Thursday, August 22, 2013

This Fragile, Mortal Coil


Dear Claire,

How do I explain to you who my father was? It all feels so fraught. I don't know where or how to begin.

He died when I was 11. He had cancer.

See, saying that word was hard. I don't want to teach you that word. People can't bring themselves to say "cancer". They say the "dreaded C word", instead. I don't want to sugarcoat it, though. The horror of the disease needs to be honored by name.

So, there. I have begun. Yet...

How do I explain who I am? How do I explain being so formed by his absence?

One hot, August night, I was baptized in the waters of loss. When I came up for air, dizzy and disoriented, I found my identity unwillingly transformed.

I was not myself when he died -- in an instant, a fatherless child navigating in the murky depths of grief. In a sense, I am not myself now. Or, rather, I'm more than I appear to be. A part of me remains hidden. I guard this place like an animal protecting a wound, daring anyone to try and come near. Your papa does not know what I have shared with no one.

But I worry you sense that a part of me is unreachable. I wonder how this history that I keep silent separates me from you, as well as the ones I love.

Telling you is its own thorny road, though. I don't want to share childhood memories of my dad, and have you detect pain in my voice. I worry that this story of loss will change your own sense of self. How will you grapple with who "Grampy" is? My stepdad is the only Grampy you have ever known. Yet, he is not your Grandpa by blood.

It's all so confusing. Will it be too much for you? Will you fear your own papa dying?

These thoughts are too dark for a young mind. I struggle to imagine you contemplating them. I want to shield you from their dizzying and disorienting effects. Right now, you believe that the sun rose for the first time on the day you were born. Someday, I will have to tell you that the moon and the stars existed before you.

Talking about my own childhood loss makes this fragile, mortal coil feel even more present. It signifies my powerlessness to protect you, just as my parents could not protect me.

I know for sure that you will never know how I lie in bed at night, and pray to God that you never have to go through what I went through. You will never know that I wake up in the middle of the night to make sure you are breathing. I fear I am cursed, and that you and your papa are too good to be true.

But silence can cause more damage than revelation, I've found. These words have not come easily for me today. Perhaps, I have written them more for me than for you. I feel no closer to knowing what to say to you when you are older. Maybe, a poet's words will help you understand one day:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead


To mourn full-throated like W. H. Auden is to honor his memory. This past is your birthright. Someday, you may take part in the grieving too. You may desire to know your grandpa, to understand me, to commune in our family history -- maybe, even to know and understand yourself.

This story of loss ends in triumph anyhow. After all, you are my father's and your grandfather's legacy, Claire...unique and beautiful, Claire.

Love,
Mama




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Joining Finish the Sentence Friday with Janine, Kristi, Stephanie, Kate.

37 comments:

  1. Rachel, this letter you wrote to Clare was so profound and very beautiful, too . I can't even begin to imagine what you went through at such a young and tender age losing your father, but love how you did try your best to put your emotions and feelings down to someday explain this type of loss to Claire. Thank you seriously for sharing this and linking up with us again!

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    1. Your words are so kind, Janine. Thank you.

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  2. Wow, Rachel. This is amazing, you have written so eloquently about the loss of your father and how it impacts you and will impact your daughter. I found the questions about death (when my daughter was about 4 or 5) to be so hard to answer, how to be honest without scaring them, how to teach them about time and age and such grown up topics.... There aren't easy answers, but you have beautifully captured the anguish. I am so sorry about your loss of your father, and thanks for sharing this.

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    1. I don't feel prepared to have these conversations. I have a feeling that they will be ongoing.

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  3. You win Finish the Sentence Friday. I'd have been first to comment but I read it twice myself and then twice to my husband while fighting tears the whole time. Wow wow wow. This might be my favorite of yours, ever. I know it must have been one of the hardest you've written but I'm telling you now, friend, it's one of the most powerful and amazing. And I feel blessed and lucky to have read it.

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    1. Aw, your comment went straight to my heart, Kristi! Thank you for reading my post twice, and to your husband. Wow. I am humbled. And humbled by your words.

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    2. Nothing about those words is less than truthful or honest or less than grateful that I was able to read yours.

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  4. I am not looking forward to having this conversation with our future children about my Mom.

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  5. Rachel, I read this and thought of you and myself at the same time. My mom's mom died when she was 11. So I would be in Claire's position in this instance. I came to really understand what my grandmother's death meant in two parts. First, around junior high when I started talking to my mom about it. Then, when my first child was born. My mom went through a lot at that point thinking about her mom and by then I was old enough to handle it and to help her through it also. Which is to say, Claire will be ok, especially with a mama who cares so deeply for her and thinks so carefully about how she's parenting her. xo's

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  6. God, Rachel, you are an artist. You seriously blow my mind sometimes. I agree with Kristi- you win. And I have to add this- I was a vocal music major in college, and I performed that Auden work to music. I can't remember the composer- I wish I could send you a recording. The combination of the poetry and the music that fit it so perfectly was unbelievably powerful. It was one of my favorite things that I have ever sung.

