“It’s grief… it hits you. It’s like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability. You feel like a three legged table. Just suddenly… the Earth isn’t stable anymore. And then it passes and becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes.” — Liam Neeson on his wife Natasha Richardson’s sudden death from traumatic brain injury five years ago from (his 60 Minutes interview)

It’s a funny thing.  Grief.

Funny is the wrong word.  Sneaky.

When I was thinking of a song title for my last post, I googled “father and son songs”.  And of course, Father and Son by Cat Stevens came up right away.

Cat Stevens was one of my father’s favorite artists.  I have memories of driving to school in his Volvo, listening to Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits on the tape deck.

I clicked on the YouTube Video that accompanied the google link:

And I started to sob.

It wasn’t just the song that reduced me to tears in front of the keyboard.

Cat Stevens looks like my dad did when I was a kid.  He wrote words that would have come out of my dad’s head.

It was an immediate transport back in time.  Back to memories that are still fresh and raw.

I don’t really know how to explain these waves of grief, even 15 years later.  I think about him all the time in different ways.  Sometimes it’s just a news story on TV and I want to talk with him about it.  Sometimes it’s a memory that I can’t quite see in my head and I want to ask him what happened.

Sometimes it’s hearing about a friend battling cancer and me wishing I could do a million things differently all over again.

Those times come in and out.  It’s a brief twinge and then it’s gone.

And then there are moments when the grief feels all consuming. I get stuck.  Mired in a hole of what ifs and what should and shouldn’t have been.

Today could have been one of those days.

But I stopped and looked again at the photo that started it all.

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And I remembered that these are the times that need my focus now.

I can choose to let the grief send me down the rabbit hole.

Or I can choose to let the grief push me to see how important and precious these moments are.

Because a boy and his dad, reading a book about boats and engines?

That’s a really big deal.

It’s not time to make a change,
Just sit down, take it slowly.
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to go through.
Find a girl, settle down,
if you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.

All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,
It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it.
If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them you know not me.
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.” – Father And Son by Cat Stevens

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(Two of two parts of a Father’s Day. Part one is here.)

Whomever said “time heals all wounds” was full of crap.

Same person who said “God only gives you what you can handle.”

Words with no meaning. Not to me.

It’s the 14th Father’s Day without my dad.

It doesn’t get easier.  I don’t miss him less.

The memories I want to recall are fading.

I close my eyes and I try to think back on Father’s Days of the past.  I can’t remember any.  I’m sure they were filled with homemade gifts.  And food.

But when my eyes are shut I can only remember those last days.  The incredibly difficult last family trip to Florida with a hastily planned one day cruise to the Bahamas.  Sitting in the bleachers for his last over-40 baseball game during that sweet spot between one round of chemotherapy and the next. I see the last moment that we had together.

I sit here at the end of this Father’s Day.  And I’m lonely. And angry.

He’s missed the things a father should have seen.  My wedding.  My brother’s wedding.  My sister driving.

He’s missed the things a grandfather should have seen.  Gerry’s first time pitching in his little league game.  Howie’s elaborate Hot Wheels track creations.  Lewis’ first laugh out loud joke.  My nephew’s first birthday.

A few months ago, my uncle was in town.  He’s my dad’s oldest brother.  He asked to come out and visit SenseAbility Gym, the nonprofit sensory gym we started for kids with special needs.  My uncle – all of my uncles – have been incredibly supportive since we had the idea.  I went to them for advice, support, and help and they all came through, just like they have for the past 14 years.

I watched my uncle at the gym.  He played with my boys, his grand-nephews.  He asked questions and offered suggestions.

He said he was proud of me.

A few weeks ago, my mother came to work with me at the gym.  A special educator herself, she jumped right in.  I watched her play with the kids.  Chat with the parents.  She connected with them and offered support and advice.

She said she was proud of me.

I am so honored and lucky that they are there with me.

But as I watched them both my anger was bubbling up inside. Not at them, of course. But at what should have been.

My dad was supposed to be here to see this. This gym came about because of the values and skills that he taught me.  Making the world a better place from the ground up.  Connecting and communicating with and within the community.  Standing up for what you believe in even when no one else has done it before.  And all the while remaining present for your children, your spouse, and your family.

