I had a brief, quiet, intense conversation with a friend today. She had just lost another friend, a close one, to a sudden and tragic accident.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“OK,” she replied as she turned to go up the hallway. In a second, I knew better. “No, not OK.”
Her usually bright smile was strained, her voice soft, her features drawn.
That brief exchange, the sharing of feelings about trauma to mind, body, and soul, did what those exchanges almost always do to many of us. It triggered, instantly, my feelings and memories of the death of my father 24 years ago.
As I have written elsewhere recently, I can’t help but wonder how dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of people are dealing with these kinds of reactions and feelings as we have been assaulted on every level by hate, destruction, and death. This on top of expected deaths from old age, deaths from illnesses that are not expected but are accepted, and accidents that leave us jarred, numb, and questioning everything we’ve always held dear.
“Your father has collapsed.”
The call came at the worst time possible. We were moving into a new house, we needed to pack, and someone needed to watch the kids.
“I don’t know. Your mother is with him. They’re taking him to the hospital now. I don’t know.”
I am in the car in what feels like minutes. I don’t think I even take a toothbrush, although I really don’t remember.
“Call and let me know as soon as you find out something. We’ll be fine here. Go.”
“Take all the time you need. We’ll cover things here. Don’t worry. You need to be with your mother. Go.”
Racing down the interstate in slow motion, time flying by as it stands stock still. Tears and prayers and more prayers and more tears and time flying by with the miles.
“Don’t you die on me. Don’t you die before I get there. Hang on until I get there.”
There are still so many things unsaid. The scenery blurs, clears, blurs, clears, blurs, clears. My eyelids are the windshield wipers for my soul. Is it raining outside? No, it is raining inside. Come in out of the rain. I can’t.
I’m getting soaked.
“Don’t you dare die on me.”
The time in the hospital is a blur. The waiting room. The ICU. The doctor. The staff with their kind eyes and kinder manner. My mother is broken, silent in the corner. I have the knowledge but not the will. There are decisions to make.
“We can make him better. We can rebuild him.” A part of my brain laughs hysterically at the thought of the old television reference, so stark against the sunshiny darkness of his bed. Beep, beep, beep. We can never rebuild him. I have seen the scans. They show me because I am a doctor. I see the vast whiteness in his brain. Clean, pure, permanent. I know what this means. I do not want to be a doctor. Oh, God, not now.
I try to support my mother as we walk up the aisle in the church. I see little. I remember little. His mother, my grandmother.
“Oh, parents are not supposed to outlive their children.”
We travel. We talk and eat and visit with folks who have known me since birth.
“Oh, how your children have grown and I remember when your daddy …”
They put him in the ground. It is hot. Why do people die in the summer, that hysterical part of my brain laughs, way off in the distance. It laughs and laughs so that it will not cry. They put him in the ground. My little sister is there, off to his side. Others are already there waiting for him. Waiting for all of us, I think. It is so hot, and the hole in my chest is so huge that I cannot get enough air. I am drowning in the middle Georgia sunshine.
Six days later, I am working in an air-conditioned emotional bubble. I do what I know how to do the best I know how to do it.
Six months later, I open my closet door and see the stack of papers there on the floor beside the filing cabinet. Odd, I think. That’s not like me. I sit down and go through them, filing and getting things back in order. I feel like I have just awakened from a half year’s dream. No. A nightmare.
Twenty-four years later, I think about him every day. Every. Single. Day. It is not unpleasant. It is not painful. The scar over the huge chest wound is thin and tenuous, but it holds.
When change jingles in my pocket, or when someone mispronounces a word the way he did, I smile. When I hold my grandchildren in my arms, the way he held his the day he died, I feel proud. He is here with me. He will always be with me.
As my mother once described it, I am not happy with what happened, but I am content.
This is grief.
This is life.
Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.