Remembering A Decade

“In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come — not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.” William Styron, Darkness Visible

“The most eloquent and efficient description of the throes of depression I have yet to read.” Britt Sanford, in a letter to his brother dated October 8, 2005

“Oooh!” My sister shrieks. “What’s this?”

She is ten, waggling a moist string that she has just plucked from the folds of a brain. Her fingers glisten with slime.

My dad beams, titling his head back in laughter. His smile is radiant.

“That, Brenna, is part of the cortex.”

We are standing in the basement of Jefferson hospital playing with embalmed body parts. For just the afternoon, Brenna and I are students in Dad’s anatomy lab. His classroom, otherwise empty on a Saturday morning, is eerie: a chill has seeped from the opened door of a refrigerator packed full with cadavers. Displayed on the aluminum workbench in front of us is an array of just-polished medical instruments. A stiff, gray brain sits as the centerpiece. Brenna and I are elbowing one another to get the best view of its innards.

Leaning into the room’s fluorescent light, Dad puts a hand on Brenna’s shoulder and gently pulls the string from her grasp.

“Here, use this.” He passes her a pair of tweezers. “This is what the doctors use in surgery.”

But then — he flicks the string’s slime at us. We squeal, disgusted, delighted.

Brenna dives back into the folds of the brain with her newfound instrument. Twelve and all the wiser, I cull up my most clever questions for Dad. He nods along to my ramblings, hiding a chuckle behind his hands, and with enough pestering I am allowed a peek at the toes of a very purple cadaver.

These are the details I remember most vividly from that day: the formaldehyde smell, Dad’s white lab coat with a New York Rangers pin fastened to his lapel, Brenna’s crown of ringlets. Mostly though, I remember his joy.

A year later, he died.

Britt Sanford was a father to two daughters, a zealous teacher and devoted mentor, a Lynyrd Skynyrd fanatic, and all too often came home with some grotesque sports injury. He also was clinically depressed, suffering since high school and through his adult life from extreme bouts of apathy, isolation and fatigue.

His depression and death are what have made that blip of a memory stick longer than so many others. Dad chose to return to the hospital again and again and again. He devoted a career to the anatomy that betrayed him. He suffered from a lifetime without ultimate restoration and yet also, fleetingly, he felt joy.

Today marks ten years since his death. A decade. Some days, that word feels appropriately enormous; on others, entirely impossible. Most days, it just feels unfair. And the grief is relentless. There is no reconciliation, no harbor, no truce. There is a lifetime now without him.

A few months after he died, I snuck into the basement and pulled out his field coat from a storage box. Carefully, I put the collar to my face — and there, still there, was the smell of his cologne. When I snuck down again as a college student, the smell was gone. So too was his favorite New York Giants hat that he would shift one, two, three times before setting it into place. His work boots, lab books, the stink of his hockey gear, his deafening laughter, our last conversation — gone from the house, from my memory.

We are no longer the children my dad knew. Brenna is a college student. I am, arguably, a full-fledged adult — one with a degree and rent. Dad had hoped I would be a doctor and a soccer star. (I am neither). But I am still trying to ask adult questions. And on a good day, I can rival his tennis serve. On a bad day, I can rival his temper. Brenna grew up and grew out those tight curls. But when she smirks at me from across the kitchen table with chocolate smudged across her teeth, I see Dad’s lewd sense of humor. And just like him, she is extraordinarily compassionate — a quality she will put into practice as a nurse in the very same hospital where he practiced as a doctor. We choose to return to what is most difficult. We choose to feel joy.

I have also felt pride. As if to say: look, we did it. We made it. Look how far we’ve come.

This spring, I walked past the gray slab of a building where Dad’s office once was, the anatomy lab with the cadavers still tucked away in the basement. There was a puddle of pink petals along the curb and a new batch of students tossing a Frisbee on the green. If I tried, I could not have remembered which halls led back to his office, nor could I have recalled the details of each New York sports memento that once decorated his walls. But I remembered his joy in the lab beside his daughters. And that was enough for me to walk on.