Year One: Tracking Grief's Learning Curve

A year ago at this time, I began to feel the earth shift under my feet. My cell phone rang in a hotel lobby, and I sat down on a leather bench and listened to my sister tell me that life as we knew it was about to change.

My father, age 91, had suffered a stroke. He was in the hospital in Florida. More details to come. I should stand by, be ready.

I looked out the plate glass windows at the parking lot and watched the morning unfold, people wheeling suitcases across the pavement, pushing through the revolving doors, balancing coffee cups and laptops. Conversations swirled around me, fragmented voices talking about meetings and presentations. My own schedule for the day flashed before my eyes, bright, insistent, and suddenly irrelevant. What happens now, I asked myself. The answer came thundering back. Now, you grow up.

In the weeks that followed, I moved from theory to practice at warp speed. My neat little package of assumptions about mortality, faith and human nature broke apart, scattered, and refused to be contained as before. I sat with suffering I had always believed I could not bear, and witnessed grace I could never have imagined. I saw prayers answered and prayers deferred. I moved heaven and earth to make things happen according to my will, and discovered that there was, in fact, a larger plan.

Surprise is at the heart of my experience over these past months, surprise and mystery and revelation. Late in the game and long past my peak learning years, I am back to the basics. Life. Death. Children. Parents. Time. Eternity.

The news that an elderly man was failing fast should not have been a shock to me. When I visited my father the winter before his last illness, he seemed to be fading before my eyes. His voice, always clear and forceful, was faint. When we talked about the past, his college days, his Army service, the memories were vivid and detailed. When I tried to engage him on current events, he wandered.

Still, I persisted in my fiction that all was well. His heart was strong. His lungs were fine. He'll outlive me, his doctor said. So he would be there, my father, old but content, the wall I could lean back against as I had all my life.

There was mystery in the parting. I spent five days by my father's bed, his hand in mine as I talked or sang or sometimes just sat with him in silence. As the hours slipped by, I felt his hold on the world loosen, and with it, my hold on him. The priest who anointed my father was called Father Gabriel, named for the angel of good tidings. He filled the room with comfort, and, as angels do, banished fear. He told me that he, too, had sat with my father at night and felt his spirit ready to move on.

There has been revelation in mourning, in the soft words of people I hardly know, the gentle kinship of those who grieve. At first I was surprised that I could laugh at anything, but I do, and often. I also cry, and roll up the car windows and shout bad words from time to time.

I heard once that you don't really grow up until you become an orphan. Maybe it's the final rite of passage, the realization that you are no longer anyone's child. I am a mother and a grandmother, but until a year ago, I was also a daughter. The last person responsible for my presence on earth was himself safely present. It was more than a fact or a feat of longevity. It was a way of looking at the world.

The first year's landmarks have passed: my father's birthday, and Christmas, and Easter. Soon it will be the anniversary of his death, and I will go to church and light two candles. One for the departed, in memory and love. One for a living, breathing, grown up. In hope.