It was not supposed to be this way.  This is not how the story goes.

In the last few minutes of this father’s day, I cry.  I’m missing the conversations, the laughter.  His voice.

Time is not healing these wounds.  In fact, it’s making them hurt more.

It’s a tale of two Father’s Days for me.

The joy of watching my kids say “Happy Father’s Day!” to their dad.

The pain of not being able to say that to my own.

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Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick,
And think of you
Caught up in circles confusion –
Is nothing new
Flashback – warm nights –
Almost left behind
Suitcases of memories,
Time after –

Sometimes you picture me –
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said –
Then you say – go slow –
I fall behind –
The second hand unwinds

If you’re lost you can look – and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you – I’ll be waiting
Time after time” – Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper

The flame on the memorial candle is starting to flicker.

I lit it last night in memory of my dad.  The candle burns for 24 hours.  This is the 12th time I’ve lit it, remembering the day he died 13 years ago.

My house is quiet.  Everyone is asleep.

This is the first time I’ve watched it burn out alone.

The wax is all but gone.  Just the wick remains.

There was never really any time to grieve, even from the beginning.  Just days after he died, I was making the decision to step into his seat in the Vermont House of Representatives.  My first answer was no, I can’t fill those shoes.  A day later, I couldn’t think of anyone else who could.  The Governor called a few days after that, appointing me to the seat.  I was twenty-six and my days were filled with getting up to speed on legislation and buying fancy clothes.

Each anniversary from there was just…busy.  I lit the candle but had my hands full.  I went from the State House to marriage to full time parenthood in just a few years.  There was never any time to reflect.  Or grieve.

The flame gives one last flicker.  Then it’s gone.

I am so angry at what the cancer took from all of us.  The years that my sister missed with him.  She was just 13 when he died.

He called her “his gal”.  I was “curly top”.

My heroic mother took it upon herself to be our rock, even though she had never had the time to grieve the passing of her own mother just a year before.

He missed my brother’s graduation from graduate school.  His wedding.  My wedding. 

He missed knowing the three most precious boys who all have names after him.  He missed watching his grandson pitch his first game. Their first steps, their first amazing words.

My boys want to know him.  Gerry asks about his political career and talks about the injustices in the world.  Howie told me “It’s too bad your dad is dead.  He can’t make Hot Wheels tracks with you.”  I know my dad would see the humor and love in that.

I am filled with such anger at the stupid cancer that took him from us.  Pancreatic cancer is the same killer it was 13 years ago.  A survival rate of just 5%. I’m angry at all cancers.  Too many members of my family have been in a battle against this indiscriminate disease: my mother, my mother-in-law, aunts, uncles and cousins.  It’s not fair.  I hate you, cancer.  You rip the innocence right out from underneath us all.

I stare at the candle.  I never know what to do with it once it’s out.  It seems weird to throw it away, but just as weird to keep it.

I still have dreams about him some nights, thirteen years later.  Sometimes I’m talking to him.  Sometimes it feels so real that when I wake up, I wonder if the whole thing is just a dream.  There is still so much unfinished business between us.  So many things I still need to know.  So many stories that I need to hear again.  I’m starting to forget the little memories and I want to pass them on to my own boys.  There is a piece of him in each one of them.  I want them to know their history and it’s getting harder for me to remember it all.

I pick up the candle.  It’s still very warm.

My dad had these big giant work boots that we used to walk around in when we were kids, like most kids do.  In the Legislature, I never felt like I fit those boots.  It never felt like it was mine.  More like I was there to close a chapter for him, rather than start my own.

Those boots have always been so hard to fill.  I think of all the things he was in his short life: a child, a spouse, a teacher, a counselor, a community leader, a first responder, an advocate for children. 

The candle stays warm in my hands.  But I am shaking.

I realize that I am all of those things now, in my own house.  I am still my mother’s child.  Tim’s wife.  A teacher, counselor and first responder for my own children.  And as I find my voice in advocating for my own children, I am helping others in my community speak for their children too.

I have become my father’s daughter.  I have found my place.

I am alone with the candle.  I can finally grieve.

And now, perhaps, move on.

When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter

far beneath the bitter snows
lies the seed
that with the sun’s love
in the spring
becomes the rose” –
The Rose by Bette Midler