Last Thanksgiving, we celebrated in our usual buoyant, big-family fashion. It was a lovely sunny day, and you bantered with your youngest grandsons, oohed and ahhed over carrot cake and apple pie, and sat at the round wooden table with your plate and your smile brimming over. I can remember small things from that day that carry over into so many times with you: your sandpaper hand that I automatically grab, and the hard and fast squeeze it gives mine. The comforting feel and smell of your suede jacket or corduroy shirt. Your still-brown hair, even at 86, always perfectly combed. The knowing twinkle you give me in the midst of... something, anything, whatever is going on, it's there, like a fun secret.
Everything changed so quickly after Thanksgiving last year. A year ago today, I came home from lunch at Panera with Jessie and walked in the door and Sean held my shoulders while Mom told me that you'd had a stroke and were in the hospital. You had lost your laugh, your quick tongue, which seems so wrong and cruel to think of even now. You aren't you without those elements - and yet you managed to be you, conducting us with your one good arm when we sang hymns, at turns tearful and joyous, around your bedside. We moved from talking about physical therapy and teaching you how to swallow again to talking about hospice care and making you comfortable (but with those rattling breaths, how could you be?).
In the span of three weeks, it was suddenly over. I look at photos from that wonderful last Thanksgiving Day and think, how could any of us have ever imagined that before Christmas Day, we would have to stand in a cold and rainy Decatur cemetery and say goodbye? I do not understand.
Now I go through daily life without random-yet-regular letters and poems in your jotted scrawl. I no longer can call a number and hear, "Heyyyy, Claire Claire!" (Pop Pop = Claire Claire) on the other end. At my wedding, I had to pose with a photograph of your smiling face so that I could still have a picture with you. When I think of it, I feel a stab of guilt or bad timing or sorrow that I've only moved back home after you are gone. But then I think that maybe you being gone - the whole process of that happening - urged me to get back home.
There is an unspoken emptiness without you there, even though we are still a full-brim family. Losing one of our leading pair brings an inexplicable oddness to any gathering now, at least to me. There is just a little more space that isn't being used - a lack, a voice not being heard or a joke not being told. A hand not being squeezed. It isn't that something is clearly wrong - but the ghost of an action, your action, floats nearby.
When we mention you in conversation, I expect you to speak or respond in the old ways. I'm still learning the new ways that you speak to us. I'm sure you do, somehow, but it's so very different than the way you held court on earth.
This has been, I think, the year of my life so far that has been most fraught with change, transition, stress, and uncertainty. Sean and I got engaged - and I took for granted that since you were around to celebrate with us then, you would be around a year later on the big day. Then those unexpected last three weeks with you, with me mostly four hours down the road. That was hard. That got me wishing that home was closer. I started a graduate program (I cried the night before I started, because I know you would have sent me a note saying how proud you were). And somehow, within six months, a job opportunity opened up back in our hometown. I took it with excitement, but also great trepidation. Packing up and saying goodbye to a city that we love, then doing long distance for two months leading up to our wedding, starting a new job and looking for a new job and finding a place to live in a place that is somewhat familiar but very, very new... It hasn't been easy. So many days in this new life I've felt like I was just pushing through to the next day. I could have used your cards, your phone calls - or even better, living near you in the same city once again.
Every day now, I walk only blocks from the airy white house on Clifton where you and Nana spent fifty years. I always find my mind straying towards some alternate universe where you are still sitting at the long dining room table whose windows look out onto the deck, eating Oat Squares in the glazed brown bowls with handles, flapping through your morning paper. I will stop by this afternoon after work and we will shoot the breeze on the porch or in the den.
I find that I don't quite know how to treat home without you there.
Tonight I am sitting in Sean's grandparents' sun room in Ocean Pines, Maryland. We are here to bury both of his mother's parents. They passed away within ten days of each other only weeks after our wedding. And his paternal grandmother passed away in May. Between us, we have lost four out of seven living grandparents in these last twelve months. But you were all over 85; I waffle between missing you like crazy and being grateful that we had you for so long. I lost an aunt too young this September, and I think of her saltwater wit and ocean-deep heart; I want to do so much more for my cousins than simply send texts of love and support. (I can picture you and she swapping jokes in heaven, while our Rusty-dog licks your feet. You'd never let him do that on earth, but maybe Aunt M - a dachshund lover herself - has convinced you different.)
News of death and illness and grief, interwoven with the horrid turmoil of the world, makes me reach this new December feeling drained even before it begins. Last Advent was blurred with the speed and exhaustion of your dying, sacred though it was. I felt like I was in a car or a roller coaster in reverse, watching the coming holiday season grow smaller and more miniscule as we were forced to back away.
Now we are beginning Advent with more death, more goodbyes, and a sense of uncertainty - can we even ask for or expect or hope for a time of solid calm and quiet joy? I am afraid that I am expecting dearth and darkness more than fullness and light. I am tired and weary - of being in the middle, of that empty space that does not contain your smile, of the way that sorrow has seemed to weave itself into the lives of those I care about this year. And it seems to begin and end with you - somehow, I feel like I could be lighter with you nearby. Even if you were in the next room, it seems that something in my spirit would be different.
In some way, I know that you are simply in the next room. But I am still trying to figure out what that means, when the door is locked to me and no sound of you carries through.
Advent. Longing, waiting. Maybe I've got it just right.
I miss you and adore you.