they can’t take that away from me

The title of this post is, of course, a reference to the wonderful song. I’ve no idea who wrote it, but I think of this version : 

 

I wrote this on July 8, early in the morning, in the kitchen in Cipressa.

 July 11th is my father’s birthday. Born in 1948, he would be 69. He passed away seven years ago after a long and difficult battle with cancer.

I always miss my dad, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about him. We were very close, sharing a love of poetry, waking early, going for walks, running, and toast & tea. (I didn’t fully develop my love of tea until the past few years.) In Cipressa, my grief has been heightened. Probably some of this has to do with the time of year — I often feel grief more strongly around his birthday, the anniversary of his death, my birthday, and the winter holidays. And probably some of it has to do with vague memories of being here with him, in this house in Cipressa, when I was seven years old.

The thing about grief as I experience it — or one of the many ‘things’ — is the futility. No matter how strongly I feel pain, or sadness, or the gaping hole of his absence — and I feel all of these things very strongly sometimes — it makes no difference. I could tear down a building in my agony, and he would still not come back. Sometimes, I don’t even acknowledge my feelings to David, because it feels so pointless. We’ll be sitting across the room from one another, me twisted up with the agony of loss, and I think, If I tell David I’m missing Daddy, he’ll hold me, and I’ll cry, and then eventually I’ll stop and move onto the next activity because what else is there to do? Why bother?

On the anniversary of my dad’s death as well as on his birthday, I like to enjoy his favorite things — Indian food, Beck’s beer, poetry, jazz, and, if possible, strawberry shortcake the way his mom made it. Maybe we’ll ‘celebrate’ his birthday the usual way next week when we are in Cologne, as we’ll have a whole apartment and not just a bedroom to use, and we’ll be with my friend Peter, who knew my dad.

Last night, David and I were walking up to the tower that overlooks Cipressa. We were talking about vivid memories — which moments our brains have held onto with sharpness and color. Most of my vivid memories are from traumatic moments in my life, some of which involve my father and his illness and death. But suddenly, mercifully, a different memory popped into my head. It was the memory of a dream. In the year after my dad died, I had dozens of dreams about him. In almost all of them, he was dying for some reason or another, it was my job to save him, and I always failed. But in the very first dream that I had after my father’s death, I am on a stage, participating in a math competition (nervously, as someone not particularly talented at mathematics). I look to the audience, and am surprised to see Daddy, sitting in the front row. Our eyes meet, and he smiles at me and makes the “I Love You” symbol in sign language. And I feel like I can do whatever scary thing the competition throws at me — because my dad is still here, somehow, and he loves me.

a letter

My dad didn’t often write me letters — we usually spoke on the phone (and for the vast majority of our lives together, we lived in the same place, so why would we write letters?). But when I was a freshman in college, I left my parents a card under their pillow(s) when I went back to school after visiting for Thanksgiving. (I almost always left my parents little notes, from when I was a kid — one of “my things.”) It was a Thanksgiving letter, telling how grateful I was to them for so many reasons, and how much I loved them. And my dad, rather than just phoning me, wrote me a letter in reply.

In the letter, he tells me how much joy I have brought to him and to my mother, starting from before I was born. He writes that he is proud of me, and that he loves me very much, and that he doesn’t know anyone more beautiful than I am. He reminisces about the moment that he learned I was going to be a girl, about my kindergarten play, about Glee Club concerts I sang in. I was just barely nineteen when he wrote me this letter, and already he was so proud of me. He writes that he could not imagine having a greater daughter. All the usuals, I am sure, for letters written to children by their adoring parents. But that doesn’t make this letter any less valuable to me, because I know that it represents my father’s adoring love for me, and in a universe of parents loving their children, I know that my father’s love for me remains unique and precious.

That letter still lives, inside a little plastic bag, in the big, beautiful wooden jewelry box that my parents gave me for my seventeenth birthday, in my childhood bedroom. And I have photocopies of it tucked around my apartment, and digital copies on my phone and my computer. When the conversation question “what is the most precious item you own” comes up, I think immediately of that letter (and am immediately glad that there are multiple physical & digital copies of it — none of that grabbing it before running out of a burning building nonsense for me).

And some mornings it is cold and I’ve just finished a novel and I’m on my second, now-cold cup of tea and I open the computer file and reread it, and feel my eyes fill up with tears again. And I quietly thank my nineteen-year-old self for writing my parents that card, and I quietly thank my wonderful father for writing and mailing that letter, but mostly, I thank him for loving me so much that I can still feel it today, six years to the day from when he passed away.

looking at me looking at you

& I miss him every single day.

 

Poetry Monday : Train Ride by Ruth Stone

Ruth Stone was a poet and professor of English who was born in Virginia and lived most of her life in Vermont. Her life was marked with great difficulty, in large part due to the suicide of her husband and the struggle of raising their three children alone. She humbly and graciously spoke of her poetry as a force that flowed through her and not as being of her own creation, but rather simply something she tried to write down. Ruth Stone died in 2011. You can read more about her on her Poetry Foundation webpage. This poem is one I posted on my Facebook several years ago in memory of my late father. He was greatly on my mind this past weekend as I ran my first half-marathon, so I am sharing this poem here as well. 

Train Ride

All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year’s leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled struck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.

— Ruth Stone

 

the morning lark & the night owl

Thank goodness for our internal clocks.

David’s is a clock that craves extremes: he wants to wake up when the sun is full shining and not fall into bed until pitch-midnight. I, on the other hand, am my father’s daughter. Once dinner dishes are put away, I am already on a short road to sleep. And as the sun is just beginning to peek (in summer), or hasn’t even come close (in winter), I’m padding into the kitchen in my pajamas with my heart set on a cup of tea and a book of poetry.

Daddy was always up early. I can still see him, in his sweatpants and slippers, sitting in his armchair with, yes, a mug of tea and a book. Me coming down second and him smiling as he looked up – hi, bunny – and our morning beginning together. While our family was on vacation at the ocean, we’d share toast and then venture outside. “Let’s let Mom & Matt sleep in,” we’d say, as we laced up sneakers and pulled on fleece jackets. And we’d walk out into the chilly Northern California morning, eyes on the waves as we walked to the beach. So much life and love in our day before it had really begun. And if we have all that before the sun is fully risen, it sets our whole day on a good trajectory. We’ve had a good day even before we sat down to breakfast.

Tea, toast, and poetry at the ocean this past summer
Tea, toast, and poetry at the ocean this past summer

And now, years after his death and miles from the California coast, I maintain this rhythm. The morning is my private room. In our (sweet, beloved) small apartment, we have very little space to ourselves. But for David, the late hours are a haven, and for me, the early. I can reconnect to myself, the self that is alone and only-me, and not David’s wife. I read, and I listen to pieces of music that I loved before I met him (Smétana’s Ma Vlast, Joni Mitchell, The Indigo Girls). I write in my journal and browse through anthologies. I can hear the clock ticking. I can hear other early risers in our apartment complex start their cars’ engines as they begin a long commute. Sometimes, when the light is just right, I’ll slip outside to the end of our block to watch the sunrise.

In a little while, David will stumble sleepily into the kitchen. He’ll greet me with one word (hi) or two (good morning) as he makes his coffee. And the real-world day will begin.

But these first few hours in the early morning are mine. A separate time that I claim and cling to as my own. And I thank goodness for that.

this morning.
this morning.