Breathing through a sadness

This morning, I sat for tea with a dear friend who lost his father last week, talking with him and the others at the table about the weight and simultaneous ephemerality of parental loss. I felt somehow a veteran of all this. It sucks, really. I lost my dad 22 years ago this summer, and even now, during dark gray stormy October days like this one, it feels more like a recent amputation.

As I navigated the raindrops on my way home, tears of Zeus or Tyr exploding like small water balloons on my windshield, I had the thought to let this out today. I wrote this essay years ago, and have since edited, arranged, rearranged and appended, like some unfinished symphony, were I even somewhat musical.

It’s also the first chapter of the book I’m writing; the one which some days I think is finished and on other days I think will never be. We’re all a work in progress, I guess. Until we aren’t.

Breathing Through a Sadness

My dad died on a Friday night in a shared room on the hospice floor of a midtown Manhattan hospital more years ago than I’d like to think he should have. I couldn’t tell you the name of the hospital, but I can remember every inch of floor tile from lobby to elevator to his semi-private room. I relished my solitary walks along those New York City streets each day from the Upper East Side to the hospital, knowing that the atmospheric pressure would drastically change the instant I stepped foot on the elevator.

It was summer in New York City, and TWA flight 800 had just fallen from the sky over the beaches I took for granted when I was growing-up. You couldn’t change the channel without seeing images of luggage bobbing or bits and pieces of fuselage floating in the Atlantic. These images are burned into my memories alongside those of my dad lying in a hospital bed battling the final stages of his lung cancer. I existed, taking it all in; the surreal fact that there was exactly nothing we could do to fix or change this reality.

One of the last things my dad was able to eat was sushi from our favorite take-out place on 3rd Avenue. “Whatcha got?” he asked, as I fed him a chopstick full of Ahi. The news was trying to resolve who or what shot down the plane and I was trying to figure out why someone shot this gaping hole in my life. Holding my shit together by doing and helping and being there.

What I remember most vividly from those countless days spent waiting in that surreal environment was the sense of presence and calm resignation to the concept of impermanence. That each patient — regardless of religion, gender, caste (yes that exists here in the West) or race — travelled through many of the same experiences in their journey towards the end fascinated me. They spoke of taking trips and entering tunnels and riding the train to be with loved ones. One man whispered to my dad through the curtain divider to tell him about the train ride he was about to take. “Hey…Hey, you…I need to tell you something,” he whispered as he tried to get my dad’s attention. He took my dad’s hand as he told the story of his impending travel adventure. He died that night in his sleep.

There were the manic, delirium-tremulous clothes-shedding episodes. There was shouting, lots of shouting. There were tears; patients’ and loved-ones’. And there were broad, peace- and awe-filled smiles.

The visitors also came and went, each to make their peace with my dad: the strongest man they had each known. A spectacle, maybe, to see this powerhouse of a businessman reduced to nothing more than a swaddled baby. I’m not sure I was old enough or strong enough or brave enough at the time to fully understand. Perhaps I just didn’t want to, because that would be something akin to accepting reality.

The family drama ebbed and flowed as well. I remained detached on the outside and angry inside. At my dad. At my brother. I was angry at the Universe for sending me here, for sending this to me.

I met a woman named Naomi, ten years my senior and from Chicago. We spent a week talking about the process her mother and my father were sharing. I felt closer to her in those few days than I had with anyone in the 6 months leading up to this. Naomi’s mother died two days before my dad did. She got to go home first.

And as my dad held firmly to this painful, noisy, emotional and cluttered place called Planet Earth to remain with us, the other patients told him their stories, detached from the physical realm and resigned to “what is” vs. “what could be.” My dad out-stubborned them all, his hospice friends, then waited until we went home and he, too, boarded his train.

Lamenting about growing too old too soon, my dad had said to me a few weeks earlier, “I can’t have a 30-year-old daughter.” I was approaching my 29th birthday and we both knew then that he was right. He left us when he knew we were going to be as OK with it as we could. I had gone back to Boston, my brother back to Atlanta. My dad died on a Friday night with the love of his life, my step-mom, by his side, amid Perseid Meteor Showers raining down, their lights drowned out by the bright lights of the big city.

Another star fizzles out in the galaxy.

My dad’s death both paralysed and inspired me. It made me question my own mortality and my own reality, and it made me wonder why we are here — is it to toil every day to create wealth or is it to enjoy the wealth of what’s in front of us? It was my first true life lesson in breathing through a sadness that threatened to choke my last drop of air. It was the time my Universe truly shattered. It was my first lesson in holding on to good memories and letting bad ones go, for getting bogged down on something wholly out of my control was a) not going to do anything in the way of forward momentum and b) not going to be much fun. Though I was unhinged, the glue at the seams tacky at best, staying stuck in this place of mourning was not at all an option.

This is so vivid to me all these years later because I realise that only through the process of death did these individuals my dad (and I) met in hospice fully meet and accept an unencumbered way of (metaphorically) interacting with the world. And from the day we’re born, aren’t we all pretty much in the process of death?

Live a “good” life and Christianity promises heaven. Hinduism promises reincarnation as a higher-order being. Judaism is a little vague: maybe in the afterlife your grandmother finally stops nagging you about finding that nice Jewish girl. The Eastern perspective gives us a rather existential view and tells us to not get bogged down with the hamster wheel of daily life. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have different takes on the concept of this cycle of birth, life and death. Buddhism takes it a step further to give us the notion that our attachment to permanent concepts in this continuously changing universe creates stress and suffering. And as esoteric (and eccentric) as these belief systems can be, so many Westerners gravitate towards Eastern teachings because they resonate and because in so many ways, they Just. Make. Sense.

So, what I learnt during this time is that, regardless of religious prescription, we need to live in the world today with a conscious observation that it isn’t permanent, that we have a limited subscription to the days, and that ultimately things change.

There’s a perspective from which we can look at the world, a way that we can approach the everyday mundane, and some semblance of a plan of attack we must abide to get ourselves through the monotony of ‘serial todays’ and to the supposed good stuff which (supposedly) only comes after years of toil and hard work, of sacrifice and dedication and dues-paying and candle-burning, and perhaps some self-immolation, in the process. The question becomes whether the prescribed plan of attack really works in making us happy.

We need to appreciate the current moment, value what we have in the present, instead of caving to this culture of wanting more and needing the next thing before even experiencing what we’ve got right in front of us to its fullest. By looking for the next gratifying thing before even finishing what’s in progress, we’re selling our current experiences, our present moments, short.

There’s more…it’s coming. Thank you for reading. ☮💖🕉