I don't know where to begin. The silence is deafening.
I think I'm a classic case of physician-heal-thyself. I am sacrificing blood, sweat, and tears (in the form of intellectual and emotional toil) to create work that makes space for other people to process grief. I'm becoming an activist of sorts for grief processing - fighting for the normalization and acceptance of grief in our current culture. And yet, I avoid my own grief like the plague. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to write about it. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to hear other people's stories about it either. I am criticizing our death and grief-adverse culture, and yet, here I am, running away from it as far and as fast as I can.
In the discussion of marginalized communities and/or cultures, the term "passing" comes up frequently. When the outside world is hostile to your identity or situation, sometimes the easiest way to get by is to "pass" as something else - to "pass" for a more widely accepted identity or category. I feel that this is true of grief too. When we grieve, particularly after the "emotional casserole" season has passed, the world reveals itself to be a hostile environment for our situation. And so, we are forced to learn how to "pass" as unbereaved. The cognitive dissonance that comes with passing begins to tear us apart from the inside, bit by bit. This is the unfortunate consequence of temporary safety and comfort.
Grief does not simply vanish because we are pretending that it isn't there. If left unattended, unprocessed, untouched, grief begins to fester. Layers of wounds, scars, and scabs form on your heart, making it harder and harder to heal.
And so, as I write this, as I fight for the right of others to grieve, I am forced to look at my own damaged heart, at the layers and layers of scars and scabs that have formed in the last 12 years.
September 12, 2007. The first wound.
I was in the car, heading to school. I had a group project in my 10th grade history class that morning and had planned to meet up with my partners before school started, in order to go over our plans for the presentation. My grandfather, "Jeepers" or "Jeeps," as I liked to call him, was driving me to the school bus stop. We got to the stop 15 minutes early. It was a cold fall morning, for San Diego standards, anyway. We were sitting in the car, heat on, waiting for the bus to arrive when my cell phone rang. It was my mother. "I think you should come. The nurse said it might be only a matter of hours."
I don't remember the rest of the conversation. I think it was short. All I know is that a decision was made - I would skip school. But I had that group project. I negotiated. A compromise was met. I would go to school early, meet my group partners, give them my portion of the project, and then head straight to Hospice.
I don't remember if I still took the bus. Did Jeepers drive me straight to school? Did he meet me there a little later? Why was I in the school quad for so long? Was he parked outside waiting for me or did he arrive in time to pick me up? Do these details even matter?
I remember going to the quad. I remember giving my presentation materials to Clarissa. I remember Conor being there. And maybe Jessica. I remember saying "My father might be dying this morning" and crying into someone's shoulder. I remember being hugged.
Memory is strange. So much can be a blur, and yet there is a crisp clarity of certain details, details that are not even that important. Minor details that have no significance, and yet are permanently etched in my mind with crystallized precision.
I know that my father died sometime between the quad and my arrival to Hospice. I remember finding out in the car. It was sometime in the 8 o'clock hour. But I can't remember if Jeepers told me when I got in the car or if we got a phone call or a text. And I can't remember the timing. Was it 8:15 or 8:45? Somewhere in between? Was it an odd numbered minute or even? I remember memorizing the exact hour and the minute when I first found out. I remember trying to etch it into my memory forever. But what do I remember instead? I remember standing in the quad at school - the precise grey color of the sky, the temperature of the air, Conor standing next to me. I even remember the exact bench where we were standing. The slightly rusting maroon-painted bench by the dance studios. The one in the corner.
I don't remember the car ride. I think I texted some friends as soon as I found out, but
I can't even be sure of that. Those 30 minutes are a blur.
I don't remember getting out of the car, or even walking through the building to the room. Did we park first? Did I go in alone? Was Jeepers with me the whole time?
But I remember the room. It was bright, and fairly large, and it had a balcony with a beautiful view. I remember thinking that my father looked peaceful. I remember a feeling of relief, lightness.
