A Different Kind of Love Letter

Dear Dad,
You’re still a jerk for dying. Every once in a while I can be okay with it, but for the most part, the way I feel about you for dying hasn’t changed.

As the second anniversary of your death approaches, I am thinking a lot about what has changed since March 11, 2010.

At your funeral and afterward, a lot of people said to me, it will get easier with an emphasis on the IT. I don’t think IT really gets easier, Dad. I think I just get better at IT. I live and love and laugh a lot and I cry a lot too. I sometimes question my sanity. When that happens, I wonder if maybe I really should be all better now. There is no “all better” in the world of lost loved ones though, Dad. I know that you know that. And, I know that you know, better than anyone, that the pain – the sadness, the anger, the desperation – we feel when we lose someone we love needs to be expressed because if it’s not expressed, bad things can happen. Unexpressed grief festers inside us like an infection. It might manifest itself in another way, like as an illness. So, I don’t need to explain to you why two years after your death, I’m still writing about it and thinking about it…and crying about it.

I still miss you so much, Dad. I miss you the most when I am putting Sophia to bed and we are laying side by side with our faces so close that our noses are almost touching. She stares at me intently and whispers the sweetest things like, “your eyes are like JEWELS!” As if she is so surprised, but also as if she is telling me a secret about the meaning of life, something that only she knows because she is still so fresh in her human body. I wish you were here to tell me what you think of all the things she says and the ways she twirls around the room, dancing and singing, and the ways she taunts her brothers. I loved hearing your James stories. Then, I loved hearing your Alexander stories. I long to hear your Sophia stories.

When Sophia and I meet new people or stop to talk to strangers in the store, it isn’t too long before someone says, “I love her little voice.” Nobody knows as well as Sophia just how lovable she is. She tilts her head and smiles. One day, Alexander was FURIOUS at her. She talks a lot, Dad. Her little voice never stops. She wouldn’t stop talking and Alexander screamed, “I HATE HER LITTLE VOICE!” It was hilarious. I laughed out loud. Really, what else could I have done in that situation?

I parent differently now than I did before you died, Dad. I used to get really stressed out, almost panicky, in situations like that. I wanted to be the perfect mother. I wanted to respond with the most meaningful, profound, and powerful words. I wanted to say the right thing, without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Oh Dad, that just isn’t real. You know? My kids need to see me lose it. They need to see me make mistakes and say I’m sorry afterward. They need to see me cry, Dad. Nothing is real anymore. Between TV and movies and video games, kids just don’t see what’s real. I want to be real for them. They need me to be real for them. When they’re upset, they don’t need me to spout off something I read in a book, they just need me to listen. At the end of the day, if they can go to sleep knowing that they are loved and that they are heard and seen, I think they will be okay. Sometimes I screw it all up, but mostly I think we’re all going to be okay.

I think that is true for most people, Dad. They just need to be heard. So I’ve stopped trying to come up with the perfect response altogether. I’ve stopped beating myself up for falling short of perfection…because I do fall short of perfection. Way short. I listen a lot and think less about how to respond when the person I’m listening to is finished talking. When people ask me what I would do – I try to answer from the heart. But, honestly Dad, we all know that nobody really knows how they will respond to something until they are actually faced with that situation. Oh, the time I wasted IMAGINING how I would respond to a hypothetical situation! I try not to do that anymore. It’s a waste of time.

I also try not to obsess so much. I used to obsess over every little detail of every little thing that I did. Do you remember that? I was so busy obsessing that I was missing what was most important – just BEING. Kids don’t care if their birthday parties have a theme, Dad. For the love of God! But themes are fun. So that’s different. I don’t pretend that implementing every aspect of the perfectly themed birthday party is for them, an essential part of the perfect childhood. I’m honest now, Dad. They may pick the theme, but all the other coordinating and matching and gathering and putting together – that’s for me. They really just want cake and presents.

