Grief Is A Shadow

Yesterday, March 5th, was the one-year anniversary of the death of my Father, Wayne Mike Curtis; his 67th birthday. After a slow and depleting 13-year battle with cancer, I sat with my mother at his bedside in our home and watched him take his final breath before his life was complete and his soul was exhumed. In that sudden moment of stillness, in that living room that had become a cage of agony and anxiety for almost a week, I gently placed my right hand on his cold, emaciated chest and was no longer able to feel his heartbeat. His body was motionless, hardly containing any warmth. Cancer had finally taken my father. It had left my Mother a widow. It left us feeling cold and incomplete. His absence from this family would forever be salient.

Thirteen years slowly crept toward this moment, a suspended dagger you knew you would feel one day but could do nothing to brace yourself for it. I had known my Father for more years with cancer than without it. His suffering was something I was able to adjust to with each piece of  bad news and every morose turn that it brought. I had to. I was equipped to. Along the way, I wondered how much of my life my Father would be able to spectate and experience. He saw me graduate High School. That wasn’t a given. He got to see me graduate College, and more than anything else on that day, I remember just being happy that he was there to see me walk. I knew he was thrilled to be there too. I knew we didn’t have much time left. And now, I’m left with my imagination in regards to what it could have been like. I think about the day I get married and not seeing him sitting in the front, grinning with joy. I think of holding my firstborn in the hospital and not being able to pass that Grandchild into his arms. I don’t get to have these memories. I don’t know exactly why. I play these images over and over in my head as if I can create some alternate reality where I can escape to. Where things aren’t heavy. Where he’s still alive.

My Mother and I have grieved in separate ways this past year, but during a phone conversation recently, we ironically used the same word to describe our feelings about my Dad’s death over the past year: numbness. Complete numbness. No stimulus whatsoever.

Grief is a shadow. It is unique to your framework. It will never leave your entity. It never looks the same, altering its shape with respect to time. It can undermine your emotions in ways you can’t detect, becoming a subgrade to thoughts and feelings without warning. Like carbon monoxide, it can’t be nominally detected by senses alone, but felt symptomatically.

Now that my Mom lives alone with her dog, Jeff, I have to go over and dog-sit a few nights every two weeks or so while she travels for work. I’m still not used to roaming my childhood home and not seeing my Dad anywhere. Since he retired some years ago, he never left the house much as his condition worsened. He was almost always home in the evenings, lacking much energy to go out and do much of anything. I’ll find myself sitting on my Mom’s bed and looking at a photo of him that she’s placed on the side of her bedroom mirror. It’s a great picture of him in mid-laughter. I miss that laugh. I don’t want to forget what it sounds like.

I miss talking to my Dad. I miss getting to know him more. Our relationship was one that became sterling from years of much refinement and growth. I felt like I understood him more as I got older. I understood his identity in spite of his suffering. His meekness in the backdrop of his surrounding world. His service in regards to the impartation of love he always held to dearly and expressed toward my Mother and I without waver. My Father was a man of virtue and conviction. He felt things many people don’t notice. He internalized and analyzed emotives like a scientist under a microscope. He had intention. His actions spoke. He possessed meaning.

I’ll go into the basement to do laundry and think about him. He always used to do my laundry whenever I would come home from school or be over for the weekend during the post-college years. My Dad’s central expression of love was service. He would wash all my clothes and have them completely dry, militarily folded and stacked before the thought of helping him would enter my head. He would ask about my car, go outside and stare at it for five minutes, and then start piddling with it. You couldn’t stop him. I never really tried. I knew what it meant for him to do those types of things for me and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d miss them completely.

Theoretically, we all end up burying our parents. This doesn’t make the act feel standard or less painful. The concept of death makes us think the most about life. Parameters and variables. Where we end and where we begin. What it all means. You witness someone you love slowly turn themselves over into cessation, and that display completely rearranges how you see everything. The curtain falls and you’re left feeling alone with something so heavy and personal; an absence no one can possibly understand because no one knows how much that lost person meant to you and exactly what it means that they’re no longer around.

Back to our basement, I caught myself standing in the middle of the it the other day just looking at everything. For being an unfinished basement, it’s one of the more neat and organized basements you’ll ever see, with shelves of various goods and implements sorted systematically. My Mother and I got so used to the arrangement that it has pretty much looked the same since he left. I pulled down his guns that he had stowed away and brandished them out of frivolity. I picked up his gold-overlaid crash axe he received when he retired from the Pattonville Fire District and held it, contemplating putting it on a mount. I wanted these things to feel special and resonant some sensation within that proved to me I missed my Dad. I wanted to feel that loss. I wanted to stop feeling numb. I wanted to awake my sorrow as if I hadn’t felt any of it within the last year. Instead, I saw those heirlooms for what they were: things he left behind that contain not a trace of his spirit. They could vanish from my possession tomorrow and nothing would change.

