As much as I love working, I had been missing writing that didn’t have to be submitted to a client or an editor, and with the close of summer I had dreamy plans of writing more. About how, in June, we decided to move, and by July we were standing in a new kitchen, trying to figure out where the cereal now goes. About how we live “out in the country now” (quotations because we’re still, somehow, incredibly close to the highway, but also next to a conservation) and our backyard often has deer and wild turkeys and chipmunks and foxes and rabbits and I needed a friend to give me an in-person tutorial on how to identify poison ivy. About how the girls are in a new school and we’re in a new community and making new grown-up friends is a little bit like online dating. (She likes stand-up paddle boarding, too? Swipe right.)
Lots of plans to write once I ushered the girls off to school and we had mostly unpacked, although, as I’m writing this, I’m staring at a stack of framed art and photos yet to be hung. Alas, September brought even more change.
I bought a one-way plane ticket on a Wednesday morning to fly out that Wednesday night, because my siblings and I were told that suddenly, unexpectedly, a doctor declared that our dad had a terminal diagnosis and his days were numbered. I had haphazardly thrown clothes in a suitcase, repeating to myself that if I forgot everything, all I needed was my passport, my contacts, my credit card, and my phone, and I’d figure out the rest.
We — my siblings and I, hailing from three different continents — converged on Australia to spend Dad’s last days with him. There were long hours in a small beige room with all of us clustered around in borrowed chairs, but there was also a little downtime for eating meals and walking down to the harbor and flipping through old photos. A little fresh air and ice cream does wonders when the inside of a hospice room continues to take its toll, and collapsing onto a couch in a strange flat in a strange city is certainly less intimidating when you’re sharing it with your brothers. As we got closer to the very final days, there were cat naps in chairs and hospital cafeteria sandwiches and caffeine en masse and holding a hand that could no longer quite hold back.
What does one say at the end? When they’ve slipped off into days of no longer being conscious, are the words more for me or for him? And yet, despite my uncertainty, those last days together — whether speaking or simply being — felt like a gift. He was a remarkable man and I wish he was still here.
I flew back home and the sense of loss deepened. Theories abound as to why — maybe because being stateside felt very final, maybe it was because there was something comforting about being around my siblings who are sharing the loss like I am, maybe it was the jet lag and the lack of sleep making it worse, maybe it was because I spent hours and hours reading old emails from him, hours looking at photos, or maybe it was his comments on my blog that I forgot about, re-remembered, and cried fresh tears reading.
I wore comfy pants and hid in my bed while my saintly husband continued to shoulder household tasks and usher the kids outside to play and let me sleep in because my body didn’t know how to handle the fourteen hour time difference while in Australia or in Connecticut.
I notified friends and clients of his passing via impersonal mass email and text and Facebook and yet it felt, somehow, like I was sharing the burden. Two weeks prior, a friend had tweeted “I have a friend in pain and I can’t be where she is so I keep praying that people there will be nice to her.” I didn’t see her tweet until traveling home, but I smiled at it, as the kindness I received from strangers felt like a salve.
The man on the plane who hotspotted his phone once we landed in Sydney so I could check my email for updates. The entire staff at the hospice in Darlinghurst. The barista at the coffee shop by the Airbnb we rented who remembered me as “tea with honey and milk from the States.” The airline agent, who, when the system had booted me off my flight home and my body decided sobbing in front of two hundred people felt like the right thing to do, cried along with me and did her best to fix it. I had been wearing a sweatshirt and leggings and my hair was in a ponytail; the agents sniffed and looked sad and called me a ‘poor young girl’ and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I’m in my thirties and just currently emotionally unstable.
At home, the offer of “can I do anything?” hit my phone more than once. My brain couldn’t think of a single thing I needed until a friend texted me one night and said, “Are you hungry? Want something from Chipotle?” and I realized I hadn’t yet eaten that day, and yes, I think I could eat a burrito.
Her husband (also a dear friend) showed up at my front door with take-out and a six-pack of Diet Coke and a card and flowers and homemade cookies. I think, maybe, that when a friend experiences a loss, it seems like any token is hardly enough. Doesn’t everything seem terribly shallow? What can possibly mitigate pain? But truly, on that evening, I experienced the healing power of a Chipotle burrito and a cold Diet Coke.
My doorbell rang a few times and I emerged out of my bed to greet more than one delivery man in a hoodie and boxer briefs. There were sorry-your-dad-died flowers and a sorry-your-dad-died peace lily plant and an impossibly beautiful sorry-your-dad-died Simone LeBlanc box.
There were cards and texts and when I had ignored those texts, there was a friend who showed up with allergy-safe turkey chili and cornbread for me and the girls and vegan chili for my vegan husband. Maybe in the past I thought a casserole seemed absurd, but then I discovered that, in the midst of grief, the thought of cooking a meal or putting on real pants to do after school pick-up felt like monumental tasks.
I sat at the barstool at our kitchen counter, doing nothing in particular, when Jack suggested I take a shower.
“Am I that gross?” It was 4pm and I was in the clothes I slept in the night before.
“Kinda,” he said with a smile. A hot shower. A hot meal. Two work emails. An entire load of laundry. A game of Words with Friends. No Netflix, because I can’t risk watching anything that makes me sad(der).
“I’d like to get back to normal by Sunday,” I announced. “I’m boring myself with how pathetic I’m being.” A few pointed out that it’s important to take time and go easy with myself. I took a long bath and drank sorry-your-dad-died booze.
“It wasn’t a sorry-your-dad-died Simone LeBlanc box,” the giver sighed at the overuse of my morbid, flippant, hyphenated adjective. “It was a take-good-care-of-yourself box.” And so I am, or I’m trying, to the tune of book-reading for hours in the tub and hiding under four blankets and maybe even writing. Although, as an aside, I wanted to turn off the comments on this one, because I can’t bear the thought of anyone thinking I’m writing this for the sorry-your-dad-died notes, but then there’s Facebook comments, and I’m terribly indecisive right now, so here we are.
While they may seem trivial, there is something awfully comforting about flowers on your table and a candle on your kitchen counter and a card in the mail and an email declaring that his obituary made him sound like the most interesting man in the world (he was).
“Sometimes, people … will step up for you in ways you never imagined,” says Issa, a friend who lost her father a year ago. “Put these people further up the ‘chain of giving,’ as it were. Make sure these are the people you check on, the people you run to when they are in need, and the ones who feel the depth of your appreciation for them. People who help you get through things that are difficult and painful, especially at a cost to themselves, are priceless in the truest sense of the word.”
It’s a reminder for me to bake some I-wish-you-weren’t-going-through-this cookies or pick up a this-is-terrible-and-I-love-you potted plant for people in the future.
Somehow, in some way, inanimate objects and kind words gifted in love ease some pains, not least of which, the pain of my inbox now being woefully empty of emails from an old man on the other side of the world — emails filled with stories and impossible to pronounce Welsh phrases, emails telling me that he just got in from his morning run and that I write like an angel (truly, a humorous mental image), and emails insisting that I patently look like him and that American politics are the worst.