In All the Ways We Feel Loss

Loss as a Child’s Screams

The flight here was unsettling. Airplane seats are stiff with only the slightest cushion, which is fine for a two or three-hour flight, but ours was six. An infant, next to my sister and me, was seated on her mother’s lap. A spotted blue diaper bag, and its contents overflowing, filled the space at our feet. The baby screamed and I did too, but only on the inside. I am twenty-four years old and my sister is eighteen. At this age, we are neither full-grown adults nor are we children. Although on the cusp of adolescence and independence with responsibilities that accompany the title of adulthood, like paying taxes and feeding ourselves regularly. Regardless of our category, which could be argued for either, we both are like children in this moment, vulnerable and fragile as the youngest of babies. Like the one seated next to us, screaming to be coddled. Inside we wonder if soon we will have one less parent to soothe the chaos of the world. Inside we scream, for the uncertainty, the messiness, and the potential of life’s end. Inside we scream for our Dad.

Lost in Other Moments

Our arrival in San Diego brought fresh air to the stale enclosure of our despairing insides. My Grandma was waiting at the luggage station as my sister and I made our way down the steps; her smile, although softer and less exuberant as it often was, was there to greet us. She is a warm woman with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She smells of expensive lotions, perfumes, and creams. When she hugs you, everything softens. Her name is Barbara, and we have always called her Grandma Barbie because she is beautiful, and bubbly, like you would imagine a live Barbie doll to be. She is my father’s mother and a woman of sunshine. She talks of her Sunday sessions on the beach, watching the surfers, taking in the waves and sand, whatever book she is reading at the moment. She refers to this ritual, on occasion, as church.

My Dad introduced us when I was four years old. That is when my Dad found my Mom and became my Dad – when I was four years old. Prior to that, it was my Mom and me, and my grandparents (her parents). During that first meeting, I threw up red punch on my Grandma Barbie’s white carpet. My Mom walked in on my Dad, on hands and knees, scrubbing my sick from the carpet. In addition to cleaning the vomit-stained floor, he assured I was tucked into bed. My Mom claims that’s when she knew she wanted to marry him.

When I was around that same age, my Dad took me out for the first time on his own. We ran errands and I was rewarded with a Happy Meal from Mcdonald’s. We sat in the car together and he said, “Okay, now you can’t have your toy until all the nuggets are gone.” I looked back at him, in a firm retort, “Here’s what’s going to happen, I am going to open my toy, and then I will eat my nuggets.” This is the moment he decided I was a kid worth having and going to be a bunch of trouble when I got older. This is not a memory I possess; I only know it happened because my Dad spoke of it often. Similar to when I used to ask to hear the stories from his “kid life” and he would tell me about his brother, Phil, and him lighting farts on fire in the coat closet or putting books in their pants when their Dad was going to spank them, or when my uncle stole a goldfish from a pet store by storing it in his pocket (he claimed it lived for five years after that).

My parents have since separated. They divorced when I was fifteen. Although I could see the fractures in their marriage years prior. I know for some kids parents divorcing comes as a shock, but I can pinpoint the exact time when I knew it was over between them. Seventh grade me was standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher. My Mom and Dad were in their room. I could hear them arguing, but I wasn’t sure about what. Then I heard my Dad say “So you want me to just move out already?!” And then I knew. Prior to this, I had never heard my parents make 15 such exacerbated remarks, but I knew then that it was over between them. I am not sure if they tried to make it work, in those last few years, or if there was no trying at all. My Grandma used to say, “your Mom is like oil and your Dad water – they just don’t mix.”

I don’t know if I believe that. They mixed for a while at least. What I didn’t understand then but definitely do now is that sometimes marriages just don’t work. In the end, my parents still loved each other very much. I think my Mom always will.

For Who the Monarch’s Weep

The next morning, after flying into San Diego, my sister, Grandma Barbie, and I loaded our lightly packed suitcases into the car and began the drive to Arizona. It was late March, and during that time a migration was occurring in the Sonora Desert. Thousands of Monarch butterflies were making their journey across bleak and drylands.

