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Lessons From Beyond a Father's Grave

by Tonya Johnson 3 months ago in grief
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In some ways I never knew my father, but in many ways I am my father's daughter.

"Spirit Hold" by Holly Warburton (Website: https://hollywarbs.com)

In the aftermath of your death, they ask me do you miss him? I smile something brittle knowing it doesn’t reach my eyes, deflect with well-practiced responses that do everything to acknowledge but nothing to answer the question.

You miss my dance recitals three years in a row between the ages of twelve and fifteen. By the time I’m sixteen I’d learned to stop looking for you in the crowd. It’s not out of neglect or disregard, there are just other priorities you have to attend to, expectations for you to fulfill. What are a few missed shows in the span of a child’s lifetime, after all?

I don’t know how to tell them that I learned to stop missing you around the same time I started getting too big to balance on your feet as we’d dance around the hallway, your hands holding mine, strong and sure and steady. Around the same time the light from your eyes began to grow dim and your body became a battleground you yourself weren’t sure how to win on. Somewhere in between the constant rotation of prescription pills and stacks of unused blood glucose test strips, I think you forgot to grieve it, to acknowledge the anguish that pools at the well of your stomach when the only home you’ve known to carry with you everywhere betrays you.

Maybe I’m stretching the truth when I say I learned to stop missing you. Maybe the simpler truth is that I’ve been missing you my whole life, longing for you even when I could feel you next to me, sharing the couch, in the passenger seat of your car, at your bedside when you could no longer walk. Maybe I only ever learned to associate you with a half-alive ghost, waiting for you to materialize past muscle and flesh and bone between breaths into someone I could say I knew.

When death comes, it is swift and sudden, and even in the shock of it all, I’m not quite surprised. By that time death had been lurking at your doorstep for years, peeping through windows, toying with your flower beds, playing ding-dong-ditch with the doorbell. I sit on your bedroom floor, take your hand in mine and the warmth that’s missing is haunting in its familiarity.

To miss someone, to really miss someone, I think requires a sense of liveness in each other’s lives, carving out spaces in our day-to-day in the shape of one another.

I don’t know how to tell them that for all the ways you made sure I was fed and clothed, had a roof over my head and books to read at night when I crawled into bed, I never quite knew how to fit around you. That even when you held me and I could hear your heartbeat thrum beneath my ear, I would press my head harder against your chest, hoping that in between beats it could speak to the yearning inside me to be loved in ways I didn’t know how to ask for, didn’t know if you were capable of.

Sometimes I worry if the sickness inside you lives in me too – not the physical thing, passed down by genetics. I’m talking about the gruesome, frail, unwell parts, the sickness that teaches you to love yourself least, to turn your head away from truths, to stuff emotions down, pack them into boxes and seal them away with a kind of purposeful ignorance.

In some ways, I never knew my father but in many ways, I am my father’s daughter.

And for all the complicated strings attached to missing you and not missing you, it never makes me forget you any less. I carry you every day, have learned to pack you into my bones and forget about whether I want to or not. I know you in the curl of my top lip, pushed up just enough to touch the base of my nose when I’m lost in thought, the same face you wore when focused. I know you in the ways I have inherited your silences, your martyrish tendencies, too worried to place burdens on others so we stockpile them in ourselves. I wear the shirts that you left behind that I bought you for birthdays and Christmases. I cut your pants and hem the bottoms and make them mine. I look at the framed picture of you in our living room, you at thirty-five, young and handsome and vibrant and I am reminded that our parents were their own people before they had us. I close my eyes and wish I could have known you in that time before, the way that old friends do when the constant movement of time compresses knowledge of each other into layers of collected tidbits and facts, big and small, over and over until all we know is that we are known by each other.

In the aftermath of your death, your friends and colleagues speak endless streams of memories, fond, well-worn keepsakes in the image of you, the sepia-tinged warmth of good time nostalgia that I can only scratch at in my mind, versions of you I never had the privy of witnessing, memories that are not mine to cherish. That’s the bittersweet thing about people though, isn’t it? We’re all layers built up at the end of the day, shifting in depth from moment to moment. And perhaps it is a rotten and entirely human thing, a twisted form of self-preservation, that sometimes we only let ourselves be our most ugly, wearied, selfish and unlovable with those we know will stay with us regardless. Even when I hated you (what you had become in what you had lost), I did so because I loved you more.

In the aftermath of your death, I learn lessons from you in the ways you never got to teach them. I say I love you every day to my little brother and hug him close because even though he is grown now, a man in his own right, I know the child in him as well as I know the one in myself. I learn to treat my body gently, kindly, even when I don’t want to, especially when I don’t want to. When it strains and breaks, fails me and fights me, I learn to put down the battle-axe of frustration and rage, and hold myself instead. I learn to unpack the storage I keep inside, crack open all the layers hidden away and share them out to the people who I know will handle them with care. I walk outside. I sit on the grass and let the wind rush against me, let the light touch the places inside of me that have gone cold in its absence.

I live. I live as much as I can, taking each day with a death grip in one hand and a tender hold in the other. I am learning to see beyond what I missed and what I did not, to recognize all the ways your presence and your absence have left imprints in my life. I am learning that nothing is ever truly empty because even in the negative space of you, the places inside of me that longed and yearned are not empty but full for me to make the most of, to fill up again and again, with all the unspent love still flowing in me.


About the author

Tonya Johnson

trinidadian-writer/poet/creature. making a mess out of identity, culture & queerness. occasional deviations from topic to be expected.

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