There is a craggy shore jutting around the beach. Just off the edge of a sloping ramp, he parked over tumbled ocean rocks. My father sits in his wheelchair facing the sea. He always loved the sea. He turns and smiles at me. I stand in front of him, holding my arms out to him for leverage, but he waves me away. He stands and walks, navigating the rocks. He can walk. I can't believe it. He is healed. At night, I dream that my father can walk and that my daughter is alive. They are impossible dreams. Dreams borne of half-awake prayers that start as grounding but end in cures and resurrections and healing. He walks past me toward the wild sea, all white caps and the thunderous booms of water falling to earth. He stands before the ocean, glancing back at me before walking into the water, fully clothed, but free.
photo by RachelCreative.
I’m not sure if my father remembers that my second daughter died in my belly. But whenever I talk about how my baby died, my father cries. His sickness envelopes his body, wrenching his hand into a limp, unusable limb, seating him forever in a wheelchair. It took decades of slow torture, losing his abilities one at a time. His legs shake involuntarily like phantom remembrances of walking.
His emotions run closer to the surface now. He expresses, emotes, leaks tears despite himself. I hadn't seen my father cry until I was in my twenties, long after he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, then it seemed his crying wouldn't stop. I used to avoid making him cry. I turned away from him. It embarrassed me. I cracked a joke. But these days, it comforts me to see his humanity. It reminds me that this man is my father and I am his safe space, even though the crying is so unlike him.
He doesn't remember her name, or at least, he has never spoken her name aloud. He never has spoken of her. He has never asked me about the grief. He has never asked me how I am coping. He asks me how my new house is, even though I have been here for five years. But when I mention Lucy, he weeps. It is like he suddenly remembers. Or perhaps it is as though he is hearing it for the first time all over again. It is so sad that our baby died. He forgets, but when he hears about it, he knows it is sad.
The day after I returned from the hospital, after birthing my stillborn daughter, I called my father. I wanted him to hear my voice, to know that I was okay. I was obliterated, destroyed, yes, but I was alive and talking. When I told him the baby died, he cried. We cried together on the phone. A few minutes later, he asked me when I was coming to see him. He wanted to know when I was bringing his laundry to him.
I hung up and wept into my hands.
Birth, dead child, hemorrhoids, unused engorged breasts, no flowers, no funeral. My father still needed his clean clothes. He still needed his clothes. I didn't even begrudge him that. Even in our worst moments, we still need food, water, air, clothes. I just couldn't give him any of those things in those first weeks, particularly not clean clothes. I wept not because I was hurt, but I wept because I miss my father. I miss his health, his paternal advice. I miss all that he could have said to comfort me.
Resentment for the friends and acquaintances who said nothing was a wild, suffocating vine winding around my heart, squeezing out my compassion, clinging to my fear, bearing a bitter, inedible melon. Yet I have a vast well of patience and acceptance of my father. I suppose it is easy to have compassion for someone who is sick. To be forgiving and loving and compassionate to someone whose disease robs him of his memory, paternal instincts, and empathy. I sit cross-legged and send him compassion every day, even though twenty years ago, I wanted nothing like compassion for him. I wanted my anger. I liked my anger. But it softened after a few years, and transformed into a patient, unconditional love. That is what he gives me, unconditional love, given and received.
Last week, I heard a speaker talking about spiritual suffering. He asked the group, "If you are standing in line in a convenience store and a boy in a wheelchair cuts in front of us, would you lose your temper? Would you have words? Would you ask him to step outside? Or would you graciously give him a moment, gesture for him to take your place?" He remarked that most of us would be forgiving, compassionate, generous to the boy in the wheelchair. We all nodded. Then he asked why we don't treat everyone else in the world with the same compassion. What if you could see everyone as a spiritually sick? All the people who stepped in front of me in line, or cut me off in traffic, or berated me for one thing or another. Or those who couldn't manage a simple "I'm sorry" after the death of my daughter. What if I could see those people as spiritually helpless? Spiritually sick? Emotionally handicapped? What if I could treat everyone else as I treat my father?
After three years, I am only now getting to the point where my anger and unrelenting expectations of other's capability has softened. So much of my emotional forgiveness was spent on my father some days, I thought it sapped my reserve, as though tolerance and compassion were finite resources, quantifiable and conditioned. I wrapped myself in intolerance for people I deemed well enough to know better. Righteous indignation was my woobie, my excuse for not allowing people into my grief, to bear witness to my vulnerability, my weakness, my need for friendship and compassion.
I understand now that my father's gift to me after Lucia's death was needing me. He needed me to do his laundry. To get up and have someone to be accountable to, someone who was able to cry about how sad it was that my daughter died, but who still needed me to get up. He didn't see me as weak, absent, lacking, intolerant. He saw me as his strong, able daughter, bearing the brunt of daughter-death and father-caring. Or maybe he didn't remember her death, but perhaps that was a gift too.
Do you have different standards for support from your friends than your family? Do you expect more from your friends or family? Do you have anyone in your life who receives your patience and forgiveness despite their approach to your child(ren)'s death? What makes them different than others?