Monarchs are unique in this way. They travel yearly, long distances of over 3,000 miles to seek refuge from winter chill. This method of migration is considered an endangered biological phenomenon. Their long recorded migration to locations such as Sierra Chincua Mexico bring with them stories, to humans and cultures far and wide. Monarchs mean different things in different cultures. Humans have placed significance in their delicate beauty. In Christianity, the Monarch represents rebirth and spiritual transformation. To see a Monarch is a symbol that you are on the right path. Similar to their grace, their stories are joyful. Tails of doom can not be found on their blackened wings; no death by a thousand suns in their flaming orange flutter.

They are the most tropical of sights in an area surrounded by cacti and sand. I watched as their distinctly contrasting wings surrounded our car along the highway. Even with vast, open, desert space all around us, the butterflies still used the highway as their primary path. Butterfly bodies popped against the windshield and sides of the car. I wonder what it means when your right path intersects with theirs, becoming their end. Is there symbolism in that? Who weeps for the Monarchs who do not make it? Who cries for the corpses in the desert? Do the Monarchs weep for me?

The massacre of beauty and innocence splashed across the paint. Everything about this moment and the moments after were overwhelmingly inescapable, a look at the darkest parts of nature – the inevitability of life and death.

Hallway Confessions

My Dad’s room, the first one, was bright. There was a window there, with a view of the entire west side of town, and what the natural light failed to illuminate the fluorescence did. The scent of fresh plastic and antiseptic fills the air – the distinct smell of hospital. My skin is cloaked in a sterile chill, and though the temperature of Arizona is a blazing hundred degrees in the summer, I am never warm. My hands are clammy. That is all I can ever remember, being cold and sweaty. My spine and hips feel sore from the uncontrollable trembling of my body and all of my muscles feel tight, never relaxed.

My Dad lies in bed and only awakens for a few seconds at a time unless a nurse comes in to bother with him (his words). When he is awake, he keeps things light-hearted and has a humor about him, although he is foggy, and the strokes have affected his speech.

When he awakens, he never remembers how long he has been in the hospital; two weeks before our arrival. To him, it has only been a few days, but he does remember my sister and me. He’s upset at the implication he wouldn’t.

On our first visit, my Dad managed to stay awake for a few minutes. He insists that we didn’t need to make the trip and fuss over him, but I can tell he is happy we are there fussing. Over the next few days, when he is awake, we sneak him sips of soda and bites of Zebra Cakes. We buy him a lavender plant for his window to bring life to the white-washed room.

In this first visit, I remember crying in the hallway to my husband on the phone. Nurses pass by as I whisper my pain. I don’t want another member of my family to hear, and know, I don’t believe in their truth. I told him how I thought everyone was in denial about my Dad’s condition. I confided in his ear how I thought my Dad might die. “He just might die”, I say. The words are like an ice cube stuck in my throat. But then I tell myself what everyone else believes, glued together by the false promises of doctors, and I calm down – he will be fine.

Crying in hospital hallways is as expected as praying in churches or the silent demand of libraries – no one stares at you when you reach for a book on the shelf. No one stares at you here.

Still, I do not like it.

Medical Chart

The initial cause of my Dad’s strokes was an infection he obtained from a dialysis implant placed in his chest. The infection became so severe that he suffered continuous strokes. While he was in the hospital, the doctors claimed the infection could be cleared and, following this, we would move forward into recovery mode – working to get his speech and other motor skills back. My Dad could not walk for the first week, but over time nurses were able to get him moving a few steps; on occasion, with the assistance of a physical therapist, he even traveled down the short hall by his room. I never saw this.

Loss as a Magpie Reaper

There was a period of time, one week, between my initial visit to see my Dad in the hospital and my final visit that I spent away from Arizona. My sister stayed in Arizona to be with our Dad in the hospital a bit longer. We assumed he would soon be released for rehab; this assumption was based on what everyone was telling us would happen once the infection cleared. During that week, it was consistent phone conversations, false hopes, and denial about my Dad’s condition. I fed into the false hopes like a kid indulging on candy, and admittedly it was a delicious denial to live in for those few days while I explored Colorado apartments and my new University in Denver. I pretended life would be different but would go on with my Dad still taking part in my future endeavors.

