“You can’t even do the bare minimum, can you? You can’t even do that.” She looked at him, tears rising into her eyes.
“Yes, I can,” he said softly.
“The bare minimum. That’s what I can do, Claire.” Once he spoke the words, they exploded in his chest, so true he almost wept.
— “Torch” by Cheryl Strayed
I always wondered what I would do when my dad died. I imagined various scenarios over and over in my head, through the years where we didn’t talk, and the years where we did, and I could never quite get a clear picture of it. Would I even cry? What would it feel like inside? Would it overwhelm me, the kind of sick grief that feels like being pushed over the edge of a cliff? Or would it just….happen? Would I feel anything?
What happened was
I walked into a room that smells like every hospital room, except this was the one they kept for dead people, and I saw him there, still and cold and stupidly small, and I collapsed inside, folding in and in and in on myself, until I was the size of a speck of ash, until I was as invisible as a solitary atom, and the room around me and everything in it grew to giant proportions, and his feet, his arms, his face, his face his face his face
What happened was
Time didn’t just stand still, it flew backwards, and I was thirteen and wore a ridiculous belt buckle with my initials and had a cheap cowboy hat made of felt and he took me to hear live music and we took a road trip somewhere anywhere and the windows were rolled down and country music twanged and popped from stations we could barely pick up and we were singing along into the wind and constellations caught in between my fingers as I held my hand up to the moon, waving hello, waving goodbye, and I was sure for one brief, shining moment that there would only ever be good things but of course in the end
What happened was
He looked like he was carved from old gray rock, unearthed and ancient, faded from centuries of sun and snow and starlight brighter than we’ll ever know, and my purse fell to the floor and I touched him, tentatively at first, because dead people always feel so terribly wrong in the first moment your skin meets their skin, and then I pressed my forehead to his, so hard that my glasses left an indentation, a scar of my sorrow across his brow, and I cried so hard that it hurt my face, an explosion of exhausted emotion pushing at my cheeks and jaw, splitting me down the middle, surprising me, shocking me, and over a thousand tears was a broken litany of brute honesty, a meaningless collection of words that meant everything in that moment, i’m so sorry i’m so sorry i’m so sorry daddy i’m so sorry i didn’t hate you i didn’t hate you i’m so sorry i did love you i did love you i did love you i didn’t hate you i’m so sorry daddy i’m so sorry daddy oh daddy oh daddy i’m so sorry daddy and I couldn’t breathe because it hurts because it really fucking hurts and I cried for so long and so hard that at the end of it, my body felt feather-light, like I could float up and away from what this was, from my dead dad lying dead in front of me, but instead I picked up my purse and I got in the car and I drove us home.
Tonight, I lay in the bath, and I read and read and read, over a hundred pages, finishing up a beautiful book on life and death and life after death, and the last twenty pages, I could feel it building behind my eyes, deep in my chest. I once watched a video clip of a tsunami wave as it approached and then crashed into the shoreline, and that’s how this felt – magnificent and terrifying and mesmerizing. I held out until the next to last page, and then the wave pummeled into the shore and I was knocked over by the force of it; I sat up in the bath, half in and half out of the tepid water, and I sobbed the kind of sobs that have no sound, just ugly faces, the kind that make you hold yourself around the waist to keep from breaking in two, and if I’d been alone, I would have howled to get through it, but I wasn’t, so I didn’t, I just cried the way you have to when you have children.
And still, my son, my sweet, empathetic son, he knew: he came into the bathroom, saw me there, hunched over, my eyes small and swollen, and he asked me if I was okay, and I told him I was, that I was just sad about some things and needed a good cry, and he said, sometimes we think we’re crying because we’re sad about something, but really we’re crying about nothing, and he said, sometimes the world can be good and sometimes the world can be not good, and when he left me alone again, I cried even harder, because that is the kind of wonderful shit I have in my life, and what a gift, what a surprising gift to have children who are so special and so funny and so exactly everything that is right with the world, and what a gift to know this now, while I am still here, while I can still kiss their sweaty heads that smell of sea air and sunrises, while I can still thank them for existing, for just being, and I saw my face in the faucet, distorted and bloated and sad, and in that place after grief has gut-punched you, where the air is too thin and everything is just far too real, and just far too much, I know that
what happened was
my dad could only do the bare minimum. That’s what he could do. And maybe that just has to be enough.