I guess you could say I’m following my intuition more now. I’m listening to myself more. The funny thing about that, Dad, is years ago – before kids and marriage and a job and all that, I LISTENED to my intuition! Somehow I lost touch with that ability. Or, I lost faith in that ability. I began to look outside myself for answers to questions. I read books. Lots and lots of books. Before I made any significant decision, I checked to see what Dr. Sears would do. I turned to my friends and anyone really, to see what they were doing. Then, I judged myself against all those inputs – the books, the people, the kids’ teachers and our pediatrician… I never measured up, Dad, because that wasn’t me. That wasn’t real. And the other funny thing about that is I’m actually really smart. I have some pretty great answers. But, I still love books.

I still think a lot about God too, Dad. That hasn’t changed. It is an obsession. I really wished I had some solid ground to stand on after you died. I desperately wanted to be able to say with confidence, “THIS is what I believe…” I have some ideas, but I’m still open to possibilities, Dad. I stopped thinking that maybe some people were wrong and some were right about God though. Maybe we’re all right, Dad. Maybe we all just need to figure out what works for us and do that. Maybe we can change our minds as we go. Twice this week already I’ve read stories about how God wants us to treat others as we would treat ourselves AND, here’s the important part, that implies that we actually treat ourselves well. Right? I never got that part. I just assumed I was treating myself well and that is how I would treat others. In actuality, I wasn’t treating myself well. At all. So, I’m trying to treat myself well because I want to be able to treat other people well. Skipping meals and not making time for exercise? Um, no. Not anymore. But Dad, I’m always the first to go when things get rough. I take full responsibility for that. I’m not whining about it. I’m just saying that I’ve still got work to do.

I’m writing all of this as if you have no idea what’s going on down here on Earth. When really, in my heart, I know that you already know all of it. I know you are there in the night with Sophia and me, and maybe it is you whispering in her ear, telling me my eyes are like jewels (although, even you wouldn’t be quite so dramatic about it). I know you still follow James and Alexander and maybe you’ve got some buddies up there who listen to your funny stories now. I know you are here with me, leaving pennies and feathers and messing with the frames on my walls. I know you are guiding me to listen to my intuition…again. I know you are helping me to see what is real and what isn’t and what matters and what doesn’t. This is what you did on Earth. You were flawed, like all of us, but you were real and the way you lived your life was an invitation for all of us to be real too. You believed that the power was inside us, in the people, NOT in politicians or priests or other people like politicians and priests – people we turn to when we feel powerless. As I continue to miss you and live on without you here, I think I also feel closer to you. Closer to what you were and what you stood for. For living and laughing and loving and singing and playing and thinking with all your heart – not so much with your mind. You got it. You knew that nothing but love mattered. You sang about that. You knew that all the power we ever needed was right there inside us. You had it all figured out.

It’s hard to be real, Dad. To be honest and true. To let it all hang out. To be vulnerable. It’s all so very hard. But you did it with such grace and with such a great sense of humor too. So, I’m not giving up. I’m open and listening. I will keep at it as a tribute to you. In my mind’s eye, I can see you smiling now. I see the signs that you give me, and I will continue to follow them right back home – to myself, to my own heart, where you live, always, inside me and all around me.

I love you Dad!
xoxo love, Anna

Neverness

About two months after my dad passed away my mom, my sister, and I took a writing class called, Writing Stories of Loss: Healing Through Heart and Pen. The three of us enjoy writing and journaling so we really embraced the opportunity to explore our feelings through writing. We were also able to share what we wrote, which was difficult because my emotions were still fairly raw. Maybe even worse was listening as my mom and sister shared their stories. In fact, once we got going, I was afraid that we would alarm our classmates with our streams of tears. By the end of the day it seemed as if the four strangers we had met in the morning, five if you include the instructor, had become dear friends. If only for a few hours, we were blessed with a beautiful time of sharing and supporting one another.