I was in a stagnant state, caught somewhere between denial and a deeper conscious understanding of the inevitable – like those butterflies popping on the windshield. Things began to take a sharp turn towards undeniable truth after hearing my Dad would be fine if only a doctor would agree to conduct heart surgery on him. It turns out the infection had taken a brutal toll on his heart and a valve needed to be replaced. On top of that, after four weeks of intensive IV antibiotics, the infection would not clear.

I liked the notion, that indulgent-denial kid I was, but not the odds. The odds that a doctor in California would agree to conduct a surgery on a man who Arizona doctors already claimed too risky; but somewhere is these false hopes I knew my Dad wasn’t making it out of this. I knew from my first trip when I packed my bag, leaving home with a black dress in its contents – just in case. I knew the first day I walked into the hospital room and my Dad couldn’t speak or comprehend clearly after having suffered a multitude of strokes. It was a deep part of me, a part in my guts that knew, even when I didn’t.

So, when the call came about this search for a willing heart surgeon in California, I also knew I needed to go back to Arizona.

I remember standing in my hotel room in Denver, on the phone with my Mom still home in Hawai’i, I had a plane ticket to return home the next day. I was in the middle of the last semester of community college. I was set to graduate in May, this was now the beginning of April. I decided not to return home but instead return to Yuma. We were discussing the idea of my Mom going to Arizona to be there for me and my sister.

As I stood staring out the large windows to the freeway, the scratchy carpet indenting the pads of my feet with its rough texture, I thought about a bird I saw my first day in Denver. It was a beautiful bird with black shining feathers and snow-white in its wings. When the bird expanded for flight bright blue hues spread across its body. It was captivating – a Black-Billed Magpie.

I soon learned, Black-billed Magpies are one of twenty species of Magpies in the world. Their boisterous calls and starkly contrasting yin-yang plumage carry with it much folklore. British myth associates magpie sighting with ill-fortune. A lone magpie, as I witnessed, can indicate death – a forewarning symbol that death is near. The grim-reaper bird of beauty. There was no other insight. No other crows. No songbirds or cardinals. Not even a pigeon. Just one Black-billed Magpie.

My thoughts returned back to this bird often in the coming days – the fortune he or she carried on their wings, a blackened azurite shine.

Loss as a Daughter-Stranger

When I arrived, once again, to the hospital, everything was a stark contrast to what I had left. For starters, my Dad had been moved to a room in the Intensive Care Unit. A much darker room and although there was a window in the corner, everything was dim.

My Dad’s biker friends were there. Men I had not met before. In the last years since I saw my Dad he became heavily involved with a group of motorcyclists. The men were rough, mostly older. They were there to initiate my Dad into the group. They presented him with a vest, though his body withered to bones and skin just lay there. His eyes were only open a pinch.

Faces of people I had never seen surrounded me. And, faces of some who didn’t like me. There was little warmth in this room. Everything was pale; it matched the color of my Dad’s flesh, a greying white. I felt that color wash over me, taking with it all of the joy I had experienced months prior.

The men were kind. Still, I had the oddest imbalance of emotions taking place inside – an affection for the strangers and the unwillingness to accept their presence. Perhaps the affection was for them, sympathy because I knew how it felt to see him like that, or maybe the affection was just human instinct. The instinct to avoid being alone, to find some sort of community, especially when lost in pain. Maybe the unwillingness was jealousy – jealous of the fact they had the chance to spend so much time with my Dad in his final year.

Reflecting on it now, it was selfishness and anger. I wanted to feel important. I wanted to feel a part of him – with these strangers, staring at me, not knowing that I was his daughter, not knowing that fact, made me feel the most disconnected I could have been at that moment. I went into my Dad’s room a stranger. And these people were staring at me as such. Reminding me of all the moments in the years before that I had missed, the moments of his life while I was off living my own.

