To everything there is a season, and the 40 days of daily memorial prayers for my father has come to an end. We will continue to remember Dad in our daily prayers, as we commemorate the departed by name, but the prayers reserved to accompany the departed from this life into the next will now become less frequent. We will pray them again in a little over four and a half months, and then annually. We will commemorate Dad on the memorial Saturdays which occur periodically throughout the year. But this special period of forty days has come to an end.
As much as these prayers are a comfort to the bereaved, it is nonetheless a good thing for us to rest from these labors. And make no mistake, dying, and grieving too I am learning, is labor.
When I got the call from my sisters that Dad had coded, I was preparing to go to a meeting at work. After speaking to them, I went to the brief noon meeting, my mind racing, numb, shocked. Only a few minutes later I was on my way to the hospital, a three hour drive. The entire drive I have very little memory of, aside from an overarching anxiety. I’m sure it was filled with desperate prayers.
I arrived, embraced my sisters, and went with them to see Dad. One of the doctors talked with us before I entered the room. She explained what she could. And then I saw Dad, as he lay there unmoving and unconscious.
And so, we prayed a little that first night. We held Dad’s hands. We embraced him. We assured him of our love, of our pride to be his children, and our respect for the great strength he had shown us all his life. I slept that night on the hard floor of the family’s quiet room, my messenger bag for a pillow. I forget who offered it, but at some point, I was given a blanket.
We awoke the next morning, listened to the doctors, and accepted the reality that Dad was dying. We made our medical decisions as family, and prepared our hearts.
So we began the important work of serving the dying, the ministry to Dad to support and strengthen him during his final hours. This is the ministry we, the living, give to those we love. After his collapse, Dad never regained bodily consciousness. But as Christians we know the soul inhabits, intertwines and transcends the body. There was no physical or bodily evidence that Dad was conscious of our presence, but it is a Christian certainty that his soul was present and aware. And until that moment when the body relinquishes the life it has been given, the soul labors in its own way for the transition to that temporary state when it will be separate from the body, awaiting the reunion with that very same transfigured body in the Resurrection.
I am the firstborn, and Dad’s son. It was clear that I needed to place his arm around my shoulders, as it were, to bear him up through prayer and my love and embraces, to help him as he walked that final path to which God had called him. I held his hand. I hugged him. I told him of my love for him. I prayed. But mostly I sat with him, in silence and prayer. It was for all of us to bear him up as his strength left him. He lay still and motionless, save for his body breathing.
I did not, could not, then know what a labor it is to die, nor the intensity of the labor we, the living offer to the dying. As his family, it is damnably hard work. And necessary. Our heart-deep and final gift to our beloved.
We continued struggling together with Dad, as his final hours, then final minutes, drew to a close. Earlier in the day, the chaplain (an Orthodox layman, and such a wonderful comfort to me) read the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and the Beatitudes, among several other Scriptures. He read from the Orthodox Trisagion prayers, as well as other such prayers. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together over Dad. We each prayed our own prayers in our hearts. Later I prayed the psalter seated next to Dad, my hand on his arm. I could not finish the entire psalter, as I did not have the emotional wherewithal. But I prayed what I could.
And then the end came. I held Dad’s right hand. I brushed my hand against his cheek, and smoothed his hair, as his body continued to struggle to hold on to that life God had given, and now was being returned to God. We all touched him, a hand, a foot, a shoulder. We encouraged Dad, assuring him of our love, stroking his arm, caressing his head. We expressed our love again and again. We gave him our blessings of peace, and prayed for him that final repose from God. Then, his soul was at last separated from his body. And our grief, which had already begun, became sharp and hard and fiery.
For the next forty days, my grief and continued labor for Dad’s departure conjoined. For myself it has meant insomnia, sorrow, and an existence I’d never before contemplated. I was now living life without my father, the man who indelibly marked my identity, who bestowed on me that virile manhood that fathers grant to their sons. I still can’t grasp this. I still can’t face the next couple of months. I still sometimes can’t hear his name in the prayers during Liturgy without that spear point of pain. My priest has told me that the intensity of the grief is often an indication of the depth of love.
How can I say this? I did not realize how much I loved my father. Dad and I were never ones to share our emotions, our inner lives with one another. When I was younger, we would work side by side on the farm, or cutting wood, or loading the moving van. Our phone calls were about the weather, Dad’s latest projects, and occasional plans for travel and seeing one another. I would never have questioned my love for Dad. Every phone call ended with, “I love you, son” and “I love you, too, Dad.” But I just did not realize how deeply those roots had grown, unnoticed. And when they were yanked out by his sudden death, the pain was deep as well.
These forty days of laboring with Dad in his departure are now complete. The prayers continue, of course. But now, we are called to a new way of living. For forty days I have intentionally excluded many things from my life. I’ve delinked from some relationships, even blocked others; still others I have let founder from inattention. Not from anger or pique. I’ve had to. I’ve only just had enough resources to continue my day to day obligations, with very little left over. I’ve had to find ways to grieve without overburdening my daughters, and yet at the same time to receive from them their own ways of comforting me. I am the father, the provider, the protector. I don’t know how many times I’ve apologized to them for my tears, not wanting to upset them. They hug me. In their own child ways they offer comforting words. They grab tissues for me. And they have shed their own tears.
So, too have my sisters, my stepmom, and others of our family, nieces and nephews, grandchildren. Our grief is so private and individual, so awfully lonely. And yet, too, shared in some way. It walls us off from those who are not grieving and even from each other. Yet, somehow it connects us, too, in that love we share with that strong and vital man we have known as father, husband, grandfather, brother, uncle.
This new way of living is a way of living that no longer includes the beloved. It hurts. My heart has been broken. This is uncharted territory for me. There is no map, the path is dark. Others tell me this grief will not end in this life, though it becomes less present than it is now. I don’t know what to make of that. I question my sanity. I stand at the grocery store staring at pork chops and am overcome. The once invigorating post-Liturgy coffee hour chatter I can no longer abide. I’m overcome by an anxiousness in the frozen foods aisle, but can’t stand the solitary hours at home. I somehow make it through each day. But I cannot plan for the coming couple of months. It is overwhelming, everything is altered, transformed by the hole that has come into my life. I pray God in his mercy will make all this transfiguring.
I understand on some level that life will indeed go on. Many things will remain unchanged, although now tinged with this new reality, infused with this new grief. And many things will change, too, because one essential thing has changed. Some of them will change because I have no power to control what happens, and consequence rolls from event and choice. Some of them will change because I see it is necessary that they do. Former dreams and hopes may be cast off, because they too died on that September evening. Or perhaps they have now been solidified, pressed into a crystalline clarity by loss. My future has irrevocably changed. It may require that I alter my own imaginings about that future. May God bless it all.
And may God cause the memory of my father to be eternal.