I was scanning the lotion aisle, on a Sunday evening jaunt to CVS, when I heard. The phone rang. A restricted number. My heart sank.
It was Janice*, my father's wife. Daddy died that morning.
A small, quavering, "Oh!" escaped my throat and my eyes filled. I managed to hold on to my two tubes of Eucerin. I listened to how he had passed. How his cancer had returned him to the hospital, and how difficult it had been for him to breathe. How he had suffered. How he waited for Janice to return before taking his final rest.
Still clutching the phone to my ear, I wandered the aisles, both feebly and desperately, in search of relative solitude. Janice did not yet know when the funeral would be. Perhaps later in the week, perhaps the next Monday. Graciously, she asked, "Would that be good for you?"
I told her it would. "I'm so glad that he had you," I sobbed.
"We had each other, dear," Janice reminded me. We talked a bit more before hanging up.
Home, home. I needed to get home. Whom could I call? My mom? J? Bestie? Should I drop everything and run out of the store? How would I leave the kids to get to a funeral in the middle of the week? I found an empty place in the stationery section. Before a wall of tape and paper and envelopes, I put my scarf over my face and wept.
I felt dizzy. I needed to clear my head. I took a deep breath.
You are a mother. Going home without what you came for is not going to help ANYTHING. You will leave here with what you came to get. You will go to the produce market as planned. You will not cook - you will order dinner. Go.
I finished gathering what I needed, went through self-checkout and left the store. Outside, I hunkered down, focusing only on putting one foot in front of the other to get to the produce market. I finished buying yogurt and milk and bananas with as little human contact as possible.
I managed to walk back home. It was almost 6 p.m., and the kids were still asleep. I told J. I cried again in his arms, then rushed him to get our dinner order underway before the kids woke up. He asked me if I wanted to lie down. I refused. How could I with two children running around our condo during the witching hours? With my thoughts racing? Lying down with my head in such a bad place would feel like torture -- way worse than summoning the combination of energy, good cheer and patience necessary to take care of small children.
I managed to conjure up the drive to mother. Although I picked at my dinner, with J's help, I supervised the kids, played with them a little and did the whole bath and bedtime ritual. I managed not to lose it with all the expert stalling performed by both my littles. I explained to Riley that Mommy felt sad because her Daddy had gone to heaven. That he wouldn't be back. To which Riley replied matter-of-factly, "That means he won't get to see me."
"Or Aria," I added.
I continued through the night, through my week, in the straightforward manner of Riley's answer. I washed dishes and shopped for and prepared meals. I kept things at least as clean (or not) as before. I got myself and the kids to where we needed to be. Several of my friends and students couldn't believe I was at work on Monday. Not going definitely crossed my mind, but I couldn't afford to stay home - emotionally or financially. Maybe it was not wanting to deal with the pain that would come with stillness. Surely I was still in shock, but I didn't feel that I had the luxury to check out.
As an adult -- and especially as a parent-- life goes on.
And as it turned out, going to work - teaching and moving - was a relief. Even though I hadn't planned class, I was able to rely on the powers of improvisation and get some decent movement out there. It was one of those times I felt extremely lucky I didn't have a desk job, or else I'd have been sobbing under my desk. A colleague let my students know that I had had a death in the family. I turned away to cry for a few seconds and then started playing Beyoncé for my jazz warm-up. I always tell my students to let dancing take them out of their heads when they're having a hard time emotionally - to let it be their therapy.
Last week I lived by example.
It's not that I didn't deal with my feelings. I did cry. Often. In the car alone. With Hubby. With mom. On the phone with Bestie and with another dear friend who lost her father a little over a year ago. When someone gave me a hug, or when my partner teacher and students wrote me a card. The oddest part was having this huge grief, and trying to proceed as normal in public. The hardest part is conducting yourself like everything is fine when it literally feels as though there is a hole in your heart. Whom do you tell? Even among friends and colleagues it felt indulgent and overexposing to reply honestly to the question, "How are you?"
I am still learning how to answer; I am learning that grief comes in many waves and in many stages. Also, I am trying to remember that not dealing with grief will come back to haunt me.
Last week was divided my life into before and after. In the initial shock of losing a parent, the grieving, the planning/logistics, and in the emotional intensity of the funeral and interment, I have seen how much strength it takes to straddle mourning and caring for children, who are so full of life. I feel blessed to be able to lose myself in the unavoidable distraction of parenting. Again, life goes on. And, also we fulfill an obligation to the generations before.
I do have this strength, I think. What I need is wisdom, to come to terms with the past - with regrets and might-have-beens - while moving on, and nurturing my family into the future.
*Name has been changed.