Standing at the foot of my Dad’s hospital bed, I looked at him. I really looked at him, taking in everything all at once. In bed, as he had been, and always would be in those last days, his eyes closed, wavering in and out of a subtle peak. His chest moving up, then down; but it was the wired and tubed connections keeping his heart pounding. His body was smaller than before; malnourished and thin. He was 44 years old and looked to be 60. All of this, his appearance and surroundings, were so vastly different than before. Words no longer rooted me in this strange, stagnant denial. In front of these strangers, I could now comprehend my Dad was going to die.

As my newfound understanding took hold, I felt pale with the translucence of my heart, my insides reflecting through as if my skin was projecting all my internal vulnerabilities – I was inside out. Before my knees could buckle under my body, they managed to carry me from his room and the view of strange eyes, down the hall in a blurred and quick motion out the front door, across the parking lot, and into a stairwell. There, alone, is where I gave myself permission to collapse on a step. Hugging my knees to my forehead, I sobbed. I let everything out and the concrete slabs next to me showed no compassion as my tears echoed from the walls and reverberated back inside – reflecting with it the true emptiness of the moment.

Comfort-Care

There was a lot, and yet little at all, that took place over a three-day period. As I reflect on all the happenings of those final days I have come to realize my memory is shaky; perhaps even unreliable. I believe, however, the most important moments are solidified with the raw emotion that tarnished my memory to begin with. Regardless, there are not many little moments to remember. Mostly, I am in my Dad’s hospital room. One time, I’m in a conference room. A place that doesn’t look much like a hospital at all. In this room, I sit. The long table in front of me might have been quite small, it’s hard to recall now. The room could be equally small, but it feels large and cold, like every other place in the hospital, and my palms leave marks on the table because here I am extra clammy.

My Grandma Barbie is sitting in a chair beside mine. My Mom who arrived in Yuma just the day before is there too. Her warmth, just a breeze now, displaying the same atmosphere I myself feel. There is a woman here too, explaining medical things as a nurse stands beside her. The two speak; with every pause in their words, I feel my heart begin to swell and my chest fills with rocks. These two strangers explain how a man of only 44 will not be alive much longer. The words comfort-care leave the dry lips of the lady-stranger, and my ears latch on for clarification. For those unfamiliar with the term, let me explain to the best of my ability: when a person is deemed to be dying (and whose life is no longer able to be saved or is requiring medication, technology, etc. to keep said person alive) there is a point in which the family must decide whether to simply make the person as comfortable as possible with no life-saving measures taking place. In my Dad’s case, he was on the highest dose of heart medication, which is what was keeping his heart beating (among other things).

In this room, the words comfort-care travel slowly into the part of my brain that must decipher – right-and-wrong. What is right and what is wrong for my Dad and what is right and wrong generally speaking; because although people talk about what they would want in terms of “pulling the plug,” I feel, truly, no one ever really believes they will be faced with a decision to do just that for someone they love. I blink and the conversation is over, as many things are in this time – a blurred blink. I know it really happened because the tears have stained the underparts of my eyes pink and hiding behind my palms has corroded my fingertips. Now I have no way of pinching my translucent skin to remind myself this is, in fact, not a nightmarish dream, but rather a nightmare that follows you from sleep.

Lost with a Friend

That night, after a long day in the hospital and the conversation, but not actual implementation, of comfort-care, I drank with friends and made them share with me their favorite moments with my Dad; because so many of them had favorite moments and if I could live within these, I wouldn’t have to live in the reality I was facing.

My friend Jake and I talked about what it was like losing his Dad. I remember being there for him during that time of his life. I was there when he scattered the ashes of his father in a bonfire celebration in the desert; I scattered a handful myself. Jake cried then, and he cried now; for me and with me. He cried for himself. He cried for my Dad and he cried for his. He cried for all the reasons we both could explain to each other and all the things we could never put into words. Because sometimes the world is unfair and unkind. Sometimes good humans leave too early. They leave their bodies and transform into something or somewhere we do not get to know or understand until it is our time to travel there too.

With Jake, I found a community. In Jake, I saw myself. And being lost with a friend in a moment where you previously felt alone has the power to bring pieces of your light back – if only for a moment.