His body was still warm when I got there, and he was looking Heavenward. My mother closed his eyelids. She told me that he had reached up with his arm towards Heaven right before he let out his last breath. I kissed him on the cheek and held his hand.
This is how I remember it. But as I write, I am uncertain as to whether this is actually what happened. Is this just how my brain reconstructed the day? Was he really warm when I arrived? How late was I? Were his eyes still open? Was the feeling of peace and relief immediate or did it come later? Did I cry?
It had been a grueling nine months. Or was it six?
My father had been acting strangely - forgetting words, washing the dishes with his car keys still in hand. These weren't his normal absent-minded-professor quirks. Something else was going on, something sinister.
My mother anecdotally told our radiologist cousin. He looked alarmed and advised that we take my father in for an MRI as soon as possible. They found a brain tumor.
He went in for surgery. We waited outside the hospital in the sun for hours. Praying, hoping, waiting. Praying, hoping, waiting. Praying, hoping, waiting. Please don't die.
Surgery went well. My father had to stay in the hospital for recovery and observation. Was it weeks? Months? Only days? I can't remember. I remember that I stayed with my grandparents for a while. My mother stayed with my father in the hospital. I remember her playing the violin for him. I remember visitors and flowers and cards. I remember quiet, awkward afternoons in the hospital room. I remember still going to ballet classes, still going to school, still doing class projects and homework, and avoiding visiting the hospital as much as possible. Eventually he was discharged.
The biopsy results came back. Benign!! Hallelujah!! The storm clouds blew away. Life was getting back to normal. Perhaps a more gentle normal, but still normal. My father went back to making breakfast in the morning, to taking care of the garden, to being his usual self. We felt lighter, happier, at ease. The joys of life had returned. A few months passed.
One morning, my father was out on our back patio. He was sweeping away some leaves. Or was he gardening? Observing the blooming irises as he so often did? He fell. The blood thinners he was on caused massive bruising and internal bleeding. He was rushed to the hospital.
While he was in the hospital, the doctors decided to do a follow up MRI a bit earlier than scheduled to see how his brain had been healing after the surgery. The tumor had grown. Somehow they ascertained that it was in fact malignant. But now it was too dangerous and too late to operate. But what about the benign biopsy results? We learned that they mistakenly took out healthy brain tissue adjacent to the tumor, instead of taking a biopsy of the actual tumor. That kind of mistake sometimes happens, although rarely, they said. It's a complicated procedure, they said.
I don't remember the timeline after this. A prognosis was given. Six months. Or was it three? It didn't matter. We weren't going to accept it. We were fighting. No surgery is possible? Fine. We'll find healing and hope elsewhere. Religious people came and prayed vigorously for healing. Friends and family members offered alternative remedies - supplements, diet changes, the power of positive thinking. We tried everything.
In and out of the hospital. On Home Health Care. Nurses, social workers, pastors, doctors, friends. People coming and going. For a brief, and horrifying evening, he was taken to a nursing home. Dirty, noisy, neglectful, altogether awful. We took him home again.
My mother worked tirelessly to care for my father. He continued to decline. We continued to fight. It got harder and harder. We were urged to switch to Hospice care. No, we said. We're not done fighting, we said. But the glioblastoma kept growing.
His eyes - that had once expertly identified Raphael paintings, that loved to devour books of all kinds, that admired the intricacies of a piece of fruit, that found artistry and beauty in all things - began to lose focus.
His words - that had educated and inspired thousands in lectures, speeches, and sermons, that had profoundly and beautifully explained theories of art, culture, God, and the world around us, that spoke of unconditional love - began to become unintelligible.
His right arm - that gestured wildly in lectures and exhibition tours, that wrote hundreds of scholarly articles and books, that wrote a poem or spiritual reflection each morning, and an account of our family's adventures each evening, that carefully and perfectly peeled an apple each morning for our oats - lost its ability to write and move with coordination.
And yet, he continued to fight. He fought for us. We fought for him. But we were fighting a losing battle. Death slowly crept its way into our lives, casting a shadow that grew longer and darker each day. We closed our eyes and pretended not to see.
