“What does die mean?” My three year old asks as we sit at the table eating lunch. I have been gone for three days and she is trying to understand the reason for my absence.
“It means that your body stops working,” I say for the hundredth time.
“Did Grandpa Michael’s body stop working?” She asks.
“Yes, baby, Mama went to California to say goodbye.” My eyes burn from the stark reality of the words.
“Grandpa is not on earth anymore just like the dinosaurs,” she states, her inquisitive mind making the link that death equals extinction – a definitive end. “Mama, Grandpa Michael is not here, but his love surrounds me just like my Great Grandmother Ginny.” She has seen pictures of herself with my grandmother and understands we can no longer see her. “I can’t see him, but he can see me,” she states solemnly.
“You’re right baby his love is all around us. I hope he sees us.” I close my eyes and wish this to be true.
I am walking through the airport, my boarding pass in my hand, “can you make it to the gate?” My husband asked, or maybe he didn’t ask me this, it is just the thought that is echoing in my head. “Can I make it to the gate?” My body is heaving violent sobs shake me every couple minutes, unexpected shocks to my system. I feel disconnected. I am just so sad and so alone.
Invisible in this airport, people turn their heads and avert their eyes in an attempt to ignore my pain. In the past, I may have done the same, not wanting to embarrass the person suffering. Amidst this horror, I make a note to never run from a stranger’s pain again. I hope I can keep this promise.
I wait at the Gate to board my plane – a plane that I hope just takes me away. “Do you need comfort? Can I comfort you?” An older woman asks and I melt into her shoulder. Another woman hands me a Kleenex, she reaches out and I am grateful.
“Jesus feels your pain,” the old woman says. “Do you believe in Jesus?” I now want to escape. Why can’t comfort come with no strings attached?
“Where is my plane? I need to get on my plane,” I panic. We board, the flight attendant’s false cheer and discomfort at the sight of my grief is palpable. He forces a smile and turns away so as not to see my tears. At some point my tears cease.
I am a little girl. I am five maybe younger than that and my Dad is sleeping on the couch. I hear him snoring, I inch towards him and dare to crawl up next to him and snuggle into the nook under his shoulder. I close my eyes and pretend to sleep. I concentrate on the rhythm of our breath. Awake, I try to make my breathing coincide with his deep breaths, in and out.
“Peep loves to take naps with me,” he says to his friend and I smile.
My family is sitting on a big gray couch. I am sitting next to my father, holding his leathery hand that feels like sand paper. His hands are big, the hands of a man who uses them on a daily basis, the hands of a welder, a construction worker, a contractor. They are brown and have a metallic smoky scent. I put my hand up to his measuring the size of our fingers. “You have so many cuts on your hand,” I say as I count them, “one, two, three, four, five, six …” I stare at his used hands, the epitome of strength. “Do they hurt?”
“A couple do,” he replies. I bury my head on his shoulder, examining every mark and scar.
We are visiting him for three weeks during the summer. I see him at the gate as my sister, brother, and I step off the plane. He gets up and walks towards us, wrapping his arms around us. I can feel the strength of his arms like a vice unwilling to let go. I look up at his tanned Marlboro man face. His blue eyes are full of tears and one slips down his cheek. “I’m getting old,” he says, “I’m just so happy to see you guys, I can’t control my emotions. I miss you and love you guys so much. I can’t stop crying.” He laughs.
We laugh, teasing him, “You’re so old, pull yourself together, Old Man.” We feel genuinely loved.
Blacks, grays, dark blues, strokes of red, pink, oranges, and purples, paint colors mixed, separated, and dried on a very deliberate palate used to compose powerful portraits of pain. This man of fierce contradictions; he was strong, opinionated, grouchy, gruff, feared, closed, scary, stubborn, but also vulnerable, sensitive, wounded, weak, misunderstood, loving, trusting, deep, philosophical, protective and proud. He was there and never there, accepted but rejected, proud and shameful. A cowboy who wore pink polo shirts.
The plane taxis and I step into the hot, dry, desert air of Palm Springs. I walk through the terminal. My eyes are as dry as the air, a lump like a bottle stopper in my throat and behind my temple.
My brother and sisters are here. We ban together, a force, cleaning the skeletons from his locked studio, buoying each other as we slide down a rabbit hole that we never wanted to enter. We wrap our arms around each other, a protective force field of love, the tangible legacy of a man who left us too soon.