Loss as Everything

In some ways, I suppose, I am lucky I had time to process the fact my Dad was going to die, rather than hearing it unexpectedly, like when my Uncle Phil shot himself. I remember that day vividly, as vividly as a shock like that will allow. My Dad had called me to say my Uncle had shot himself and no, he was not okay, although that is where my brain first brought me, to a place where my Uncle Phil had shot himself by accident in the foot or arm. But no, he had in fact shot himself in the head, purposely, and he was gone. I broke a hanger trying to get a coat from my closet. I was a frenzied mess of chain-smoking (back when I did that) and drinking (back when I did that too). I was also nineteen and loss was a thing I had only experienced with pets and old people. My Mom’s mom, my Grandma, died a year later and her death was like that of losing a best friend.

This experience, this time, was different. A cosmic quake seems to happen inside your body when you lose a parent. For me, it was more than the loss in the moment, but the loss in every future moment I had constructed for myself, in my imagination. A place where my Dad would be at my graduation from college; when I bought my first house; sharing new Eminem music and the excitement of Christopher Meloni returning to his beloved role as Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: SVU (a reunion we never thought would happen); when life’s devastation hits, and joyous moments arise. For all the large-and-small and in-between moments, and things, and conversations, and laughs, and heartache, and joys, and for everything that now only exists in one place, within my memory and never in the future.

Lavender Surrender

Last summer I took a trip to the vibrant Lavender fields in the Pacific Northwest. Their fragrance so potently alive with bees circling and carrying out their daily duties. The air thick with moisture held the smell in a sticky dew. I felt a calmness surrounded in the present. There I reflected on all the small and large moments that brought me to this place. The abrupt shift in my life that allowed me to appreciate moments as relatively minor as being surrounded by lavender flowers.

For as long as I can remember I have understood the medicinal purpose of lavender, how it is supposed to soothe anxiety, and how it has antidepressant properties – it’s calming. I know that at its simplest state, whether it can heal mental ailments or not, it smells wonderful. With an exotic herbal sweet blend of camphor and balsamic tart, the mind can tranquilize.

The lavender I’d left in my Dad’s room, three years ago from the date I share this experience publicly, has long since died. It was dried in his yard when I returned to see him for the final time; but the lavender here lives beautifully and robust, just as the memories of my Dad live within me, and although the heartache has found a place inside me, it doesn’t diminish their vibrance. It is there that I think of him, as I often do. It is in the Monarch’s determination to cross the desert, despite the dangers, that reminds me the nature within life must balance with it loss, and the melding of these two abundant energies create something profoundly magnificent and tragic.

Loss but Never the End

I won’t ever truly get over the passing of my Dad. I never expected myself to do that. I have simply melded myself more deeply into the nature of loss, the experience, and the beauty in living. And sometimes, in these memories, I am five years old, a little girl on her Dad’s shoulders watching the fireworks on the 4th of July. I blink, and I’m ten and I hear my Dad laughing, more of a thunderous quake – the deep gruff of his voice fit for radio waves. I allow time to pass here, and then it’s Christmas morning. He’s standing in the kitchen, spatula in hand and in a Superhero onesie he would hate that I shared he had. The smell of sautéed pepper sausage with cream and buttered biscuits fills the air. There is Baileys in the coffee and A Christmas Story plays as background noise to the house full of grown kids’ commotion. I replay my cherished times, of us rap-battling “Ice-Ice Baby” and Eminem classics.

Other times, with the flutter of sorrow-soaked eyes, I find myself there again. By his hospital bedside, and the light from the window is gone because the sun has set far past the mountains. There is no noise coming from outside his room and the lights are turned down; maybe they are even off. I hold his hand and it is heavy, swollen, and warm between my fingers.

I thank him for being not only the best Dad, but for being my Dad even though he didn’t have to be, and for choosing me to be his daughter. I tell him how much I love him, and I say missed doesn’t carry the weight of absence we will feel once he is gone. And it is here I sometimes live in my memories, through the night, when I hold my Dad’s hand, while it is still warm and while he is still only sleeping.


Until next time,

Ali

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