Each of the writing assignments allowed us to consider our loss from a different perspective. After lunch we were asked to write about one of two topics: Neverness or A Transformative Moment. Neverness refers to the things we would never do or see or have as a result of our loss. Even now, thinking back to the moment when our instructor explained this assignment, my heart tightens. I wasn’t ready to focus on all the possibilities my dad took with him when he died. I wrote about a transformative moment -the moment I arrived at my parent’s house the night of my dad’s death. Sharing that story was cathartic to say the least. Since that day though, my mind has often wandered back to neverness. Can I even bear to think about it now? How about now? I think it’s time…

I will never again know the feeling of my dad’s beard scratching my face as he hugs me good-bye. I will never get to say good-bye. I will never get another hug from my dad. I will never reach for my dad’s freckled hand to give it a squeeze, noting how it has aged since my last touch, appreciating its strength, and remembering how it used to gently brush my hair and pull it back into a ponytail when I was a little girl. We had matching ponytails for a while and when he died, he again had a very long ponytail. When he started growing his hair out President Bush was in office (W). None of us were huge fans of his plan so he said he would cut his hair again when a Democrat took office. But he didn’t. He will never cut that ponytail.

I will never hear my dad say, “Anna Bandana!” or “Anna Bear!” when I call. He always acted so happy to hear from me, even if he had just left my house. He will never come to my house. He will never babysit my children in a pinch. He will never bounce any of my children on his knee, reciting “trot, trot to Boston, trot trot to Maine, trot trot to Boston and back home again!” He will never hold them close to read them a story. He will never sing them Near Ne Now. He will never hear my daughter, who was barely 2 years-old when he died, sing little songs to herself as she twirls around in circles, just like I did when I was little. He will never say, “Alexander T. Cornpone!” when he sees my son Alexander. My dad will never pull up in his pick-up truck to take my son James to his guitar lesson as he did every Thursday for two years before he died. He will never complain to James about the other drivers on the road all the way to and from the guitar lesson. They will never marvel as they count the numerous Land For Sale signs posted along the road by just one local realtor. They will never stop for candybars at the hardware store. They will never jam with James’s guitar teacher, Tim, or make the recording they had planned to make. My dad will never attend any of my children’s games or their school programs. He won’t see them graduate from high school or college. He won’t dance at their weddings. He will never take another vacation with us. My children will never make another memory with their Papaw. My daughter might not remember him at all.

I will never see my dad perform either alone or with his band. I’ll never hear him say, “Now it’s time to pause for a good cause” when it’s time for a bathroom break. He will never play Amazing Grace before Thanksgiving dinner. I will never stand there, worrying that the food is getting cold, trying to appreciate the beauty of the moment as all the people I love the most stand around one table together, listening to my dad sing one of the most moving songs on Earth. He will never eat the dark meat. He will never take leftovers home to enjoy later. He will never nod off on the sofa, then wake-up irritated, ready to go. He will never grow impatient with my mom as he waits for her to get out the door.

He will never bring tea to my mom in the morning or rub her feet at night. They will never watch another obscure movie together, then tell me about it afterward. Separately. He will never finish all the projects he started around the house or in his art class. We’ll never know what he planned to do with all the sheet metal he had gathered for his most recent sculpture. He will never tell me about his next project. He will never do another project. He will never clean out his shed or put his clothes away. He will never show up wearing a funny hat or a cool hat. He will never buy another t-shirt. He will never wear another t-shirt. He will never bring me a new book to read. He will never take one of my books home to read. He will never sit on the toilet reading The New Yorker. He will never sit on the toilet. He will never sit anywhere.

