The First Day

Last January 1st, I wrote the piece that follows this introduction to try to quiet the noise in my head after my father’s death just a few weeks earlier.

Last spring, writing after the death of his own father, Rabbi Brian related a tale about native porters going a great distance the first day of a long trek. And I paraphrase . . .

The portee was delighted with the tremendous progress, only to find that the next day the porters refused to budge from camp. Puzzled by the discrepancy in effort on the two days, he asked what the heck was going on. “We travelled too fast yesterday,” the porters said, “and so we must wait here for our souls to catch up.”

In matters of the heart, it can be hard to see progress, or even change, day by day. This window into myself as I was this time last year lets me see that today, exactly one year after my father’s death, my soul is catching up. May it be so for all of us.

Yesterday was the first day that I deliberately did not tell someone that my father had just died.

It’s been two weeks and two days since I saw him breathe his last: his death is still pretty much top-of-mind awareness for me. My thoughts jump unpredictably — the ups and downs of his last few weeks in the hospital jostle with the transfer to hospice, his final evening, the flurry of memorial service arrangements, and events from his 88-year life as viewed by me for all but 30 of those years.

It’s been two weeks and two days since I saw him breathe his last: his death is still pretty much centre-of-heart impact for me. My feelings dance jerkily — warm memories sashay uncomfortably with regret for old conflicts, gratitude that someone was with him, guilt that being that someone wasn’t enough to change the outcome, amusement at things that would have irritated or amused him not so very long ago, and a mild unease at something undefined being absent from the Christmas celebrations just completed — someone, as it turns out.

The thinking-and-feeling programming varies, but the selected channel has been consistent, and the associated broadcast effort almost constant. Family first, with cell phone from the hospice. Lodge residents and staff the next day, in person. Dad’s community of friends and associates, through phone calls and a written obituary. My own circle of friends and colleagues, through staged email.

The directed effort proceeds under its own unarguable logic: begin with those who must know immediately and move on to those who will hear of it eventually and feel badly that they had not heard sooner. Minister, funeral director, lawyer, pension administrators, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances who had met him — these are caught in this intentional net. A parallel outpouring proceeds under its own emotional imperative: tell whoever is beside me when the noise in my head gets too loud. Airline check-in staff, friendly grocery store clerks, email correspondents who ask how Christmas went — these are caught in this unpredictable net. Spilled out onto the trawler’s deck, all are left gasping for air, yet sometimes it is the only way I can catch my breath.

Yesterday, my non-stop broadcast stopped. A hair stylist understandably preoccupied with crazed clients and the death of ‘glam’ even for New Year’s Eve — the stuff of his own life — provided no conversational opening for what was new in mine, and I chose not to force one. Friends of friends discussing aging parents over an end-of-year glass of wine opened the door wide, but I chose not to walk through. Stepping carefully to avoid outright lying, I participated in the prevailing light-hearted and optimistic tone.

Yesterday was the first day that I deliberately did not tell someone that my father had just died. Today, I tell you. Two steps forward, one step back. It’s been two weeks and two days since I saw him breathe his last.

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12 Responses to The First Day

  1. Derek Smith says:

    Thanks for this Isabel! Important reminder of what is truly important at this time of year!

  2. Dorothy says:

    One year, two years, twenty – our souls do catch up with us, but there is always a little part left behind. I think often of your Mom’s statement that they came to a fork in the road and it was time for her to carry on alone. The memories of that shared journey make it possible to continue on and even to celebrate the moments as we go. Take care.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dorothy – Yes, the path is a good metaphor/image for life’s journey. Sometimes I see it as a vast interconnected network of rivers and tributaries, each feeding into and gathering from others on the way. I am a part of all that I have met. (Turns out it was Tennyson who wrote that. Who knew?) From our own perspective–within the banks of our own river course, as it were–we see others coming and going in our lives. We don’t always see all the lives in which we come and go, and in which we continue to live even after we’re gone. You take care too.

  3. Ralph says:

    Yesterday seemed more like a year later. Today seems more like just yesterday.
    Thanks for the generosity and kindness of sharing this.

  4. Heather says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I agree with Ralph, as well.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Heather – Yes, grieving is not a straight-line process. Things lurk behind corners and jump out without warning, or trip us up when we have come to expect a smooth path.

  5. Gary Cerantola says:

    I, too, remember the day watching my father take his very last breath, and leaving the hospital and for the first time coming to terms with my own mortality. It was a very empty and sobering moment, the loss and the realization.
    You can say I had a James Hollis moment trying to make meaning over this whole process. Do I sleepwalk through the rest of my life or do I keep on keeping on trying to derive some meaning out of this life. Here, I am years later still asking the same questions, still trying to move on and make meaning of it all. I also agree with Ralph.
    Thanks for sharing Isabel.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Gary – Thank you for sharing. I sometimes wonder if we ever have any idea what other people are carrying around with them – the rest of the time I just know we don’t! Creating or finding meaning in our lives is a big job – and an ongoing struggle, sometimes. As painful as it can be, it seems to be better than the alternative of sleepwalking.

  6. When I was in California all October attending my slowly dying father, my sister and I went to a weekly seminar moderated by a Grief Counsellor for 20 or so grieving people. Just being together for an hour and a half every week gave comfort. Watching the progress we made week by week, even the relief for some who finally could cry after being numb for months, even years, the Grief C. said, “You will go through a long period of the “I don’t care’s — the “I don’t care, I don’t care about anything, what’s the point of doing anything.” And then, something shifts and you will want to do things again to honour your loved one. It is a gift, I assure you, you will be given.”

    Losing a loved one grants us entry into a deeper level of empathy for our fellow humans. It is easier to be kind, for we now know the sorrow we all carry, unspoken.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara — I’m sorry about your father. We are each unique, and yet there are broad patterns in how we deal with life’s good and bad times. I think it can help to know that others are feeling many of the same things we are. That the noise in your head – however it manifests itself – is normal. And that if you let it be there, it will gradually modulate. And if kindness is an outcome – so much the better.

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