Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Feels Like Forever

It has been over three months since I've written here - and a lot can happen in three months. Since I wrote about women's empowerment in March, I have completed my degree, gained my certification as a professional in human resources, and lived through a life-altering loss. That's what I want to talk about today, though a large portion of my mind is insisting that it is still too soon, that the wound is still too fresh. But my therapist tells me that it is never too soon to feel what I feel, and that in order to honor the grieving process, I need to be true to myself and my emotions.

My father died of a massive stroke on Friday, May 31st. I could go on and on about a lot of the things that happened around his death, but I really only need to say one thing about it: Daddy never wanted to live in a body that was compromised and could not do the work he loved, and I am thankful to God for the merciful swiftness with which his life ended.

This post isn't about how or even why my dad died; it is about how he lived.

He was the oldest of nine children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. His own father suffered a stroke and lived on for a time in poor health; my dad witnessed that and it instilled in him a life-long dread of the same fate. Because of his father's illness, my dad was like a father to some of his younger siblings. He was a man of music and great talent - he played the banjo and the guitar and he sang. One of my first, best memories is wrapped around his music. I remember sitting on the front porch in the warm darkness of a summer night, watching fireflies rise like glowing spirits from the grass. Outside the dim halo of light cast through the screen door, Daddy was obscured by the night - only the notes of his guitar and the red glowing circle of his cigarette testified to his presence. The music was fluid and beautiful - it followed his mind's wandering over western plains with the cowboy dreams that he loved. I swung my feet over the porch step and slapped at mosquitoes, breathed in the scents of hay, smoke, and recent rain, and stared up at the stars that were mirrored in the firefly-light of the evening. I felt secure in that moment. Happiness and harmony were as certain and present as the music; suffering, pain, and fear had not yet entered my world in any significant way. It was a moment of perfect peace. It was 1975; I was four years old, and everything in my world was right.

He was a farmer, and he loved the land. He knew how to treat his farm and his animals so that they stayed healthy and productive. He was kind to both. He knew just about everything a farmer needs to know - how to give medical care, how to cultivate, rotate crops, and conserve his soil. He could build any tool or machine he needed and could repair the parts that were old or broken. He was the only person I knew who understood my desire to take things apart to see how they worked, to see if I could rebuild them from memory, and he never got angry if the experiment failed and he had to step in and rescue the project.

People would come to our house late in the evenings to ask for help with electrical problems, sick animals, or appliances that wouldn't work. Even though he'd spent a hard day in the fields, he never failed to go directly to those who were in need and would work all night until the problem was resolved. He knew his neighbors' fields and animals almost as well as his own - could tell when there were problems - and would leave his own work to take on that of another.

I remember waking up to a horrible storm when I was eight years old and ghosting through the house to find him sitting in darkness in the living room. The power was out but he hadn't yet gone to bed. He heard me and called me to him - I climbed on his lap and he held me against his chest and he told me that I didn't need to be afraid of storms. He said if I was afraid, I should just close my eyes and imagine a field full of green grass and flowers. He said to think of all the things that made me feel happy - little foxes and raccoons and rabbits playing together in the grass. He painted a picture with his words that made the storm seem far away and taught me how to visualize a better place and find a calm oasis within myself.

One day, about fifteen years ago, he and I were riding together in my car and he told me a great secret that I've always kept close to my heart - I've tried to remember it when I was in doubt and while that process has been horribly imperfect, I have come back to his words time after time. He said that God put us here on earth intending for us to be good to each other and help each other; he said that the best thing we could do for God was to lighten someone else's load. I reached a deep place of darkness on my faith-journey about four years ago, and even in the awful desert of unbelief, Daddy's words rang true and helped me find my way back to the right path.

On the night of his wake, we stood in the church for four hours and greeted an endless parade of friends, neighbors, and family. Each person had something important to say about my father and his place in their life. It was an incredible testimony to the life of the most generous, loving, and Godly person I've known. I have no doubt about where my father is now. I know that the reunion in heaven must have been incredible. It has brought me a lot of peace and joy to know that he is with his parents and his beloved grandfather. I lie awake when the lights are out and I imagine the music and the laughter and the stories they must be telling each other. I smile when I think about it, even though tears are falling. I am not sad for Daddy - I am sad for me. We will be together again someday, but no one knows when that will be.

It seems so surreal. I can hardly believe that he's gone. At least a dozen times in the last two weeks I've caught myself wondering what my dad would think about this or that; thinking about what I'd tell him on our next phone call. Needing his advice or just craving his company. I'm no stranger to those feelings, but always before I knew there would be another time to be together or another phone call. There won't be a next phone call or another visit this side of heaven. I have accepted that - but sometimes I forget and reality hits like a ton of bricks; the grief is fresh and new each time, and the pain leaves me breathless. That's when someday feels like forever, and it is so hard to wait.