The normalcy of grief

Art by Maine Manalansan

 

An arc of flaglets held by a string hangs from the awning above our front door. My younger brother Miggy, my Tita Baby, and cousins Ate Macy and Ritzi and I put together the signage, writing one letter on each flaglet with thick, bold markers so the whole arc reads “WELCOME HOME.” We did this work in the morning, on the day my dad was to come home from the hospital.

My dad had just finished recovering from something called the gamma knife, a type of radiation treatment/trump card procedure meant to defeat the part of the cancer that metastasized to his brain. Shortly after we finished setting up our little sign, an ambulance pulled up to our driveway as orderlies wheeled my dad’s gurney to the front door, feet facing forward so he could see the sign we’d made. I scanned his face for a widening eye, a mouth curling upward into a grin, some twitch of awareness — some indication of knowing.

Crossing the doorway, we maneuvered the gurney through the house’s first floor, hoisting his weight up the stairs to his bedroom, where a hospital bed my mother ordered would be waiting. In the room was Miggy’s record player, which he’d set up to spin Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” album, from our dad’s vinyl collection. Perhaps a crooning trumpet would trigger a kind of awakening.

But I don’t know if the event of his return registered in his brain, quiet as he was, his breathing throaty and strained. We spent the next two weeks carrying out his palliative care.

 

It has been a bit over a year since my dad passed away. I write this on the night after his birthday and I think of what it means to be lucid.

 

The sign still hangs in front of our door. My mom and I resolved to never take it down, preferring that wind, rain, or time weaken the adhesive that holds the string in place. It has been a bit over a year since my dad passed away. The sign barely registers in my brain anymore, whenever I come home. It has become another fixture of the house, same as the tables and chairs, same as the silverware in its aging drawers, same as the wooden box urn that now sits on what used to be his bedside table.

I write this on the night after his birthday and I think of what it means to be lucid. The October he had spent in the hospital, battling Stage Four cancer, I had spent alternating between hospital visits and going out with friends to process grief in advance, and drinking myself into multiple stupors, hoping to soften the blow of loss. And in the mornings, after I would reclaim composure, I’d do my work, gathering up the shreds of normalcy that this new situation of medical urgency would throw my way. I remember one hospital visit in which I played silent, loving company to a mind in the middle of its slow deterioration. I was about to leave when my dad called out to me — I said, “Papa, what is it? I’m here,” expecting some grand truth withheld and only unlocked by the sound of footsteps. He said, “Can you get my iPad?” That moment still makes me chuckle — it’s something a dad would do, a banal gesture only possible in the conditions of long love. He had awakened from a daze to ask me something he always asked me when he wasn’t sick, and I was snapped back into a headspace of normalcy.

And I am not starved for these moments. I have my mother. I have my little brother. And for half of 2018, I had a girlfriend who held my grief as gently as she possibly could.

 

As I write this, I try to salvage pieces of the last dream I had of him, and already the scene escapes me, out the window where his cigarette smoke must have traveled before.

 

But sometimes the fabric of the mundane would tear. I tell my mom about the way Papa visits me in dreams — not as an apparition, but an effervescent image, like a soul sending a Skype call for heaven. One night I saw him glowing in a meadow filled with golden wheat. One night I saw him come in through the back door, in work clothes. As I write this, I try to salvage pieces of the last dream I had of him, and already the scene escapes me, out the window where his cigarette smoke must have traveled before.

What does it mean to have presence of mind? And how long must one stay in the strange land of grief until it becomes home? These questions have the same answer.

My experience with grief is a kind of numbness. A cool marble floor to lie upon. Though every now and then, there are these little shocks of clarity, and they return me to the realm of widening eyes, a mouth curling into a grin, an awakening twitch. Like when we go out to eat and my mom says, “Oh, your father would’ve preferred something greasier, an oil-on-rice kind of meal,” and in quiet agreement I sop up the sauce on my plate. Or when I took my family to a record store on the day of his birthday, and my mom would be, like, “Who did Papa like more, Billy Joel or Spyro Gyra?”

 

Then time passed. And my father’s memory became another fixture in the house of my heart.

 

When the wounds are fresh you build a whole architecture out of grief, columns and rows of sorrow. The first month after his death, his image would hit me and my brain would short circuit and walking down the street on the way to an A-1 Driving School branch my knees would buckle, and I would weep, and weep, hoping that my eyes would clear up by the time I’d have to get behind the wheel. Then time passed. And my father’s memory became another fixture in the house of my heart.

The loss of him is not my whole heart. But I have found a place for it, all of its tremors and fire. And there will be nights, sure, when I’ll want to lose myself in a daze. But I am thankful that there is no sedation strong enough to blur his face in my mind. To grieve is to love intensely. I want all of it.

Tags:
#family #love #self

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