I find myself not wanting to adjust to a life without my Dad. I don’t want to get used to that reality. I don’t want to “get over” it all and treat my Dad’s passing like some tough phase I got through and now I’m a super better person for it and everything’s cool and life can’t keep me down. I don’t want trivialize loss for the fear of anyone believing my Dad didn’t really mean that much to me. But I also understand that, at some point, I have to take this life that lacks his existence, maintain the truth I’ve believed and held dearly for my whole life, and press on. Carry that void, but not let it overtake me. But this day should also be, more than anything, a celebration. No longer is my Father tormented by disease, addled by drugs, confined from living freely. He’s finally home. He’s free from affliction. He kept the faith. He’s now in the presence of The One he’s longed to see appear. That’s real joy. It’s a scene I can’t even imagine.

This is a disposition that doesn’t come easy or naturally for me. I have to remind myself of this daily. It’s a shame how much I have to remind myself what I believe.

I awoke yesterday morning unsure of how the weight of the significance of this anniversary would feel. The alarm on my phone sounded, and, after I got up to disable it, I sat on my bed and listened to every recorded voicemail I had saved of my Dad. I wanted to hear his voice again. I wanted to feel something. Anything. Afterwards, I proceeded with my morning routine, grabbed my things, and walked out my door, ready to shoulder whatever encumbrance the day had in store for me. And you know what it ended up feeling like?


7 thoughts on “Grief Is A Shadow

  1. “It can undermine your emotions in ways you can’t detect, becoming a subgrade to thoughts and feelings without warning.” Truly it is the things I least expect that I feel the most deeply. I often have more emotion in the anticipation of an “anniversary” than I feel on the actual day.
    “I wanted these things to feel special and resonant some sensation within that proved to me I missed my Dad.”
    Thank you for sharing your heart. Your words are filled with Hope.

  2. From Julie (too lazy to sign out of D. Jay’s account):

    Charlie, thanks so much for sharing this. There is so much beauty and grief – and laughter, even – wrapped up in this post. By laughter, I can’t help but grin as I think of the joy you expressed in the everyday things of your father and his relationship with you and your mom – the “piddling”, the military fold, not even having a chance to think about helping before it’s already done…love it, your dad’s organization. I can hear his laugh. I think I will always remember that chuckle. And while Mike Curtis was as “military” as it gets, the tenderness in his presence and softness of his spirit were unlike anyone I have known.

    I totally get those emotions surrounding that crash axe, thinking of my own father:

    “Instead, I saw those heirlooms for what they were: things he left behind that contain not a trace of his spirit. They could vanish from my possession tomorrow and nothing would change.”

    I deeply resonate with that first statement. While coming to grips with the finality of my dad’s death, I have fruitlessly longed for the resurrection of the life that he brought to a few cherished posessions. I don’t know that I agree with the second statement though, that nothing would change. That sentence has an Ecclesiastes-esque struggle to it. (Have you seen Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” that is in theater now? It speaks to this in a way, a group of men during WWII enlist with the sole purpose of rescuing the European art from the Nazi’s – not your typical war movie.) Those possessions of your dad have value as long as your spirit assigns them value, or anyone who is alive to hear their story.

    My other favorite quote: “Theoretically, we all end up burying our parents. This doesn’t make the act feel standard or less painful.”

    Love you, Charlie.

  3. Well written article and a picture that matches your sentiment. I cannot offer any advice because I haven’t had the experience you’ve had. I can’t imagine what it’s like, but know some day will have to. Whether it’s a family member, a friend, or even an acquaintance, death will come one way or the other. Often too soon, never too late, one day we can only hope to understand.

  4. Well written Charlie and thanks for sharing. I agree with Julie and you with your quote…about burying our parents. I can tell you from living thru so many people I have come in contact with thru Nursing, and thru friendships….it is never standard and it is pretty much always painful. Never easy to say goodbye, b/c even tho…we, as CHristians , know we will see them again. Our Finite minds have a hard time wrapping around that fact, in reality… it is hard, and remains hard….til it is our time to join them. I also would say, tho I myself am not a big momento person…those pieces that were so a piece of who your Dad was …here…are of value.

  5. Just like your Father did, you continue to teach others how to face death. I love that you keep the voicemails. I keep a recording of my mom screaming with me and Hannah going down the log flume at Six Flags on a audio photo frame of us riding down the ride. It still makes me laugh. Thanks for your vulnerability. Great article.

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