What I Learned When I Buried My Father
It’s impossible to understand what the role of a father is until you lose yours.
This winter, I buried my father’s ashes with a long-handled floral shovel in the wet soil behind our house.
I spent my whole life standing right-side up, looking up at the bright sky, ahead to the future — in my case, to the next road trip, the next mountain, the next trail, the next climb. For me, tomorrow was all that existed. But when someone you love dies, the world flips. I was suddenly hanging by my feet, staring down into the earth, staring back into the past.
Memories arrived in fragments: Glimpses of the days we spent knee-deep in the creek behind the house, looking for frogs and snakes. And monsters and dragons and wild creatures.
My dad’s grin when I came home from school one day: “Cor, I bought 30 shrubs today!” he declared, and handed me a shovel. (Planting was always my job. Over the course of my childhood, I must have dug hundreds of holes.)
The morning light slatting through my blinds as I woke up to see him walk into my room. He had a phone on one shoulder and was deep in a conference call, but he’d caught a live bird in the garage and he held it cupped in his hands to show me.
My tiny fingers wrapped around his wrist the time he dug a five-foot hole for a wooden support beam in our backyard and pretended to me, then six years old, that he was stuck in it. I tugged and tugged, cross and frustrated that he was dumb enough to fall in. He laughed and laughed.
When you lose someone, all you want is to relive your life in slow motion. You’re desperate to soak up all those moments, all those smiles and smells and hugs. But, though you try, you can only remember a handful of things, and they play in your head in a tight loop that spins faster and faster. Before long, you’re dizzy and exhausted, and you tuck all the memories away and look for a distraction from the past.
For me, that meant digging.
A few years ago, my dad had requested a simple burial: Ashes into a coffee can, then into the ground. He was a beekeeper and a gardener; the simplicity suited him. By that time, my dad had had a long time to think about death.
He was first diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2005. I was 12. “This is rookie cancer,” he said to me as I stood on the stairs of our house, pouting. “Of all the cancers to get, this is the easiest.” He’d be fine, and soon, he’d assured me. When I turned 15, he was still sick. When I turned 19, he received his second bone marrow transplant.
He had always been the strongest of all the dads I knew — the one who threw other kids into the pool, planted trees, and built bookcases, ran the Peachtree Road Race every year. He was the one who taught me how to run, after all, and how to push through pain. So it was no surprise to me when he started getting better. He walked again. His hair grew back. Last year, he hit his fifth year of remission. Aside from a few minor aches and pains, he was the picture of health, the doctors said.
That’s why the heart attack was so unexpected. But the family rallied; we’d been in and out of hospitals for years. We’d watched my dad beat unbeatable odds for more than a decade. He’d get better. We were sure of it.
But then the stent didn’t work. And then the life support didn’t work.
The last time I saw my dad, I didn’t recognize his face — only the exasperated roll of his eyes when the doctors told him he needed to sit still. He was shriveled and skinny, a stick figure colored yellow. The strongest man I knew, here in front of me with the skin drawn away from his teeth, the lids retreating back from his eyes. He’d always taken care of me. Now, I was the one helping him drink, telling him he wasn’t allowed to eat just yet.
There wasn’t much to say. We watched hockey on TV. He told me he was sorry he’d told me I couldn’t be a professional hockey player when I was a kid and dying to be one. I laughed and told him he was forgiven; at 115 pounds, I wouldn’t have made it very far, anyway.
I left that afternoon to catch a plane back to my life in Colorado; the doctors thought he’d be going home soon. As I let go of his hand, his eyes locked onto mine, almost gravely. “Do what you love,” he said. And in those sunken eyes, I recognized, for an instant, the man I used to know. I caught my last glimpse of my dad.
I remember a night when I was 13, lying in my room. I was crying furiously, and telling myself, “I don’t need a dad. I don’t even want one.” I was young and mopey and self-possessed, and my father seemed like he was always either working late or coming home just to get on my case about something. What good was a dad, anyway? I thought. And, as teenagers do, I felt the best solution was to liberate myself from my parents as fast as humanly possible.
I went to college in North Carolina, a healthy seven hours away from my Atlanta hometown. And as soon as I graduated, I drove to Boulder, Colorado, an independent woman at last.
As such, I always imagined myself resilient. I expected that grief would be like a breakup, or getting sick, or losing a job, and that things would get a little better every day. But there are good days, and bad days, and horrible days, and they appear one after the other in no particular order. And often, when I’m doing a good job of pretending everything is just fine, someone comes up out of the blue and says, “I’m so sorry about what happened.” Leaving me small. Leaving me flat.
The easiest days were in the beginning, when there were funeral logistics to deal with and an endless march of friends and family and casseroles. When there was enough to keep busy that there was no time to feel.
The more difficult days came later: When I needed help with my taxes. When I couldn’t get my guacamole recipe to taste like his. When I learned how to change my car’s oil by myself and needed someone to brag to. When I realized that it’s as true at 25 as it was at 13: I’ll never outgrow needing a dad.
My mom, my brother, and I buried his ashes in the soil he’d always had under his fingernails. Ten strong paces uphill from the creek, so that the rain would wash him down through the dirt, into the river, and into the sea. So that he could see all the places he’d never been. So that he could be where I wanted him to be: Everywhere at once. Everywhere that I go.
As I turned over rocks and roots, I realized that this was a hole I’d never have known how to dig if not for him. He taught me how to work hard. How to cope with pain. How to keep a smile on even when I’m sick or suffering. How to imagine that the world is grander and greater than it really is. How to stand on my own two feet. Every skill I’ve used to survive his death, I learned from him. Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s the job of a dad: to spend your whole life teaching your kid how to lose you.
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