My dad will never exchange a knowing glance with my husband in the midst of the craziness that often swirls around my mom, my sister, and me. He will never tell me how proud he is of my husband or how proud he is of me. He will never look at me and say, “you’re so beautiful” as he did for as long as I can remember. He will never stare at my mom, when she isn’t looking, and tell me how beautiful she is or how much he loves her. He will never share another Jamesism, like he so loved to do. “Oh! I forgot to tell you. You’ll never guess what James said this time…” I’ll never hear him say “Far out.” I’ll never hear him laugh. I will never look over and see him wiping his eyes when he is moved to tears, which was often. He will never be there to rescue me when I need him. I will never again hear cheers or encouragement from my biggest fan. He will never defend me. I will never listen as he shares his wisdom or his unique outlook on life. He will never tell me about a story he just heard on NPR. I will never roll my eyes at one of his jokes. We will never talk politics, religion, or anything else that you aren’t supposed to talk about. We will never talk again in the way I’ve talked to him my whole life.

This feels like maybe it could go on forever. It’s breaking my heart! I will never see my dad in his body or feel his touch again. I don’t think it matters how old a person is when he dies, or how sick he was, or how whatever the case may be. For the record, my dad was young at 62 when he died and he was very healthy. But no matter what circumstances surround a loved one’s death, the absence of their physical presence creates a hole in our lives and in our hearts. I will never stop missing my dad’s presence. I will never stop wishing for just one more hug. That hole will never go away.

What I know now is that even in the absence of my dad’s body, he is with me. He is with my children. He is with my husband. He is with my mom. He is with my sister and with her family. He is with his friends. He is with all the guys from all of his bands, his buddies from work, and the people he knew from the art classes he was taking when he died. He is with his friend, the welding instructor, who was deeply saddened when he heard the news of my dad’s death. He is with Tim and James at each and every guitar lesson. He is with his lifelong friend, Ernest, who flew in from California to attend his funeral. My dad was there when some of the guys he has loved the most, guys from his band, played Amazing Grace at his funeral. And, he was probably wiping tears from his eyes, moved by their loving tribute to the man he was and the influence he had on their lives. What I know now is that my dad’s love continues to surround us. His Spirit lives on in and around all of the people he loved. Some of the things I thought I’d never share with my dad when he died, can still be shared. What I didn’t know then, on the night of his death or on the day of this class, is that even though he is gone, I will never truly lose my dad.

Nothin’ But Love

Valentine’s Day has me thinking about love. I have always been a fan of letters and words, whether reading them or writing them, I find them fascinating. I even enjoy the sounds associated with writing words, the scratch of my pencil against paper, the flow of a wonderful pen, or my fingers tapping the keyboard.

My sister Sarah was born when I was six years-old. I was so upset when I found out that my parents gave her more letters in her name than I had. I couldn’t believe the injustice. I wanted to change my name to Elizabeth. I was desperate for more letters. So, the fact that you can say so much with one simple word – love, comprised of four little letters, l-o-v-e, is like magic to me.

I thought it would be worth consulting Wikipedia, to see what it has to say about the word love.

Love From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Love is the emotion of strong affection and personal attachment.[1] In philosophical context, love is a virtue representing all of human kindness, compassion, and affection. In some religious contexts, love is not just a virtue, but the basis for all being, as in the Christian phrase, “God is love” or Agape in the Canonical gospels.[2] Love may also be described as actions towards others (or oneself) based on compassion.[3] Or as actions towards others based on affection.[4]

The word love can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from generic pleasure (“I loved that meal”) to intense interpersonal attraction (“I love my partner”). “Love” can also refer specifically to the passionate desire and intimacy of romantic love, to the sexual love of eros (cf. Greek words for love), to the emotional closeness of familial love, or to the platonic love that defines friendship,[5] to the profound oneness or devotion of religious love. [6] This diversity of uses and meanings, combined with the complexity of the feelings involved, makes love unusually difficult to consistently define, even compared to other emotional states.

My heart is all a flutter! One little word can mean so many different things! And, I can say I love Colin Firth, lattes, and my husband without minmizing my love for either one (specifically my husband). Love has no bounds. There are no restrictions on what I love or how much I love it.

