My son sits on my stomach and bounces. He’s not a light kid. At 20 months, he’s 29 pounds, tall for his age, and strong. He’s at that stage where his enthusiasm can get twisted with physicality and he’ll slap me across the face while cooing “Mama” and then burst into laughter. He’s bitten and pinched and punched me. He loves to kiss me open mouthed, teeth banging into mine. He threw a matchbox car at a kid at Daycare. I expected him to be kicked out or at the least, there’d be some kind of daycare detention (my kid, in a corner, with one of those hand exercisers, reciting the alphabet over and over again while the drug dealers and hacky sackers and class skippers mocked him). Miss Kim just laughed and said ‘it’s this age. He’s stretching his muscles”
This afternoon I sat with him under the Christmas tree we put up yesterday with a Spotify playlist of “Classic Christmas Songs” playing through our house. “Joy To The World” came on and the memory of my father leaning down next to me in church and singing the descant harmony loudly over the mumbling Catholics punched me hard in the chest. I could hear his staccato laugh, see his straight-backed smile, surrounded by the entire family at Christmas Mass, then later at midnight, just us at his Methodist Church because everyone else had bailed after champagne and shrimp, too tired to stay awake, everyone but me. I didn’t want my Dad to be alone at his own church, the abandoned Protestant in a sea of Irish Catholics. Last year I was with my husband’s family and they decided to go to a Christmas Eve service at a small Methodist Church down the street from their home on the river. There were only about 20 people in the church and we doubled the size of the congregation with our family. I missed my father so much last year even though he was alive and well just a thousand miles to the north with my mom. Homesick, I wrote that night that what I missed the most about not spending Christmas with my family was singing Joy To The World with my father.
This afternoon, grief came in on the harmony and I could not breathe. My son sat next to me, laughing, then plopped down on my lap and slapped me on the cheek. Then he leaned his head into my chest while I sobbed into his white blonde hair.
In front of me on my desk as I write this is a photo of my father from July. He’s in all whites, holding his tennis racket, at the Sea Colony Indoor Tennis Club at Bethany Beach, Delaware. We’d gone on Wimbledon Sunday to play a doubles match. My husband partnered with my brother Danny and I was Dad’s partner. Dad and I beat them. Dad was slow but his serve was still wicked. A punch. A twist. No weight. Lighter than air, the ball just whispered over the net then took a quick dive and barely bounced so that it was almost impossible to predict where to catch it. Dad had woken up at 7am that morning and donned white shorts and a white t shirt, white tennis shoes and white socks pulled halfway up his calves. We had breakfast at Wimbledon together for the last time, watching one of the longest and most historic matches ever and I knew it would be his last. The photo: that afternoon, Dad would play his last game with me. We won. He high fived me with a toothy grin, his thin upper lip stretched across his teeth. He was thin, almost gaunt, but he was smiling.
Someone took that picture and now I can see how thin he was. The bones of his shoulders through the thin t shirt. He looks worn out by the effort to smile. To make it an event and to keep it light. He was in pain. I realize that now. But he was determined to have a good day. Determined for us all to have a good day.
Now, only 5 months later, I look at this photo and I cannot believe, still, that he’s gone. It’s not yet 2 months since he died, and I was holding his hand as he took his last breath, I heard his last words, me, the oldest daughter, I was the witness, the journalist, the scribe, waiting beside him to remember it all for everyone else. I still cannot believe he’s gone. I keep expecting him to call.
On my desk, behind that photo is an older one, over 30 years old, Dad and me at my college. At the football game tailgate. He’s smiling, young, his cheeks are full and red. I’m smiling with my feminist undergraduate haircut, my oversized scarf over the too-large college sweatshirt. Dad is happy and proud. 30 years younger. He’s 52 there. Maybe. He’s my age there. My stomach grips again.
Grief comes in like a knot in my throat
Like a weighted fishing line
Like a piano key that’s stuck
Like cold fingers in a drafty house
Like the ache in my elbow and the ringing in my ears
I miss my father so much I don’t even know where to put the missing sometimes. It’s like water. Mostly, I love the water. I love to float. I love to swim. I feel at home, safe, alone in water. I’m left to my own skin and current and don’t have to ask permission to move. I watch my arms, white in the sunlight stream through the lakewater and I’m amazed at how beautiful skin can be. Water this silken is weightless, freeing. But I’ve dove into dark murky depths and lost my breath in a panic that lays like a cinderblock on my ribs and chest, grabs my heart and my throat and threatens to drag me down into the feathering foam, the fingers of the weeds that would tie around my ankles and hold me underwater. That water is mammoth.
The missing, the grieving, is what Kundera must have meant in the phrase the “unbearable lightness of being.” My father slipped away so fast I almost forget what the skin of his hand felt like as it loosened in my palm. And yet, I can hear the sound of his throat clearing from that 30 year old photo in the sunshine as if he’s standing next to me still, arm around my shoulder, me leaning into the weight of my father.