Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Spirit

Seven years ago today, my dad died.

It was the first major loss of my life, and it hit me hard.  I really didn't think I was ever going to feel "okay"--much less "good"--again.  It didn't seem possible.

I still wince when I think about 2006.  And 2007.  And 2008.  Because that stuff they tell you about how "it takes a year" or "you just have to get through the first year" (yeah, "just") is wishful thinking.

It takes as long as it takes.  I wish I could offer better advice and consolation than that, but I can't.

I don't know if I'd say it gets "better," but it changes, because all things do, in time.  (The "it" here being grief, of course.)  Because I tend to be the kind of person who just puts it all out there--the good, the bad, and the ugly (in case you couldn't tell)-- I talked to lots of people about how I felt.

The people who haven't been through it often mean well, but they really don't know what they're talking about.  They're the ones with the cliches about "the first year" and "in a better place" and all that other... hogwash.

Seriously, it's hogwash.  You mean well, but you don't help anyone when you say these things.  NOT AT ALL.

You begin to get so that you can spot the people who have been through it, because they don't say much when you tell them.  They just look sad or they speak in broken sentences, because they know.  There aren't any words for it.

Seeing you reminds them of what they went through.  When you see that in them, you know that they know.

My neighbor told me, "My father died over 20 years ago.  Some days, the grief just hits me so hard all of a sudden, I have to shut myself in my bedroom and cry, I miss him so much.  It's been 20 years.  I don't feel that way every day, but when I do, it's like no time has passed since I lost him."

At first, that's all you feel.  Pain.  Physical, mental, emotional pain.  And it's exhausting.  Putting one foot in front of the other feels like an overwhelming task.  And it feels like it will never get better.  Because how can it?  The person isn't coming back, and that would be the only thing that would help... fix this.

But after a while, I think you begin to feel the person's spirit in your life.

Before I go on, let me just say that I'm an atheist who wishes it wasn't so.  I am simply never going to be convinced that what we have collectively identified as "God" actually exists.  I just don't see it, and I don't feel it and I respect people who do, but please, don't even try to convince me.  After a while, you'll just annoy me, because my feeling is, I respect your beliefs, so you need to respect mine.

Don't tell me you're praying for me.  Stop by, look me in the eye, say "hey, how are you?", treat me like a human being, and maybe cut me some slack or offer me some help from time to time.  That means more to me than prayers.  Because that kind of thing tells me that you realize that this isn't about you, it's about me: what I think and believe and how I feel.

Prayers can be your thing.  They aren't mine.

That said, I'm fascinated by the idea of faith and I have an enormous amount of respect for it.  I think many of the principles and ethics incorporated in various religious traditions out there are worth paying attention to and thinking about and perhaps implementing in one's life, in some way.

I just don't believe in following (what seem to me to be) "rules," and rituals are just not my way of feeling connected to people or ideas outside of myself.

At the end of the day, I'm an existentialist, I guess.  I think that, if there's meaning to be had in the (often senseless) world around us, it's a meaning that we create for ourselves, in our lives.

So we'd better make it good.

The day I lost my dad was the day I knew that I really was an atheist and I just didn't believe in God, however that entity was defined, and that I never could or would.  I can't explain it in words: I just watched my dad die and I felt that, there isn't a singular entity "in charge" of all of it.  Whatever images others have of "heaven" or "hell" or whatever just didn't make sense to me: it felt very much like a human attempt to script something we have no way of understanding.

And while I can appreciate the attempt, I can't accept the script.

But that said, I hated to think that my dad was just... gone.  It seemed very unfair that someone who had been such a good person had to just die and that was that.

On the morning my dad died, I was standing outside, hanging laundry on the clothesline.  And I suddenly felt a strange sense of peace: that what was happening to him was something that was simply part of the natural cycle of life itself.  He was dying, and in life, there is death.  

As I began to grapple with my grief, I decided to pay attention to things that reminded me of my dad's spirit, and right or wrong, I would credit him with those things.  I do the same thing for my little godson, Ezra.  Because there are times when it just feels like, "That had to come from him."

It's my way of remembering and showing gratitude for people who meant a great deal to me.  They are not "gone," for me.  Ever.

If I'm here, they're here.  Anything good that comes to or from me is something of theirs, always.  And it's important to me to pause and feel what it means to give them credit for that.

I first felt this sense of spirit one afternoon on the drive home from the cemetery.  It was a few weeks after my dad had died.  I went to his grave a lot in those first few months, because it was a place where I could mourn in peace and not worry about what anyone might see or think.  It's a cemetery, after all.  Grief comes with the territory.

That day, on the drive home, I turned on the radio and a song I hadn't heard in a couple of decades came on.  It was Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue."

When I was little, before I started kindergarten, my dad would take me to the playground every afternoon.  It was a little treat: our daily outing, because my brother had started school, so he got to play on the playground every day, and I didn't, unless someone took me there.  So my dad always did.

My dad liked to sing along to the radio.  This song came out in 1972, when I was 4, and it was pretty popular, so it was on the radio a lot.

My dad used to sing along to it, whenever it came on, and sometimes he would sing it to me when he did.

I had totally forgotten he used to do that until I heard the song again that day.

Yes, I know, it could be a coincidence.  But in a way,  I don't care.  Because 4 years later, the closing date for my house was set for July 30th, and I moved into the home that I love on this day in 2010.  At the time, I felt like it was the perfect way to honor my dad's spirit, because it was exactly the kind of thing he would have wanted to see me doing with my life.

I think of my dad as a protector-spirit and an enhancer-spirit.  He can't stop bad things from happening to me--because, really, this is life and the shit will happen--but he can maybe spin some good things my way and if I'm paying attention, I'll see them and they'll either help me through the rough times (like that day on the way home from the cemetery) or they'll make me smile a bit. 

So the trick is, to pay attention.

Like today.  I opened my Facebook this morning and found out that the shelter that rescued the two cats I adopted received a $10,000. grant from the Sidewalk Angels Foundation.  The owners said they began to cry when they found out.

I just smiled. 


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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."