Seated at The Helm
I never knew time could sever in half like that, until he died.
My hands moved over her silky cheeks, there was the soft, rhythmic sound of her suckling while we settled into our favorite spot on the couch, remnants of dinner strewn out on the coffee table. It all felt so normal. A habitual Saturday evening. Our new reality. I wonder if she sensed my panic when everything came crashing down. If she could feel my chest grow hot, whether or not it transferred from skin to skin, babe to mother. If she knew something was suddenly wrong.
Unlike all my mundane evenings of early parenthood, this one stands out in time. It will always feel like braille on my heart. If I close my eyes and brush over that evening, it’s so clearly raised to the touch. I can read it so plainly: Tom is dead. And just like that in the darkness of night, unbeknownst to us, as the city moved and diapers were changed and babies rocked and street lights flickered, he slipped into forever sleep.
All I see now is a pint of Guinness: “tip the glass like this, Madeline.” His stacks of books. Those work boots and dusty sweatshirt with its signature embroidered clover. The sweet sight of him mowing their lawn. The way he lit up a room. His bashful grin. Those calloused hands. Carving the turkey in Grandma’s apron. He was everyone’s favorite bachelor, brother, uncle, friend and confidant.
I’m five years old standing in the long hallway where my father played as a child, where the boys threw footballs and crashed into walls. Tom kneels down and pulls out two Roman leather bracelets from pouches. His blonde hair seems long after a trip around the world. I feel important and seen and special holding those heavy, green beads from a place I had only visited in my imagination.
Nobody wants to talk about this part. How there are no words for the aching, splitting, unexpected tearing of death’s robbery. How grief catapults the mundane into moments keenly pierced by fear, longing, loss and guilt. For my babbling baby I soothe her distress the only way I know how: touch. How do you comfort your own father—the kind, quiet soul of few words? How do you take his hand, break through the ocean of bleakness, and tell him he can cry (a sacred act so rare)?
When I picture that routine Saturday night, my sister on the phone, standing on that ugly tile I hate so much in this house, time is permanently severed in half. The youngest should never go first. I want the sea to swallow up this awful news and reverse time. My firstborn continues to happily nurse and I think about how fleeting this will become. She’ll grow and crawl and walk and talk and nothing will be as it was. She’ll never know him the way I expected. How our collective mortality hangs in the balance with such fragility. I worry about my father and the silver years of his life without his dearest friend. I worry about my brother and his years abroad having finally ended, just days and one plane ride away from reuniting with Tom. Death’s timing is gruesome and I feel the hot tears come.
Grief is no stranger to us, but this time it’s a different kind of teacher. There are no long hospital visits. There are no discussions about longevity and our gratitude for the opportunity to say ‘good-bye.’ There are awkward gaps in conversation as we gather at his childhood home, in that long hallway where I received my first and only beads from Rome. Some weep, some use old family quips to break the silence; there’s a proper Irish toast with Jameson, there seems to be more passing around of young children, as if their youth denies what we all know. We must bury him for good.
In the past, I faced grief like most. Neatly shelved away for nostalgic times of year—a birthday, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day. On those days the aching rose up like an ugly frog in my throat, coupled with a few searing tears, quickly shoved down again. But this time, while cradling my daughter in all her purity, I knew I couldn’t let the steam engine of death rip through my life without finally getting on. I want to be acutely aware of the small slice of time we’re afforded. I don’t want my inability to cope to steal more life from us. Day in and day out I hand over my ticket for another trip around the mountain, all the emotions barreling forward as family members file through old photos and belongings, his home gutted and sold to new owners.
For the first time in my life I process grief in all of its hideous, beautiful ways. I seek solace in the arms of love. I wash myself in visions of rolling, green pastures, how glorious it must feel to be in the fullness of love and peace. He visits my night dreams. They’re vivid and loud and full of relatives long gone; we’re in that large childhood home again, his eyes twinkling. I awake feeling like we reunited in another space and time, free and unbroken for an instant. I cling to my tattered faith that always whispers, “You will meet again.”
I have honored him by remaining present. I have honored him by teaching my daughter these tears falling into my morning coffee are normal, healthy and necessary in order to pick up the pieces. I do not wipe them away quickly. This time I am mindful of grief’s hold as it rolls on through, learning a new kind of wisdom from life’s sage I want to avoid. This time I am seated at the helm instead of jostled around in the caboose, cursing the world and everything that’s changed.
For some, time is nothing more than a measurement. For me, time will always be torn in two. I’m changing the last act for her ... for us.