Fall is in the air. The clouds are gathering. It feels like rain. The temperature is dropping, and so is my mood. Hibernation, snuggling, soup, tea and a warm fire seem appealing. As the members of House Stark say in the HBO show Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming.”
Tuesday, October 23rd would be my dad’s 87th birthday. He died on September 5, 1987, of a heart attack. It was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. This was especially tragic timing for our family, as it was the weekend of the Dombrowski Family Picnic, a long-standing tradition put on by my dad’s sister Agnes and her family on a farm outside of Ann Arbor. Lots of family and friends, bringing dishes they made, and the corn freshly harvested from the local field. Lots of kids, a tire swing, pick up games of badminton and volleyball. I think the picnic was cancelled that year. It really is all a blur, the memory of those days.
Death does that, I think. Grays things out. Makes them fuzzy, hazy, opaque. Obscures things from view. We can’t see joy, we can’t find ourselves. We get lost in space and time. We stumble around, bumping into things, confused, unsure what to do next. We go through the motions. Days pass, and suddenly it is the next month. We look around, wondering what happened. It is a numbness, a bubble of defensive de-sensitivity.
There are outward signs of grief. Tears, sleep disruption, eating or losing one’s appetite, slacking off on personal hygiene, withdrawal from others. We miss our lost loved one so much, we need comforting, but it is so stressful to be out in the world without them, and everything reminds us that they are gone. We create services to honor them, to bring us all together in remembrance. And then it is over. Or so we are led to believe. We are told that time will heal our wounds. All wounds, even. But as time drifts on, we realize that only those who have never been wounded like this can even think such a thing. Our wounds may look healed on the outside. But on the inside we are struggling to decide whether today we will be raw or we will be numb.
When my dad died, I see-sawed between rawness and numbness, sometimes several times a day. It was so unexpected, so tragic, so devastating to me. My dad was my greatest champion – the one who told me I could be anything I wanted to be (a lawyer or a judge, preferably. He did have his biases.). We shared a love of reading, the spoken word, music, singing, skiing, sailing, the beach, travel, politics, Ireland and baseball. He encouraged me to write, and even though I’ve always been intimidated by the competition in the field of the written word, his encouragement lodged itself in my subconscious. Its foundation has allowed me, now in my 50s, to embrace my desire to write. To allow myself the time for it, even if something else needs to get done. To believe it when someone tells me I write well, that they enjoy reading what I have to say. This gift from my father is something I cherish. It helps keep him with me to this day.
It’s been 25 years since he died now. 25 years is a very long time. I don’t cry very much any more when I think of him. I remember the laughter in his heart. I remember when he played the harmonica, when he ran a marathon, when he climbed the Matterhorn, when he sailed the solo Pt. Huron to Mackinaw race. I remember his silly sayings, like “Wobo it about a bit.” Or “There ain’t many of us perfect guys left.” The former he would say if we were lollygagging or not moving fast enough; the latter if we were complaining about our own or others’ failings. He was the kind of guy with a twinkle in his eye. He was shy, but had many admirers. He was well-respected – a rare thing in the field of law. We used to love watching Perry Mason together. We watched a lot of TV in those days. He loved All in the Family, The Streets of San Francisco, and Columbo. He loved a good mystery novel, and introduced me to Agatha Christie, for which I am very grateful. I thought I might even want to become a detective some day. As I grew up though, I realized that I couldn’t handle the world of crime. I’ve discovered I have to limit my exposure to the dark side of humanity. It drags me down too much.
My father’s death was the most profound thing ever to happen to me. I was unprepared for it. For a long time afterward, I beat myself up thinking I could have saved him, even though the doctors told us there was nothing we could have done. I agonized over it: if I’d only known to administer CPR! We didn’t realize he was having a heart attack at the time. He’d dived into the pool, and hit his head, and when my mom, who was with him, started screaming, I came rushing down the stairs to find her dragging him toward the steps. We thought he was passed out from the head injury. We didn’t know.
When autumn comes, blowing the scarlet and umber leaves down from the trees, I am reminded of those days. The chill in the air goes straight to my heart. Over the years, I have built up defenses. I push myself even harder to exercise, to combat the urge to retreat. Even my job as a teacher is, in some way, a method of distraction from the gloom that fall signifies to me. It keeps me busy helping others, so I don’t have to think about how I couldn’t help my father stay alive.
It is ironically apropos that I discovered my cancer in the fall. As the anniversary of my fateful (yet lifesaving) colonoscopy came and went, it was warm here in Sacramento. It didn’t feel like fall yet. But this week, the skies have changed, the rain is looming and the darkness of the mornings seems to linger all day. In a couple of weeks I will have to have another colonoscopy. It will be an annual event for three years. It was very hard to make the appointment. I kept putting off the call. I’ve never been comfortable with making calls to doctors or other service providers, actually. I have some bizarre phone aversion that has been with me since I can remember. Someday I’ll have hypnosis and get to the bottom of it. Or not.
Maybe we can’t know all the reasons why we are the way we are, or why bad things happen to good people. Or why it seems like some of the bad people seem to have way too much power. Or why there is cancer, mental illness, or birth defects. Although it feels a lot like someone might be punishing us, I think it is only our internal self that does the punishing.
The upcoming round of holidays have always been tough for me to weather. California’s relatively mild climate (except in the mountains) fools me into thinking it really isn’t time to prepare for winter celebrations. And then there they are, staring me in the face while I’ve been hunkered down with a book and pretending I have plenty of time to buy pumpkins, candy, costumes, turkey, stuffing, presents, cards, chocolate coins, candles and wrapping paper. I think I find it hard to celebrate this time of year, because it holds such loss for me. Even though these festivities can be seen as an act of defiance, a raging against the dying of the light, I have often found them offensive in some way. Too many people ignoring their pain and sorrow – or maybe – MY pain and sorrow. Too many people not understanding how tough it can be to try to make happy times for your family, when it is an effort just to feed yourself healthy food, or go for a walk, or call a friend. That even after years of functioning, of healing, of forgetting; a sudden glimpse of someone who looks like my father, can reel back the years. I think of all the things I didn’t get to share with him. How much he would have enjoyed being a grandfather. How I can never again call a man “Dad.” And yet…I am lucky to have had the privilege of having him for 28 years. He was a great father. I suppose this is why I miss him so much.
It won’t be long until we set the clocks back. So the mornings won’t be quite so dark, but the evenings will be early and long. Many people have trouble remembering which way to turn the clocks, but it’s simple really: Fall back, Spring forward. This fall back strategy makes it harder to want to venture out at night. It’s almost as if our national priorities conspire with the weather to keep us home, to entice us with football games and TV shows, to eat and drink and be merry, to put up lights to stave off the creeping dark. This is my favorite thing about winter though, since I don’t get to have snow anymore. I love Christmas lights. I may have to put them up early this year. I usually wait until after Hanukkah, to honor my husband’s traditions, but I may need them sooner. I need lights to stave off the gloom, to warm my heart; as a fire in the hearth can warm my bones. This has always been my defense against the dark: staying warm. I have no potions or spells but this. I hope it will be enough, again.