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.

 

the Vespers, Advent, & the darkness

This morning, I listened to the Rachmaninov Vespers while I drank a cup of tea and wrote in my journal. (As I mentioned previously, starting on November 1st I listen to the Vespers as often as I feel so moved throughout the winter.)

‘The Vespers’ is actually an incorrect translation — the piece is better translated as All-Night Vigil. But I’ve called them the Vespers for so long that I sort of can’t stop.  The piece was composed in a bit under two weeks (!) by Sergei Rachmaninov in 1915. They were received fantastically by popular audiences and critics alike, but performances ceased after the rise of the Soviet Union when religious music was banned.

I was introduced to the Vespers when my college choir performed one piece from them, Bogoroditse Djevo, when I was twenty years old. (In hindsight, it was the last piece of music I performed before my father passed away.) Bogoroditse Djevo is a setting of the Hail Mary. We performed this piece at our Christmas concert. And performing Bogoroditse Djevo was a truly transcendent experience — the crescendo a swelling of golden light, when I neither felt my feet on the floor nor saw anything to my left of right — I simple seemed to be suspended in air, connected to my fellow singers and my conductor by the strong cord of this 100-year-old piece of music. And every time I listen to this piece, not only do I feel that overwhelmed, too-big swell in my chest, but I also feel the swelling of tears pressing against my eyes, the swooping of painful emotion in my stomach. Bogoroditse Djevo is too much, it’s too heavy. It is not a holly-jolly-Christmas carol.

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This year, David and I are trying to set some of our traditions for December. In the past several years, I have done things on my own — written daily during Advent, read passages from books — but this year, we’re doing things together. We have an Advent wreath (well, the best I could do was four candles in a pie plate with some evergreen clippings we gathered) — each Sunday night we take turns reading passages from the Bible, we read a quote, we place a relevant object in the ‘wreath,’ and we light the candles. Every night before dinner, we light the candles again and read a poem about winter. We decorated the apartment — I made gingerbread cookies, we set up our little two-foot-tall artificial tree and decked it with ornaments. Every evening, we open a little box on my childhood PlayMobil Advent calendar, and set up a scene of ‘Santa’s workshop.’ I remember setting those toys up as a kid with my family, and smile. I read David A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas over the course of several days, and I’ll probably do it twice more before the season is over.

A few nights ago, we talked about Advent, and David shared his memories of it growing up. Basically, what it boiled down to was : yeah, it was cool, but the point was Christmas. It was a countdown : when would Santa get there and we get to party and eat four kinds of pie and open all the PRESENTS? I was the same way : Christmas was always the highlight of my year. In a BIG way. My favorite season was (and is) winter. I collected snow globes. I was the keeper of family traditions, setting up the crèche, singing carols in the car, and just pushing everyone to keep the jolly spirit of the season going as much as possible. I was all about Christmas.

I’m still totally into Christmas — I haven’t turned Grinch, I love the whole season. But now, I also have the pain. The writer Sarah Bessey, in her beautiful blog post “in which Advent is for the ones who know longing,” writes,

            “Advent has become more important to me as I’ve gotten older. When I was young, I couldn’t understand this emphasis on waiting – let’s get to the Christmas joy! Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent.”

The Vespers, the candles, the journaling — they create that space for me. Space for the kind of emotions so big they carry you. Space for this new tension : no longer a child’s anticipation of gifts, but now the feeling of remembering the Christmases of your childhood while facing the reality that those will never happen again — you’re an adult now — and the truth that even at Christmastime, the world is full of sorrow and pain and injustice. It will not be what it was. While I browse for gifts for my husband, I pick up a book and open my mouth to say “oh, this would be perfect for Daddy –“ but instead I close my mouth, turn on the spot, and wait for my blurry vision to clear while All I Want For Christmas Is You pipes over the bookstore’s loudspeakers.

Advent is the place where I wait, aching, for God to meet me. The dark space of Advent blooms out around me, making room for the mix of pain, sadness, joy, and love that come with the holidays now that I’ve lost my father and now that I’ve suffered and now that I’ve grown up.

Advent is the year turning towards darkness. The ache, the longing, the waiting. The glorious, beautiful, wonderful, painful spark of birth and newness coming in through the death of the year. I will celebrate and sing Christmas songs — I will wrap gifts in silly reindeer paper and watch my favorite old movies — I will drink wine and laugh and I’ll bake for you, don’t you worry — but first, I will pause for a moment to light the candles and remember.

 

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.