Today is Johnny Rocket’s birthday. It’s also Thanksgiving Day. Go figure. I’ve been thinking about dads a lot lately, in general, and my dad, specifically. I’ve also been thinking about how much I love to write and how far away from the practice of it I’ve gotten of late. What follows is something I wrote last year. It feels appropriate today for lots of reasons I won’t go into here. This is for my dad, it’s for my beautiful friend who is missing her dad today, and it’s for all of you turkeys out there. I’m back. More soon.
Dear X, I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. It’s a sad sad loss and, while I can only speak to my own experience, I’m guessing it’s one that will be with you and present in your life for the rest of it. I wish I could say it gets easier, and maybe it does, but I can be struck by a singular and overwhelming feeling of grief just as strongly today as 4 years ago. I think the only real difference is there are more moments of the day when I don’t think about my father’s absence, the loss of him, then when I do… which isn’t a great feeling either. If that makes any sense. But, really, none of it makes sense. It’s sad and it sucks. I hope you have some people gathered around you these days who can help you through it and that your support system is a strong and good one.
I know there’s not much I can say here that is adequate. It’s funny how many times I’ve written that sentence over the years, “I know there’s not much I can say here that is adequate,” a line used again and again in condolence cards since reaching an age when the people around me started losing the people around them. But it’s not until after you suffer one of those losses, the death of someone so essential that you truly can’t imagine a life without them any more than you are able to recall a time when they weren’t there, that you realize how true it is: there’s not much I can say here that is adequate.
So I’ll say this. Everything now is divided. Before and after. In my before, I am twelve years old and standing next to my astronomer father on a hilltop near the building that housed a telescope he assembled with his own hands, gazing upwards to watch Halley’s Comet, a ball of rocks and dust and frozen gas hurtling through space at 157,000 mph, visible from Earth for a short time in 1986 before disappearing again for 75 years. When my father’s scientist friend told me that night that one day the Earth would be swallowed by the Sun, death by Supernova, I was inconsolable until my dad explained to me it would happen many lifetimes after my own. He told me not to worry, that in the scheme of things, in the lifetime of the Universe, this event would be so small.
In my before, I am nine years old and my father is bundling my sister and brother and me in blankets in the back of our VW van. It’s the middle of the night and we’re making the long slow trip to Cape Canaveral to see one of the first shuttle launches. At dawn’s early light, we sit on top of that van in the middle of a sea of humanity (and rows and rows of port a johns) and feel the earth move, hear the deafening roar as that burst of light shoots into space.
Perhaps sweetest of all, in my before, I’m any age and the five of us carry blankets into our front yard and lie down in the warm evening air to watch shooting stars dash through the sky above. We chew on long stalks of onion grass and, eventually, fall asleep with the deep lull of our father’s voice telling us story after story about the Milky Way and the Big Bang and the celestial bodies just outside our reach.
Now, in my after, I seek out celestial occurrences, look for phenomena in the great expanse above. I read books about astronomy and binge watch Cosmos. They make me think of my dad and the time he spent with his family giving us things to wonder at – the way he lassoed the night sky and pulled it low and showed us what it was made of. I honor him in the best way I know how. And that would be my one piece of advice to you, to find the best way you can honor your dad.
And when I look up at that same sky I shared with him for all of the before, even as I stand firmly planted in the after, I see a dark expanse of nothing-ness and everything-ness stretched over my head. I hear my father’s voice in my ear. He tells me not to worry, that in the scheme of things, in the lifetime of the Universe, this event is so small.