When grief ages

July 29th, 2010

I have been writing this post for days; I have been writing this post all month; I have been writing this post for twenty years. My father died twenty years ago today of lung cancer. He didn’t even live a year past his diagnosis, the diagnosis he received while I was in my junior year of college. The diagnosis he and my mother weren’t going to tell me about until my brother threatened to tell me himself if they didn’t. They told me when I came home over the long Thanksgiving weekend, and he was dead the following July. Eight months. Eight months, more half of which I missed finishing out my junior year. My father wouldn’t hear of me taking time off and coming back home. He wanted no part of me putting college on hold. (I can’t recall if I actually suggested doing that. If I did, I can well imagine I said it knowing he would refuse.) It was the pride of his life that he, a high school drop-out, put both his kids through college debt free. He didn’t live to see my senior year, but by the time he died he knew the tuition had been covered; he knew I’d be able to finish without having to work. He was quietly but implacably opposed to me holding a part time job during the academic year. “No, you won’t get a job,” he told me when I said I could work part time to help make up the difference between in-state tuition at the University of Illinois, where my brother went and where I could not, would not follow, and the out-of-state tuition at Indiana University where I wanted to go. “Your job is to be a student. My job is to pay for it.” He wanted me to be a student. He wanted me to take classes and study and make friends and play sports and have the time to do whatever it was that kids did in college. (Things he didn’t get to do; I’m well aware that he needed me to have the full co-ed experience because he never had it. There are worse dreams to pin on your children and god knows I don’t hold it against him. I found my best self in those four years, and I owe that to him.) ¬†

So I went to Indiana, with its collegiate cycling tradition, and I had the time to be a cyclist in college because my father was an old-fashioned mid-Western man who believed that putting his kids through college was a man’s job; and being a cyclist in college was the best thing I did in those four years. It was where I found my best self. It was also the thing that carried me after he died. The spring of my junior year, when he was dying, and my whole senior year, when his death was raw and unbelievable, cycling saved me.¬†Racing saved me. I rode my bike hard that year and a half, grinding out time trials on Flat Bottom Road, climbing Firehouse Hill then coasting back to the base to climb it again. Riding full of sorrow and anger and self-pity, riding as if I could leave first his cancer and later his death behind me. Riding with my team, who were the only ones who knew what was going on with me. Who were the ones who knew that I wanted it to hurt, I needed it to hurt, I wanted to finish those workouts, those sprinting drills, those team time trails, those spinning drills, and fall over on the side of the road and throw up from the effort. Because if it hurt, if I was gasping for breath, I was still alive.

Now, unbelievably, it’s been twenty years – twenty years! I have been fatherless almost half my life – and the sharp and jagged edges of grief have been worn away; I don’t have loose pieces of glass rattling around inside of me anymore, cutting me anytime I make a sudden move. I don’t wake up from dreams of my father believing for that first confused second that he’s still alive. I don’t miss him every day. I probably do miss him every day but it’s not all-consuming; it’s background music. A kind of emotional white noise. What I miss now are the things I miss on my father’s behalf. The things he missed. He never met my brother’s wife, or my husband, or any of his grandchildren. My father coached hockey, and of his four grandchildren my Small Boy is the only one who plays. My father missed that, his grandson learning to skate. He would have liked my father-in-law. Sharing no common language, they wouldn’t have understood a word the other had to say, but my father-in-law would have taken my dad to an SCB hockey game and they would have been great friends. He would have thought R was a fine man and he would have enjoyed teaching him to fly-fish. He would have laughed when I moved to the farm last year, the laugh of a father sharing with his daughter a private thirty year old joke about living on a farm. I miss these things on his behalf, I mourn for everything he missed and not, I think, for myself anymore. I have had, after all, twenty years to get used to his absence. Grief and I have come to terms.

It still sneaks up on me though. I expect it on days like today, on my father’s birthday or on Thanksgiving, but grief sneaks up on me sometimes, too, at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places. In the locker room lacing up the Small Boy’s skates. Racing popsicle stick boats in the creek with the boys. Catching a whiff of coffee beans grinding at the grocery store. It’s there, suddenly, over my shoulder, like a cyclist I can’t drop. It’s not fierce and urgent anymore, though; it’s not racing me to the mountain top. We don’t grind it out, grief and I. It doesn’t taunt me, and I don’t need to beat it. I don’t need to push, and push, and push. I no longer need to be the fastest girl on the track, racing away from my loss.

You can’t out-race grief anyway; it’s got a better bike.