
Unbidden, a small smile came to my lips, a real one this time. He was so cute, trying so hard to be nice in a way so foreign to him. I desperately wanted to say the usual, “Oh, that’s OK, I’ll be fine.” Or “I’ll go get it.” Or even, “I’ll go with you.” But as the smile grew, I dropped my eyes, and my head made the slightest nod. Bill had offered. I really wanted a glass of red zinfandel, and I really wanted to say what I wanted. After all, my dad had just died, he hadn’t been able to bully God, and I had survived his death and those probing, ripping hands. I braced for his reaction.
“You really want me to go back?” Bill sounded more surprised than annoyed.
I looked into his eyes.
“Yes, I do.” I said as a matter of fact. What he did with this information was up to him.
“OK, I’ll be back.” Bill said with a big smile.
I hadn’t demanded, I hadn’t hinted, I hadn’t begged. I’d spoken clearly. I couldn’t believe how good that felt and how effective it was. I was just glad to tell the truth, to say what I wanted. I had learned not to do that as a child. What I wanted wasn’t important, if it inconvenienced my father, which it did, seemingly, all the time. Apparently, I had learned this lesson so well I was afraid of telling my husband what I wanted.
And soon, he was back. When I heard him come in the front door, I walked from the kitchen that was now in shadows into the dining room to meet him. Once again, he pulled a bottle triumphantly from a brown bag. I gave him a wan smile. I took the bottle, looked at the label, nodded approvingly, and placed it on the table.
Dad had just died. A dull ache was settling in replacing the severe pain of the probing hands and the numbness of the unknown. This was an improvement.
I opened my arms wide, and took the last step to Bill.
Michelle Berberet is an artist-in-residence in the Arts and Humanities Program at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, in Washington, D.C. She writes and creates art with patients, family, and staff. In addition to “Delmarva Review,” her writing has appeared in “America Magazine” and on the Alexandria DASH buses and trolleys. Her mixed media artwork appears on the National Academy of Medicine’s website.
“Delmarva Review” publishes the best of original new poetry, nonfiction, and fiction selected from thousands of submissions annually by authors within the region and beyond. The independent, nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The print edition is available at Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford, and Amazon.com. An electronic edition is also sold at Amazon.com. The website is DelmarvaReview.org.