How do you talk about something that you're still coming to terms with? This is the question I'm asking myself right now, as I grapple with the most truly unimaginable loss I've ever experienced in my life.
It doesn't come all at once, that's for certain. It's like light through the blinds — the grief peeks in, bursts of the weight of the loss flanked by the mundanity of every day, the joy of the memories, the stress of the tasks ahead.
I'm sitting in my dad's leather chair, with his humorously small television sitting all the way across the room from me, on but silent. Ciara, dad's beautiful young collie, is passed out in front of me, her bottom row of teefs exposed as she grumbles in her sleep. I had planned to visit them both in April to distract dad from what we were starting to assume would be his lost Big Bend trip. He had relapsed, he was tired, the chemotherapy was brutalizing his body. It seemed like Big Bend would have to wait another year. Still, we had nothing but hope. We had no inklings except that this was a rocky patch that we'd see through. So, I planned a trip to introduce him to my Ziggy, to enjoy a few weeks together after more than two years apart.
I went with my mom and Ciara to say goodbye this morning. A few days ago, we had dropped off dad's Big Bend clothes — his heavy walking boots, khakis with big pockets for snacks, brown belt, and white shirt that friends and family will all recognize from his self-portraits. I picked out warm, thick socks because I didn't like the idea of dad's feet being cold, but forgot underwear. And then I had to have the conversation with myself that felt both silly and important: do I make another trip to bring dad some underwear? He doesn't actually need them anymore, technically. It's more symbolic than anything. And yet...
And then, the universe provided. I didn't realize it right away, but Ciara had the answer. After I got home from that initial drop-off, I was sitting on the couch talking with my brother when Ciara appeared with something in her mouth that she was proudly shaking about and playing with. It was only when she tried to stick her own foot through one of the holes while the rest was still in her mouth that I realized she'd stolen a pair of dad's clean underwear from a hamper on the floor of his study. Edward and I laughed and laughed, and took the underwear away from her. That could have been the end of that anecdote, but later that night, after I'd decided it was worth making the trip back to the funeral home, it hit me. Ciara had picked out the underwear. She had decided before I did that I'd be making the trip, delivering the underwear so dad could be properly clothed. It was funny and lovely and weird, all in one breath.
I was worried about the visit today. I didn't know if it would be healing, shocking, painful, or something else entirely. It was all of those things, and none of those things. Walking into the room was the hardest part, that very first glimpse of dad on the stretcher. Then, it was rolling waves of thoughts and feelings. I expected him to sit up and talk to me. I thought I saw him move a few times. He looked good and peaceful, but also somehow not like himself, too. The multifaceted nature of the human experience has been the biggest take-home over the past week.
I left dad his favorite brown hat today, and that will be with him when he is cremated. He will don his full desert attire. We will be taking most of his ashes to Big Bend. My brother and I will be taking the trip this April that dad had planned over a year ago, and dad will come with us. We will all three commune and find the best place for unforgettable sunsets so all of us can go and be with dad anytime we want, along the Rio Grande.
It doesn't make sense to me to see an "end date" for my father, reduced to a timespan. I know I'm still deep in the early stages of processing the loss, but this particular feeling doesn't feel like denial — it's really just that dad is still here. He is still here in my brother and me, in our adventures and our tangential storytelling and our love for people and animals. He is here in the seemingly endless network of friends and loved ones he drew to himself who have stories about his wit, his charm, his intellect, his curiosity. It's here in Ciara and her insistent yelps.
The mourning I feel is for the things that I wanted to show dad and tell dad that I will not have the opportunity to, for the plans he had that he was not ready to abandon. It was too sudden and too soon and I will never get over the fact that a global pandemic kept us apart at the end. But neither of us left anything important unsaid — we know, in our bones, the love we have for each other.
My dad and I used to sing this song together in the car to each other on our various adventures. It was with each other, but also for each other. I hadn't returned to the song in a long time, but as I was building a playlist for his celebration of life next weekend, I remembered it. I sat in his living room with my brother, my mom, and his dog, and we listened quietly. The words feel right.
I love you, Lance Wittlif. I will never be able to thank you enough. As it should be.