Navigating Loss and Love
Birdie has a Daddy, a Papa, a Noni, two Grammies, a live-in Uncle, three great-grandmothers, two great-grandfathers, many aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as a large extended network of chosen family and community. She has many people to love and support her as she grows, and for that I am so grateful. I love to see the way she connects with and is building relationships with the people in our lives. But, someone is missing.
When I was 16, a junior in high school, my father died of cancer. It was painful and traumatic in all the ways losing a parent is hard, especially so young. That was 18 years ago. Since then my grief for the loss has ebbed and flowed, but for the most part his death is something that, in time, integrated itself as part of my life. You can only be present in the particular kind of sadness that follows death for so long, or it will ruin you. It feels harder certain times of the year; Father's day, his birthday, Christmas, the anniversary of his death, and sometimes for no special reason at all. Those are the times that I allow myself the space and time to yield to all the feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, hurt and longing. At some point though, for your own survival, you have to put those big, messy feelings up on a shelf, aware of them, but not immersed in it.
My relationship to my father was complicated, especially during my teen years. By the time he got sick we weren't close at all, we didn't understand each other and we disagreed on some pretty fundamental points. I don't regret where I stood firm with him in my convictions, in fact I think it was an early lesson in standing up for what you know is right regardless of what anyone else thinks of you and your choices. Nor do I regret that when his cancer really took hold, I let go of our differences and allowed myself to be present with my father during the last months we had together. He died at home, I was there to hold his hand and comfort him on his last day, and I have no doubt that in his final hours he knew how much I loved him.
I didn't come out until I was 18, I didn't start my medical transition until I was 21. My father only ever knew me as his daughter. I often wonder what our relationship would be like now, what it would have taken for us to see eye to eye, if, like the rest of my family, he eventually would have learned to accept me for who I am. He isn't here so I can only speculate what things would be like. In some ways [though I hate to say it] I feel closer to him now. Growing up I spent a lot of time praying to God, but as I moved through my grief I began talking to my dad instead. The conversations were pretty one sided, though when I really needed him I could feel his presence. I didn't fear judgement or rejection from him and I was able to be open in honest with him in a way I never could when he was alive. Though it was bittersweet, it helped me to learn to live without him, move forward, and still feel connected to him.
But life is never stagnant and just as soon as something becomes comfortable and somewhat predictable, something else happens and you have to start all over again. For me, that something was Birdie.
Not long after I found out Birdie was on the way my heart began to ache with the thought that my dad didn't get to live long enough to be a Grandpa. Throughout my pregnancy my grief got to be so big again that I was afraid to reach out to my father at all, it hurt to even think of him. I needed him but I didn't know where to find him anymore. Here I was on the cusp of fatherhood, without a father of my own and I was angry and sad and lost.
I don't know what changed but at some point I realized that the only way Birdie could ever have a relationship with my dad, her Grandpa Bill, was if I gave it to her. And so I started talking to him again, and I started by asking him to watch over her for me. The night I knew she was going to be born I had a long talk with him, I thanked him for keeping and eye on her and I asked him to be present with me through labor, and to guide Birdie into this world safely for me. After Birdie was born she laid on my chest for a long time while they took care of me and she adjusted to being earthside for the first time. Josh and I stared at her, smiling and crying while I held her in my arms. Eventually it was time for her to be weighed and measured so I handed her to Josh and as he walked across the room to the scale with her, for one brief moment I saw my father standing next to my bed, smiling at me. Then he was gone.
There have been so many times during her first year when this loss felt too big to contain. I would hide behind a closed door, lay down and sob until I felt hollow. "It's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fucking fair," would circle round and round my head. Becoming a parent changed the way I feel things, it has completely broken me open to allow in these new and all consuming feelings for my child. And while my heart learned to love in ways I hadn't known possible, it also learned to grieve harder than when I was sixteen and my father was dying in the room on the other side of my bedroom wall. If I thought I had dipped down to the very bottom of the well of loss before, I was wrong, these new feelings ran deeper, cut harder, and I was so ill prepared to take them on.
But just like before, I couldn't live in my grief forever. Nor did I want my daughter to have a relationship with her Grandpa that was built on such sadness and loss, that is not the legacy I want to pass on. I still don't know quite how to build a bridge between my father and Birdie, but I am trying. We keep a photo of him in her bedroom, sometimes she will pick it up and bring it to me and I will tell her stories of him. As she grows I will share with her the things he shared with me, that I cherish the most- camping in Vermont, an early morning fishing on a quiet lake, listening to a Red Sox game on the radio, staying up too late watching TV together when everyone else is asleep.
When we visit my hometown we stop at his grave and she finds little treasures to leave on the stone. Last time we were there she sat very quietly, picking at the grass and drawing in the dirt with her fingers. I couldn't stop myself from crying. She looked at me and I picked her up and explained that I missed her Grandpa Bill very much but that even though he isn't here with us, we carry him in our hearts. Then I put my hand on her heart and I said, "he's right there." And then she reached out and put her little hand on my heart and I said, "yes, he's right there too."