photo courtesy of annie spratt

A Memory of Grief — the Love I Lost in Childhood

My childhood contained all the usual things you would expect. I played outdoors until the streetlights came on, imagined worlds with my friends, built forts, perfected my cartwheel and rode a pogo stick like a circus performer.

Summers were spent traveling the country. My father taught mathematics at the university, so we were free approximately ten glorious weeks to hit the road in our family station wagon. I had the privilege of experiencing national parks, amazing wildlife, and every state in the union (except Alaska and Hawaii). Occasionally we even got to sleep in the famous vibrating beds at the Motel 6 (for only ten cents you could make the bed jiggle like the back of a flatbed truck on a gravel road — ah, the luxury!).

No childhood is perfect. My father had two emotions: happy and angry. When he was in good spirits, we would laugh and all was well in the world. On the other hand, when something upset my dad or a rule was broken fear fell upon the house like a storm cloud. He had unparalleled wrath. His standards for me were high. Despite the way he could lash out in his anger, no one made me feel more loved and treasured than my dad.

There were days he’d take me on a piggy back ride across campus up to the Science Building where the math department housed their offices and classrooms. We’d walk past the life sized pendulum, up the stairs to the computer room. Afterward, in his office he’d let me draw on the green and white perforated computer paper while he finished working.

I was seven years old when tragedy struck my home like a wrecking ball, flying through the rooms and demolishing everything in its wake. My father was diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease. The following five tumultuous years were spent mostly ricocheting from one care-giving family to another as my parents spent time in dialysis centers, hospitals and doctors’ offices. My life became pocked with grief and confusion.

When I was almost 13 years old, my father died of a seizure in the middle of the night. My sister and I woke to the sound of my mother crying and the paramedics entering our front door with a stretcher. We were pushed to the side to stand like guards outside Buckingham palace while my dad was wheeled away in front of us. From there we were taken, in the middle of the night, to my neighbor’s home where we were expected to sleep on the couches in her living room. My whole world had just become a black hole. I lay on that couch, grasping for something, anything. I had to be strong for my sister. I didn’t know what to think or feel. Loneliness enveloped my heart.

We moved through the next few weeks on autopilot. People came and went through our home, bringing meals or other support. The wake was held with an open casket. My father’s body lay there — empty of life, of his laughter, of his strong personality. My sister and I escaped to the back yard behind the mortuary. We sat together on a stone bench trying to get the echo of my grandmother’s repeated “Hail Mary” out of our head.

Then came the funeral. My dad’s brothers all flew in. The church was filled with so many other people I didn’t know or recognize. We sat up front and watched as the box holding my dad’s body was carried up the sanctuary stairs. After the service we stood in line to hug and listen to all those people giving their versions of condolences.

Nothing filled the gaping hole he had left behind.

Shortly after my father’s death, my maternal grandmother came up from Florida to stay with us. She wanted to help my mom through her loss. At her suggestion my mother started to attend a local grief support group. Mom met a man there who was going through an unexpected divorce after 17 years of marriage. They spent hours at a coffee shop after the group let out. Over the coming months, they fell in love. My mother began to fill the empty place left by her deceased husband.

We moved to St. Louis from our small town in Ohio when my mom’s new love had a job transfer. Only seven months after the death of my father, I found myself facing the loss of everything familiar. I had only called one place home for as far back as I could remember. My friends were those I had grown up knowing. Now we were in a strange house. I attended Junior High and was sized up as all new girls are.

No one has filled the place my father held in my heart and life. Thirty-eight years have passed since he died. He was imperfect, sometimes prideful and prone to lash out in unexpected rage. Despite his failings, he was my dad. I loved him as all daughters adore their fathers. The hole he left in his passing remains as a reminder of his unparalleled importance to me.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a protestant pastor who died in a concentration camp for resisting the Nazis) has expressed one of the most beautiful sentiments about grief I have ever read:

‘There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

If you want to read more of my writing … I blog at empowering and inspiring moms to love intentionally and make room for what matters most.