In September 2023, an excerpt from my memoir about grieving my father will be published in an anthology.
Vol. 5 of Shaking the Tree’s theme is: What. Just. Happened?
Love and Peace is an essay that explores grief when the usual mourning rituals are denied during a pandemic.
The summer after I miscarried, a purple hummingbird would visit me. I would sit at my computer by a window, tapping out my grief. One cooler afternoon, I opened the window to enjoy the warm breeze carrying aloft the amber-vanilla scent of rock roses, when I heard a loud buzzing. I looked up, thinking it must be a very large bee or a flying beetle. But it was another creature watching me. It turned its head to look at me, beady bird eye to beady human eye, showing off its magenta feathers with viridian under-plumage. It moved how you might imagine a feathered alien spaceship—erratic hovering as it studies human life before zooming off at an unexpected angle in a flash of iridescent purple. Day after day, the little bird would visit. The tiniest of creatures manifesting the tiniest of babies lost. Is that you, Bean? Whatever the truth, I took comfort in the thought that it might be my unborn child letting me know they were okay.
There were also signs of an afterlife in the wintery days after my dog died. My brooch with prancing greyhounds mysteriously unpinned itself from my cardigan and clung, like static, to my toddler’s pajamas. The next morning, a dog face with a cocked ear appeared in the condensation of the window above where he used to sleep. The following week, a brown hummingbird swooped and squeaked above my head when I collected my dog’s ashes from the vet.
And more than half a lifetime ago, after my beloved great-grandmother died, I saw a diffuse light at the end of my bed. That night I dreamt of her. I love you, I love you, I’ll always be with you. It was a hug from across the great beyond.
But, my dearest Pa, why have you not given me any such concrete signs? How is it that my baby, my dog, and my great-grandmother could find me, but you who loved me all of my life, you who are one half of the reason for my existence, cannot? Your silence makes me question all previous supernatural experiences. How do I know what was real and what is not? Now that I am forever chasing after three children who scale and scramble over things they shouldn’t—a different heart-stopping relationship—maybe I haven’t been paying close enough attention.
Is it you who visits me while I sleep, or is my brain conjuring your memory to propel me forward in healing? I look for messages from you in the swill of tea leaves at the bottom of my mug. Sometimes I fancy there’s a whisper of smoke and cedar—your smell. At other times—a song playing, a breeze ruffling my hair—I wonder if it’s your ghost passing through me. I look for you in my backyard. Are you the dragonfly that landed near me in the hours after your death? Or one of the hummingbirds that nest in the red pepper tree?
Even if these are signs from you, it is not you. It seems impossible that you’re gone. Impossible, until it hits me: that loving, maddening, complicated, playful, fiery man that is—was—you, my dad, is gone. All that experience, gone. The stories, the music, gone. Tangible traces of you may exist in your house 6,000 miles away, but here in California the only thing I have to hold onto is your love. On the advice of a grief counselor, I must find a new way to have a relationship with you in death. This feels almost ridiculous, until I read all the letters you ever sent me, dating back to when I was a young girl. They all say the same thing: You love me, you miss me, you want the best for me, you are proud of me, you will love me until the day you die.
I think you still love me, somehow. I don’t feel less loved now that you’re dead, but there is a hollowness. Like an egg without salt, love without my dad radiating it satiates hunger but lacks flavor. It is nourishment without the pleasure, but there is a bland comfort that sustains me.
Sometimes I log in to your email account and toggle to your drafts folder. There is just one unsent email, empty, save for my address in the To line. You started it two hours before you died. I’ll always wonder what you wanted to say. I imagine,
Hello love, I am dying. Now I am scared, but I don’t want you to worry. I love you. I will always love you. Remember the song I wrote you: I have loved you all your life, I am always by your side, and ever shall I stay. I am so proud of you. I am so proud to have been your father. Kiss those babies for me. I love you. This is not goodbye. Bless you, love. Love you, PAX
You would have signed your name, Pa with an ‘x’ for a kiss, in all caps, the way all of your letters in recent decades did. I always wondered if it was an unspoken, but deliberate Latin contraction for the state of tranquility you were forever chasing: PA X, pax, peace.
I seek out new rituals to nurture my new relationship with you. On the one-year anniversary of your death, I will still be trapped on the other side of the world by the pandemic, still unable to mourn you alongside family. You have long been returned to stardust and I still haven’t been hugged by my mum or my brother. To literally and figuratively mark the first anniversary of your death, I will get my first tattoo: LOVE PAX in your handwriting.
I write you letters after the kids are in bed. There have been drunken missives and sober thoughts as I tap out a new grief. My six-year-old, the only grandchild you ever really got to know, sometimes sees me crying. She’s learned that drawing a picture of you with the letters P-A-X makes me smile again. She knows that grief must be held tenderly, sometimes by a drawing of hands signing Not Okay in ASL. Her words make my hand cover my heart: “You’re crying because you miss your dad, Mom? But he’s still your dad, and he’s still my grandpa. He still loves us, and we still love him. It’s just different.”
I show family photos to my two younger children. “Who’s that? Who’s that?” I ask, pointing at faces. When we reach the photo of you, they squeal, “Gampa Darling!” As toddlers, they are too young to remember you, but somehow they know who you are anyway. You are gone but not forgotten. And I am waiting. Love you, Pa x.