Good Grief: Life After Death
On a lark I once consulted an astrologist. Yael was about 6 feet tall and nearly as wide. Israeli by birth, Yael's style of astrological reading matched her Hebrew-accented English: a bit harsh.
YAEL: (barely glancing at the "birth chart" she had prepared) Your parents. They are divorced?
She spat the words more like an accusation than a question.
ME: (stunned silence, then . . .) Um, no.
YAEL: They should not be together. It is like elephant with giraffe. They are different species.
I can't say whether Yael "knew" this because it was written in the stars or if it was just a lucky guess, but she was 100% right. Yet equally wrong. I did not realize the unlikely pairing of my parents was perfect in all its imperfection until my mother's death about a decade later.
By and large in Western Society we don't "do" death very well. Those who have lost a loved one tend to put on a brave face in public, or even with those closest to us, expecting we will make others uncomfortable if we show our true feelings. (Or maybe because we are ashamed for anyone to witness the depth of those feelings.) How many times have I heard the canned response: "So sorry for your loss." The well-meaning person usually leaves it at that, because they simply "don't know what to say." Then there are those who offer platitudes: "She's in a better place." "No more suffering." "Remember the good times." Worse yet, some people refrain from acknowledging the loss at all, rationalizing it will remind the mourner of their grief. As if the one left behind needs any reminder.
My mother had been ill on and off for 11 years. Leukemia. She was 73 when the cancer returned a third time. Her mind said "live", but after two bone marrow transplants and countless rounds of chemotherapy, that little body was ravaged as much by the treatment as by the disease.
Mom told Dad repeatedly she wanted him to "find someone" after she was gone, a lady companion to keep him engaged in life as a widower. Each time she brought it up, Dad shushed her. At first out of denial: "We don't need to think about that, Hon. You're going to be fine!" Later, to protect her from her greatest fear: that he would be unable to function without her. "I'll be ok, Sweetheart. Don't you worry."
As a couple my parents may well have been Elephant and Giraffe, but their inter-species romance thrived for nearly 60 years (counting dating). Dad is the Giraffe, with his head in the clouds. Mom was the Elephant, crashing through the underbrush to flatten everything in their path so they could move forward, together. I like to believe it is only because she was so elephantine in her approach to life and relationship that she was able to lay the groundwork for my dad in a way he could not have done himself. Mom carved a path through the dense undergrowth of grief so in her absence, her sensitive giraffe of a husband would eventually find his footing.
A few days after the funeral and just before I left town, Dad and I went to the grocery store. I wanted to make sure he had food in the fridge after I wasn't there any more to remind him to eat. At the deli counter he reflexively ordered a pound of sliced turkey. "You should get a half pound instead," I said, the subtext of course, that he would now be preparing meals for one, not two. As if in a trance, Dad followed my instructions. Seeing that, I choked down the anguished sob rising in my throat.
During the long drive across the Everglades toward home, it occurred to me I had been protecting my dad from his feelings just as he had valiantly tried to do for my mom. And so it was on my twice daily calls to my father that first excruciating year, I invited him to let loose with whatever he was feeling.
To my surprise, he did just that. How strange that such mundane cues prompted the most agonizing grief. It could be a flyer in the mailbox announcing a sale at my mom's favorite dress shop. Or a flip of the calendar page to see when his next dental cleaning was scheduled -- followed by a jolt when he found it, written in Mom's distinctive loopy handwriting. (She wrote slanting down at a 45-degree angle, as if the letters were in the process of trickling off the bottom right-hand corner of the paper.)
At first his tears overwhelmed him. But not enough to keep him from stepping back into the life he had left behind to become Mom's full-time caregiver during her three bouts with cancer, each more debilitating than the last. Dad has always been what I describe as an Overgrown Toddler. He is utterly fascinated by the world around him and the infinite number of ways to explore it. He took up guitar at age 69, abandoning it during Mom's first relapse -- eventually dusting it off again not long after she was gone. He resumed the weekly lunches with his so-called "tennis buddies." (I say "so-called" because none of them has touched a racquet in years due to either age or infirmity.) He purged closets and repainted walls -- except for the one behind the king-sized bed they had shared. Mom had accented that wall with a coat of coral paint, then embellished it with randomly scattered gold curlicues.
I noticed the deeper Dad's toddling took him back into the world of the living, the less often he collapsed in the corner of his world marked by death. This change hurt as much as it helped, he explained, because he had come to believe the only way left for him to feel connected with Mom was in the painful throes of sorrow. They say "An Elephant Never Forgets." Not for my parents. In their pairing, it is the Giraffe who will Always Remember.
Three months in, he joined match.com. When he confessed what he had done, he asked for my blessing. I gave it without hesitation. I knew this was what Mom had wanted.
She had been his first and only love. They met when he was an 18-year-old college freshman at Indiana University, and she was a high-school co-ed of 16 at North Central High School in Indianapolis. Her big brother was the president of the IU chapter of AEPi, the fraternity where my dad was pledging. On the bureau in the president's room at the frat house, Dad saw a framed photo of an attractive young lady. "Is that your girlfriend?" he asked. "No It's my sister. Want a date?" And that was that. Until now.
Dad's initial forays in cyber-dating were a comedy of errors. He was over-eager and pooh-pooh'd my suggestions. "Dad, you don't send a gift before you've even talked on the phone with her!" He had been messaging with his first online "match", a lady named Sherry. So he bought the sheet music to the Frankie Valli hit of the same name and sent it snail-mail, accompanied by a sappy greeting card. Long story short, he got "cat-fished". That means Sherry Bay-ay-beee had reeled him in by posting a profile photo snapped at least 10 years ago. Two for the price of one: false advertising and false teeth. "She could have been my mother!" my dad told me after their first (and last) face-to-face meeting. "Egads!" (Eerie coincidence: I learned later the particular "mating call" my dad had chosen to attract his first prospect debuted on the radio in August 1962, the very same month and year my parents married. Ugh.)
Prospect #2 lived four states away. They messaged. Then texted. Then talked. Within a month (!) my dad had planned a road trip to visit her, despite my attempts to put the brakes on that sketchy plan.
ME: Dad, you're being way to pushy. You bullied her into consenting to this visit.
DAD: You don't know anything about courting!
ME: I know enough to know if you still use the word "courting" you do not have a clue how it works in the 21st Century.
Turns out he met his match the old-fashioned way, in-person through mutual friends. The woman Dad now calls his companion lost her husband about a dozen years ago. She has been my dad's partner in fun and his shoulder to learn on since their relationship began about six months after Mom's death. Mom & Companion look a lot alike. For me, it's kind of creepy and comforting all at the same time. Fortunately, Dad's girlfriend is the polar opposite of Mom, personality-wise. This new lady in Dad's life is more feline than elephantine. She is a Lioness, quietly confident and infinitely more subtle. I think this fundamental difference makes it easier for my dad to write the next chapters of his life, without feeling like he's closing the book he co-wrote with Mom.
On the 19th of next month I will mark the anniversary of my mom's death. I'll light a candle and say a prayer at 6:47 am, the exact time of day she drew her last breath two years ago. Dad and Companion will arrive a few hours later. They are driving over to spend the day with my husband and me.
Life Goes On, they say. Having witnessed my dad move through his grief I now see that old maxim is 100% right. Yet equally wrong. As Dad himself has told me more than once, half of him died with my mom. But the other half lives on with grace and gratitude, a living, breathing example of how to "do" death right.
Phyllis & Joel Hersch, August 19, 1962
There's no such thing as the perfect relationship. Only two imperfect people, unwilling to give up on each other. John Gottman