If there were a theme song to my life, that would be the title: Clutching at Straws...and still Falling.
Grief is a strange thing. Most of the time, now, thirteen years after the fact, it remains at bay. It's always there, normally filed just above "nostalgia" but at times, it takes the forefront, and I am undone. January is especially strange, as it contains the anniversary of Dad's death.
I still remember the words of my mother when I got home from work as she came out of her bedroom to meet me.
"Your Aunt K. called me. Honey, your Dad died at 9:30 tonight. He never woke up."
And sometimes that memory cuts more sharply than a knife.
Slice to the scene at Dad's casket in the Funeral Home. There was no Mass; Dad was Lutheran, and his funeral did not take place in a church. I still remember the dress I wore for the occasion. It was dark forest-green with a floor-length skirt and had a clasp that formed a heart-shape just below my throat. In fact, a green heart-shaped pendant dangled from the clasp, forming a heart-within-a heart.
I also wore the onyx unicorn necklace he'd given me a few years before. Dad had indulged my love of horses whenever he could.
The visitation and funeral took place on the same evening, and not many people came. I wondered if that's why we didn't have his funeral in the local Lutheran church; was it because the funeral home made it look like more people cared about Dad and what had happened to him?
As the family, we were seated in the front row on the left side. I couldn't take my eyes from my Dad in the casket. The last time I'd seen him was nearly four years prior, when he had attended my High School Graduation.
And now he was dead.
I didn't handle grief well; I did not let anyone know how I was feeling. On one hand, my Mom was staring at me constantly, waiting for me to "crack" and if I showed any sign of emotion she was all over me. I couldn't stand it. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to cry on my own terms but I didn't have a single moment to do this, and so I was forced to constantly squeeze back the tears.
I still remember standing in the "receiving line" at the funeral home, greeting those coming to offer their condolences. They asked what had happened. Was it a heart attack? Was it a stroke?
My brother made an attempt at telling the truth: "Well, the short of it is...he was an alcoholic". That was the last time he spoke this reality.
The person having made the inquiry stared at him, silenced, stony-faced, not wanting to empathize with or condemn the result of the behavior of which he had offered his acquiescence and direct cooperation in the time he had known the deceased. He didn't want to look at his own belly or smell the liquor on his own breath, and then look upon the demise that awaited him.
We are all mortal.
I stood next to my brother all evening. Amazing. The sibling that had tortured me throughout my childhood had become my rock. I think it was that event that truly made us friends. It bonded us, because we both realized that we'd have to go through this again someday, hopefully not so tragically. Hopefully with more answers and fewer platitudes, more reality and fewer soundbites to please the visitors who really didn't want to know the truth.
On the way home from the funeral, my brother gave me a tape of a group that he'd recently found, and he made a copy of it for me. The words they sang were disturbingly about Dad. And my brother had printed some of the lyrics for me, and when I began that semester at college (which began the day of Dad's funeral), I hung the lyrics on the wall, and to this day, they, and the tune, reverberate throughout my life.
And if you ever come across us don't give us your sympathyYou can buy us a drink and just shake our handsAnd you'll recognise by the reflection in our eyesThat deep down inside we're all one and the sameWe're clutching at strawsWe're still drowningClutching at straws
...and still drowning.
Sometimes I think we're still drowning, and I KNOW there's a look in our eyes, I know there are others who suffer the same thing. It's a tragic loss, but right afterwards I returned to school and delved into my studies, trying to live life.
That was the semester I lost my faith. Clutching at straws, wanting to find God, but finding the only straw offered was the one heresy that made me let go.
Within a few weeks, I went to the computer lab and began writing, because it's the only thing I could do. A couple friends stopped by while I wrote, and finding me in tears, they wandered away, not knowing how to respond or what to say or how to help. They couldn't have done anything to help me; the best thing I could have done, I was already doing. I was writing. Maybe I'll post the story I wrote. Maybe I won't.
It holds nothing back, and there are those who can maybe identify. But it doesn't tell the whole story, because it's a story that has continued, still affects me, still taints who I am, and perhaps that's the way it's supposed to be.
And across the years, I can still remember riding home in the back seat of my uncle's old Lincoln Continental, crossing Wisconsin in the dead of winter, my head against the cold pane of glass, watching the world go by. And I couldn't help but hear my Dad's lament through the headphones, and I blamed myself. And my unfallen tears became ice behind my eyes, and those crystals turned to anger that didn't leave me until the following October.
Because, if Daddy could take a raincheck, so could I.
'Cos I know what I feel, know what I want I know what I amDaddy took a raincheck' Cos I know what I want, know what I feel I know what I needDaddy took a raincheck, your daddy took a raincheckAin't no one in here that's left to blame but meBlame it on me, blame it on meWell the toughest thing that I ever did was talk to the kids on the phoneWhen I heard them asking questions I knew that you were all aloneCan't you understand that the government left me out of workI just couldn't stand the looks on their faces saying, "What a jerk"So if you want my address it's number one at the end of the barWhere I sit with the broken angels clutching at straws and nursing our scarsBlame it on me, blame it on me,Sugar mice in the rain, your daddy took a raincheck
Do I blame myself now? No. But I hear the echo of my Dad's own broken heart, and I question what happened to my family, and why. Only God knows. Only God was present, and only He is present now.
But sometimes, in the depths of the night, the memories come back, they haunt me, and my grief returns as though it all happened yesterday. And my tears are no less meaningful now than they were 13 years ago.
** Clutching at Straws, Marillion, 1987
** Sugar Mice, Marillion, (1987)