Is it true that we die the way that we live? There is a beautiful and poetic way to see this. And then there is the cruel sick joke. My father lived a life full of compassion and humility. As he grew more and more ill, he never complained. He took on his disease with a humble spirit and continued to open up his heart to those around him. As a professor, scholar, art historian, theologian, and writer, his whole identity and life had revolved around three things: his ability to see, his ability to speak, and his ability to write. And with one fell swoop, the glioblastoma stole all three. By the end, he could barely see right in front of him, could not even incoherently scribble a word on a whiteboard, and could only speak the word, "no." The man who embodied nothing but love, support, and acceptance for all, the man who consistently said "yes" to all that life threw at him, could no longer utter a sound other than, "no." There is the cruel sick joke.
I remember standing on the balcony with my mother that morning. My father's body was lying in the room behind us. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of peace, of ease, of relief. My mother felt it too. We looked out across the trees at the sprawl of San Diego. The air was fresh, birds were singing, the battle was over.
I don’t remember how long we stood there. I don’t remember if what we did when we went back into the room. Did we sing? Did we pray? Did we hold each other? Did we cry?
I remember standing outside the room at one point, in the living room area of the Hospice. There was a bookshelf with CDs of peaceful music. There was coffee, tea, water. I remember talking to Conor on the phone. I remember fiddling with the books on the shelf as I talked. I don’t remember what I said.
I don’t remember what happened next. When did they take him away? Where did we go after we left Hospice? What did we talk about? I don’t know if my memory is blurred because of the intensity of the shock of the moment, or simply because of the passage of time. Regardless, there are still those moments, those images that remain crystalized, etched, embedded into my mind forever.
It has been 12 years, and I still struggle to write these words. It's been 12 years and I can still see my father's face. His wild black hair with tufts of grey. His bushy eyebrows. The twinkle in his eyes. It has been 12 years, and I can still see him lying dead in the bed that morning. It has been 12 years and he remains simultaneously alive and dead. Simultaneously lecturing wildly and lying still. Simultaneously full of vigor, and as still as a statue.
I returned to school the day after my father’s death. I didn’t know what else to do. At first, my friends and my teachers were sympathetic, but it didn’t take them long to forget. A few weeks later, I was struggling to complete a homework assignment for a class. I talked to the teacher about it. She said, “Life goes on,” as if to say that the murkiness in my head caused by my grief was merely laziness in disguise.
“I haven’t seen you cry. Did you even have a close relationship with your dad?” Statements like this one made it hard for me to acknowledge my grief, to give it the weight it was due. No one seemed to care or understand. If I wasn’t grieving the way that others saw fit, I must have not been close with my father. Or so the logic went…
At home, my mother’s grief consumed everything. I watched her falling apart, struggling to pick up the pieces. I recoiled into myself, afraid that my sadness would destroy her. I learned to bear my pain in silence. Perhaps if I ignored it, it would simply go away.
My eyes – that used to see the world as beautiful, welcoming, accepting – now only saw hostility and grey skies.
My words – that once spoke freely and confidently – could no longer disclose my true feelings.
My arms – that had once held my father tightly – had become empty and desperate, trying to hold on to anything or anyone that I could find.
I became desperate, dishonest, destructive, and depressed. I became a shell of myself, pretending to be normal, strong, unharmed, and okay.
12 years later, one might expect a restitution narrative, a heroic story of overcoming the pain to find healing and joy. 12 years later, one might expect that the pain is a distant memory, that the details of the circumstances no longer matter, that the words uttered all those years ago wouldn’t sting so much anymore. But “life goes on” and “were you even close with your father?” still gut me to the core. The thought of the nursing home still makes my skin crawl. I can still see the frustration in my father’s eyes as all he could utter was “no.” I can still feel the sun on my face, the day we waited outside the hospital for the surgery to finish.