In the days after my dad’s death, the thing we kept coming back to was love. I felt surrounded by love in ways that I had never experienced. My dad was a blues muscian and songwriter. In 1998 he wrote the song, Nothin’ But Love. I have heard him perform that song many times. I always thought of it as a love song in the romantic, passionate love sense. As we planned his funeral, gathering pictures and selecting music, we listened to Nothin’ But Love quite a bit and after a few days we were nodding our heads thinking “Wow, Dad is right…there is nothing but love.”
This is how the song goes:

If you’ve never had the blues, you’ve got some blues coming,
If you’ve never had the blues, you’ve got some blues coming,
You might not be singing ’em, but you’ll be hummin’ em…

Ain’t nothin’ but love, can take your blues away, ain’t nothin’ but love can take your blues away, you might not live to see tomorrow, better make some love today…

You’ve got some blues coming, you know it will be hard…
You’ve got some blues coming, you know it will be hard…
It don’t matter where you live people, the blues’ll come in your backyard…

Ain’t nothin’ but love can take your blues away, ain’t nothin but love can take your blues away, you might not live to see tomorrow, better make some love today.

My dad was right on. We will all face some type of hardship in our lives and it will be hard. And, nothing but love will help us to overcome that hardship. Love will strengthen us and carry us through whatever life brings us. Our love for others, their love for us, our love for God, God’s love for us, no matter what form it takes, love lifts us up in times of need. Even love for our pets, for travel, for reading, for writing, for music… Whatever we love, that love has the power to take our blues away.

On a side note, in an ironic twist of fate, my dad slipped away in his workshop in my parents’ backyard. He wasn’t kidding when he said the blues will come in our backyard.

My dad’s wisdom from beyond is a treasured gift for all of us who loved him. He has reminded me through his music that love will carry me through. I know, it’s easy for me to say, I live with a loving husband, three little cuddlebugs, and a gigantic yellow dog. It’s easy for me to scoop up someone in my house and hold them close when I need some love. Although, even that comes at a cost as I discovered yesterday when my daughter whacked me in the face with a plastic Spiderman.

So, what do we do when there is no physical presence to love? No body to hug? Life can be lonely at times. When there is nobody around and I feel detached from other sources of love, I sometimes feel a little lost. Even in a crowd, it is easy to feel lost, alone.

This is where I’m learning to turn inward. Who can love me better than I love myself? If I love myself.

This is one of my soapbox moments… Practicing self-love is not selfish. Say it with me, practicing self-love is not selfish. This is not my opinion, it is not a belief I hold dear to my heart, or an abstract social construct, it is the truth. It is a fact. I would never tell my son James that he is selfish to take time out of his busy 8 year-old life to play baseball so why do I feel selfish when I carve time into my schedule to practice yoga or go for a walk? Somewhere along the way I learned that my job is to take care of others. At some point, I learned that I can only succeed at that job, or any job, if I neglect myself. Maybe you can relate. It’s hard to turn inward for love when the self-love well has run dry. What I find when I do take good care of myself and when I do make time to fill that well with love, is that I love everybody else much more deeply and fully.

Even alone, we can know love. In the words of my dear old dad, “you might not live to see tomorrow, better make some love today.” It’s all about love, so love a little! One simple little word with multiple meanings makes the world go round. Nothin’ but love…

1.^ Oxford Illustrated American Dictionary (1998) + Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (2000)
2.^ Deus Caritas Est, Roman Catholic encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI
3.^ Fromm, Eric; “The Art of Loving”, Harper Perennial (1956), Original English Version, ISBN-10: 0060958286 ISBN-13: 978-0060958282
4.^ Fromm, Eric; “The Art of Loving”, Harper Perennial (1956), Original English Version, ISBN-10: 0060958286 ISBN-13: 978-0060958282
5.^ Kristeller, Paul Oskar (1980). Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays. Princeton University. ISBN 0-691-02010-8.
6.^ MascarĂ³, Juan (2003). The Bhagavad Gita. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-140-44918-3. (J. MascarĂ³, translator)