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    1. Wow, your words have put me at a loss for words, Stephanie. Thank you. I would have been in a puddle hearing you sing that song, I have a feeling.

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  7. You handled it beautifully! This must be extremely tough. I love the emotions and feelings down to explain it to her in the future. Hugs!

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    1. Thank you, friend. I will take your lovely hug!

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  8. Oh my gosh, this is simply beautiful. Did you ever see St. Elmo's Fire when they are at dinner and the mom whispers the word "cancer" because if she says it quietly it won't be so tragic? That is what I think you are doing here. You are SHOUTING it because you know it defines who you are and the mom you have become.

    A mom who will not shield her daughter, but expose her to the world in the most thoughtful way. A manner that allows Claire to grow and see the world through your eyes.

    A world of beauty and loss. A world where security may be difficult to explain but will be done so in a way that Claire never feels insecure.

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    1. Kerri, you have such a way of encouraging me. Thank you for being you.

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  9. This is really powerful. I went to visit my family last weekend in upstate New York. The whole weekend I kept thinking about how it's almost the tenth anniversary of my dad's death. My son is only two. My own grief -- the shock of it, the tears -- have lessened over the years. But you've perfectly captured the most difficult part right now: my son will never know my father. It seems like an impossible thing to be a reality. My dad is so much of who I am, and so is my son. It's so painful to think that they'll never get to hug or say I love you.

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    1. I didn't write about that piece, because my father has been gone for SO long that it's almost unfathomable for me.

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  10. Wow! This is a powerful piece, Rachel. I am truly at a loss for words.

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    1. Your words are perfect, Lisa! Thank you.

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  11. I lost my Dad at 41, and knowing how devastating that was, I can't even being to imagine what it would have been like at 11. As it is, I have a difficult time grasping the concept of my brother-in-law and nephews coming into our lives after the death of our maternal grandfather. It just doesn't make sense somehow that these lives weren't intertwined. That was my first loss at 13, and honestly, I still don't think I've recovered fully. Beautifully written.

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    1. Intertwined is a great word. The funny part is that our lives are still intertwined even though he's gone.

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  12. This is perfection: One hot, August night, I was baptized in the waters of loss. When I came up for air, dizzy and disoriented, I found my identity unwillingly transformed.

    The very parts of you that you think are buried are the parts she will discover slowly, and love you all the more for.

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    1. Well, I hope you are right. Remains to be seen.

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  13. Rachel, your questions and worries are written beautifully and so thoughtfully. We had the unfortunate experience of losing my mother-in-law when my oldest was 3 years old. We bought some children's books to help her understand what was happening and I found them to be the perfect substitute for what I could not explain. My favorites were: Lifetimes by Robert Ingpen, the Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney. They are great references for the times when you can't find the words.

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    1. Thank you for your recommendations, Lisa. I will check those out at some point.

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  14. Rachel, you summarized your thoughts with the most important point which is that there is endurance despite loss, through Claire. A beautiful post and poem. Thank you.

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  15. I was very fortunate to not lose a close family member as a youth. Recently, one of my son's classmates had her mother die. She died of an enlarged heart, and there was no warning. I can't imagine-and my heart breaks for that little girl-8 years old and no mother.

    This is so beautifully written. I know I say that a lot about your writing Rachel, but it just is... Maybe I need to use the thesaurus more. Thank you for sharing this with the world.

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  16. Stunningly beautiful post to your daughter. I hope some day that reading it to her will help to assuage her questions and provide a way of unlocking a way to talk about it without fear, but with love and fond remembering.

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  17. Such a beautiful letter to your daughter. Losing someone at such a young age is hard enough, but having to relive the emotions again as you tell your daughter is hard too. I know what this feels like.
    You have so much love for Claire and one day you will both be able to unlock the questions and get answers together as we all must. I have to do this with Reagan too about so many things .. not just loss.
    You are a strong mama for your daughter. Heart you.

    ¤´¨)
    ¸.•*´
    (¸¤ Lanaya | xoxo
    Raising-Reagan.com

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    1. Thank you, my friend. I am sorry to hear that you and I share this road. I hope that you remember the same things about yourself when you are talking to Reagan. Your kind words about me are all true about you too!

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  18. This is so beautiful, and so sad. I am so sorry for your loss. I hate cancer. It has taken so many wonderful people from my life. My son won't know his grandfather (my father-in-law) because of it, either. It really sucks. Absolutely beautiful post.

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  19. This is a beautiful letter, and so full of meaning. It's hard to explain the difficult things in life...even to other grown ups. Much harder when it's to a child we love to whom we are doing the explaining.

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  20. Wow. I can feel the pain in your words. I have my own silence. A silence because I don't know what to say to my children about some things in the past. I don't know how to say things without pain. I don't know how to say things the right way. I prefer to stay silent, but I know that will only break down our communication. So, I will stumble through and share with them and talk with them, praying my words will be a balm instead of a cause for more pain.

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