The truth is, 12 years later, the grief is still unpredictable, still tangible, still present. The truth is, that 12 years later, it’s a mix. It’s a mix of hope and pain. I would be lying if I said that this loss didn’t make me grow, that it didn’t form me into the woman I am today. I would be lying if I said that I am sad all the time or that I even think of my father all the time. But I would also be lying if I said that the pain has completely vanished. Or that writing this now, 12 years later, hasn’t been one of the most challenging acts of my life.
You see, this particular wound never got a chance to heal fully. I ignored it, let it fester, pretended that it wasn’t there. When I finally began to take care of it, when it was finally starting to heal, the next blow was delivered. June 2010. Jeepers. And then again. February 2018. John-Michael. And then again. April 2018. Joyce. And then again. January 2019. Grandma.
What happens to a heart that gets repeatedly wounded? What happens to scabs that get reopened, over and over again? How do you make sense of it all? How do you go on?
Addendum – Reflection on the Writing Process
It was challenging to start the process of writing this piece. I was feeling apprehensive and avoidant about my grief and experiences with loss. I didn't want to reopen old wounds. I didn't want to reflect. And most of all, I did not know what I wanted to write about. There were so many possible entry points - specific memories, things that trigger my grief now, reflections on the passage of time after a loss, chronological play-by-play reconstructions of particular moments of illness and/or death, etc. I wanted to write about all of it and none of it at the same time.
Eventually I decided to embrace my avoidance by starting to write about it. Instead of trying to outline or format my writing artificially, I put myself into a journaling mindset by simply starting with what I was thinking at the moment. The floodgates opened and the words flowed out me with ease.
As I continued to write, the form became apparent. My writing is a struggle of memory - a collision of remembrance and absence, of specified chronology and distanced reflection. I noticed a natural tendency towards repetition: “I remember” and “I don’t remember” (and variations thereof), “praying, hoping, waiting,” “they said” and “we said,” and the repeated questioning of the details and sequence of events. I also noticed a natural tendency towards using short, choppy sentences, broken phrases, and breaks in the narrative.
These structural choices mirror the experience of grief itself. In the journey of grief, as things become increasingly blurred, there is a desire to hold on to something concrete, to find a solid structure. Sometimes this structure comes in the form of specific temporal reconstructions – dates, times, hours, sequence of events. Sometimes it comes in the form of a repetition, a mantra, a determination to remember, a deep-rooted desire to make sense of the chaotic narrative. In the retelling of my father’s illness, the short choppy sentences give a sense of time moving quickly, while also remaining discombobulated. The repeated questioning of the details and sequence of events not only highlights the ambiguity and challenge of reconstructing memories, but also the chaotic experience of caretaking and grieving, that inevitably becomes a blur.
A few things surprised me in working on this piece. The first was that I did not expect to want to write about my father. The story of my father’s illness and death is one that I have told and retold over the years, and I have written about it in the past. However, I have never made the effort of recounting specific details. In light of the recent death of my grandmother, I expected to want to write about her, as those memories and experiences are still very fresh. However, it was clear that some part of me wanted to process my father’s death instead.
The second thing that was surprising to me was how emotional the process became for me. When I began to write about my father, I did not expect to have such raw emotions of anger and sadness. Although his birthday, the anniversary of his death, and significant milestones in my life are always emotional for me, I have come to believe that I am very much at peace with his passing. The writing process exposed a different story – a bleakness, sadness, anger – that I did not expect. I suspect that these emotions are largely due to the rawness of the present loss of my grandmother. The magnitude of this most recent loss seems to be uncovering deep wounds from the past.
As these emotions began to surface in my writing, I struggled to decide how to end the piece. I desperately wanted to turn it around into a more optimistic or positive ending – to highlight the growth that I have experienced in the last 12 years, the ways that I consistently choose to honor my father in my work, and the circumstances in which I feel his presence from time to time. However, it didn’t feel honest. It’s not that these things aren’t true. They just aren’t as present to me in this moment. So instead, I decided to lean into the darker emotions. I chose to write with self-awareness, exposing the process itself, instead of fabricating a perfect ending.