I was okay driving to the cabin, even though it was the first time back since he died.
The frosted peaks and winter skyline were familiar friends. This landscape proved a distraction from my low-grade anxiety at returning to the place where everything was a reminder of him.
Dave Matthews Band’s “The Space Between” played on the radio as we wound through the hills on the two-lane road.
The ice on the gravel driveway crunched beneath my car. My dad planted the cottonwoods which lined the sides of the drive. Though he wasn’t here, the bare-branched trees nevertheless welcomed us.
Walking inside the house was manageable, too. Everything was the same. Returning was restorative, though the palpable void left by my father’s death was, at this point, picking at the edges of my consciousness.
I knew it would be different—that returning to this, his happy place, would hurt without him.
The stab of awareness finally sank deep when I saw his hat.
His straw hat, his ubiquitous accessory, sat on the counter beside a utility knife and a tube of sunscreen. If he were here, he would be wearing that hat. He would be outside, going and doing. There would be no reposing hat inside, but there would be a gentleman farmer atop his tractor, barking out orders and gleefully attacking work projects.
The hat unspooled my sadness.
My husband, red-eyed and sniffling, walked in from the garage after seeing his father-in-law’s tools and utility vehicles where he last left them. “Those are all his things,” he said. “But he’s not here.”
My sixteen-year-old, walked to the river alone at dusk to take pictures. He came back and admitted he’d stood at Grandpa’s favorite picnic spot/fishing hole and cried.
My dad’s jacket remained, draped where he had left it over the back of a chair. My mom walked into their bedroom and looked quietly at my dad’s slippers, shoes, and socks next to his side of the bed.
I noticed the pictures pinned to the bulletin boards near the kitchen stairs. There was Jack, my second son, as a toddler, struggling in my arms and arching his back as I tried to pose with him for a photo. Next to it was a snapshot of my dad holding out his splayed hands, purple from huckleberry-picking.
He is wearing the hat.
Jack is not here. My father is not here.
It’s been a year of loss for me, though in different forms.
I hold on to this tether: neither of them is really lost.
I see Jack regularly. He is still nonverbal. He still struggles to communicate. His behaviors frequently still require all hands on deck, hence his placement in a group home where he has the continuous one-on-one care he requires. I continue to oversee his health care and his education.
When I see him, sometimes he puts his head in my lap and lets me run my fingers through his ginger curls. I am still his mom and he is still my boy.
With my son in the care of others, the space between us has opened my heart to the reality that mortal life makes us vulnerable. We can’t pray- or wish- or parent-away the hard, hurtful things which bring us low and compel us to listen.
With my dad’s passing, I now see that the space between those of us still in this world and those who’ve moved on is the space where people grow. It’s a space designed for letting us choose what we believe. It’s a habitat for faith.
Grief is an emptiness. One’s life continues after loss, but it is missing the texture of a vital force.
Grief is a fullness, of yearning and remembering.
Sometimes grief feels like a shadow–a sad, silent woman in tattered babushka garb, who sits in the corner and swallows all the air in the room.
But sometimes, grief feels like a swelling, of memories, of gratitude, of a satisfying, three-dimensional awareness of the spirits which make us who we actually are, beyond our mortal selves.
I suppose the question I find myself asking is this:
Is grief the pheasant, which blew past me on my snowy walk at dusk that second day at the cabin, exploding from the cattails by the lip of the lower pond—a blast of russet-hued wings that kickstarted my rapid-firing heart?
Or, is that flapping, feathered thing really hope?
And is it rising above sorrow when it wheels over the ice, beneath the just-apprearing stars, into the blue horizon?