It snuck up on me this time.
I probably should have seen the signs that I knew, unconsciously, that the anniversary was coming up. The absent-mindedness. The sense of fatigue even after a solid 10 hours of sleep. How someone could be talking to me, telling me a story or asking me a question, and I’d be somewhere else without even realizing it (phone in my pocket, eyes on the person, but somehow just not there). The poor judgment and misbehavior. The way my motivation would be 100% — moving with purpose, getting shit done, and then I’d stall out and falter.
The half-hearted courtships, the creative lapses, the bills piling up next to the mail slot by the front door. February of 2014 was the worst month of my entire life, and echoes of the dread and sadness still seem to resonate, even if my conscious self doesn’t recognize them.
In the strange way that grief works (and you know what I’m talking about if you’ve lost someone you love), it seems way shorter than three years since he left, and way longer, too. That February, I said goodbye to my father, flew home, and woke up every morning for weeks dreading and expecting the phone call (and agonizing over whether to fly back to Sacramento to be there with him). It was a grim and devastating existence, day after day after day.
Once he was gone, it was more about logistics (travel, arrangements, schedules) with moments of deep sadness, occasionally tamped down in order to function as a parent or a boss or a big brother or a son. I don’t revisit those days often, but of course, this time of year, they return to me unbidden.
The good news is that three years of distance has allowed the memories of my father before he was sick to seep in. In my dreams, he’s been showing up healthy and hearty (and occasionally being a jerk), which helps me re-form my full picture of him in all his beauty and foibles. I can think without guilt about the times he pissed me off, and just feel love for the man he was and what he gave me. I can remember his younger, vital, and powerful personality and compare it to how he softened and became more sweet as he came to terms with the end of his life.
I have the memories of visiting him every month after he got sick (thanks to the sage advice of a close friend), when we both knew we needed to make every moment together count, but I can also recall my childhood and teen years — the happy father-son memories, but also the times when his rage got the better of him. He’s becoming a whole person in my mind again.
But the weird, seasonal return to those sad days three years ago is a real thing. Until I put a name on it, I was just sort of uneasy with myself, not knowing what was going on. It didn’t feel like the seasonal doldrums that sometimes take me hostage — they didn’t come this year, probably because I was too caught up in work transitions, managing a new team, going out on dates, and spending extra time with Simone.
I’ll be getting dressed in the morning, standing in the closet trying to figure out which shirt to wear (going through the day’s schedule in my mind, in case I have client meetings and need to step it up), and then it’ll be minutes later, and I’ll still be standing there, staring absently at the array of button-ups on their hangers. Or I’ll be flipping a couple of over-easy eggs, and some mental association will bring me to Dad cooking up corned beef hash, the house smelling of fried potatoes and meat, coffee burbling, him in sweatpants and a white v-neck undershirt (curly chest hair overflowing), that pleasant Dad-just-woke-up smell as I hug him good morning.
And then I’ll think, “Oh, Dadly.”
Which was how my mom would sometimes refer to him. “Dadly will be home soon, get your shoes out of the entryway.” I don’t know if Mom remembers calling him that, or if my sisters heard her say it. In some ways, it’s my secret way of referring to him in my head, and it makes him mine — my father, my rock, my example of good and not-so-awesome parenting decisions.
And Dadly is still around, thankfully. I can feel his guidance and his love and his trust in me to constantly work to be a better man, a better father, and better brother. I channel his problem-solving mindset, and I treat Simone with the same kind of deep warmth and bemusement of her follies as he did me. When she screws up, I smile and help her find her way out, or shake my head and let her know that life is a learning process.
When he’s most present — during a spectacular meal or at services in a synagogue — my heart hurts at the same time that my soul warms. I know he would appreciate the experience I’m having, of course, but it’s more than that. It actually feels like he’s with me, in the room, celebrating a moment of mindful awareness with me. It’s such a fleeting sensation, but the effect lasts for days.
So, yeah, it’s been a difficult few weeks, even if I haven’t always understood why I was out of sorts. Knowing and taking a deep breath and honoring that ribbon of sadness helped me move through it and keep functioning, forgiving myself for my little absences and earnestly apologizing to others without making excuses.
Grief isn’t linear. It’s not an equation. It’s not so much a process as it is an amorphous blob of emotion that waxes and wanes depending on a mass of variables. It’s not controllable. But if you stop to recognize it, understand that the level of intensity is not constant, you can sometimes sort of ride it out and let it run its course, finding ways to keep powering through.
And then spring comes, daylight stretches out just a little bit more week by week, and the gray edges melt away.