When my dad died 4.5 years ago he left instructions about how we were to mourn. Specifically, we weren’t supposed to mourn. He wanted a party with beer, music and laughter. He got that party and there was plenty of all three of those things. But I’m still a salty 15 year old at heart. I don’t like being bossed by my dad and I don’t react well to it even when the bossing is coming from beyond the grave.
I mourned actively.
I sent one of those stupid sky lanterns into the air and it blew into a tree. I wore his old Cheap Trick t shirt for weeks. I listened to songs by Johnny Cash and Wille Nelson and I wept (I avoided Patsy Cline, I’m not an idiot). And now, even though my father was neither Catholic nor particularly religious, and even though I am neither of those things either, I light candles for him in elaborate churches and cathedrals.
In Bruges I chose the gaudiest most gilded spot in the entire cathedral (no small task) and I put a Euro in the little box and I prayed to the Virgin Mary. I grew up Lutheran though, so I probably did it wrong. That would have bugged him too, he was a man who liked jobs done right. We’ve been to Venice twice since his death and he gets prayers there too. Give me an ornate church and I will light a candle just to spite my dad.
Not really. I tell myself that’s why I do it, but I also do it to ask for grace. I do it to let him know I love him. To remind myself of him and take a moment surrounded by opulence to think of a man who loved his family and beer and country music and HAM radio.
This May my old roommate and good friend went into the hospital. She is unlikely to leave the hospital. My dad taught us to play Texas Hold ‘Em while smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer in the back room of our old apartment in 2004. Much like I was on the morning of Nov 13 2010 I’m sitting at home this morning waiting for bad news after a message that her condition worsened last night. These last few weeks of waiting and wondering from afar how she’s doing have been unfair and impossible. I feel like I’m going through all 7 stages of grief simultaneously and she’s still there, laying in a hospital bed with machines helping her breathe.
We were in Venice a week ago. While we were there we went to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore to see the enormous mesh sculptures of Jaume Plensa. A head and a hand that appeared, to me, to be offering a blessing. I put 2 Euros in a box and I lit two candles in front of the Virgin and first I asked her to watch out for my friend, I asked her to keep her safe and surround her in light. And then I lit a candle and prayed to my dad, who is not a saint and as mentioned above was not Catholic. But I prayed to him anyhow. I asked him to help, if he could, if that’s a thing dead parents can do. To sit with her now, and if necessary, to show her the ropes after, in wherever the after is. To give her a cigarette and talk to her about whatever you talk about in that place.
Then I went outside and I gave my kid a hug and as I looked across the lagoon at San Marco I tried not to be too angry at either of them, my dad and my friend, I tried to send glowing loving thoughts to them, particularly to her. I’m trying to do that even now, but I’m listening to Leonard Cohen covers so mostly I’m crying and thinking selfish thoughts.
I’m thinking of how beautiful and talented and funny she is. I’m thinking of the time we sat on some rocks at a little beach in Roger’s Park drinking beer and telling jokes in terrible English accents. I’m thinking of the day she came to my room and handed me a ring she’d made me and then 6 months later demanded it back before handing me a new one telling me the old one was terrible. I’m thinking of sitting on the back porch with her, barbecuing dinner and talking about everything. I’m thinking about her wedding on a tropical beach and how afterwards we all laid on lounge chairs and stared at the huge,shimmering moon. I’m thinking about going to see the Pixies with her and her sour face when they played Here Comes Your Man and how I still made her laugh by jumping up high in the air because I love that song at least 10 times as much as she hates it. And I’m thinking about how she’s still present tense but any second now I may get a message that changes her to past tense and that cannot be right no matter how many benevolent spirits are there to hold her hand. It can’t be right and it won’t ever be right and I hate it.
So right now, right this second, I’m going to think of her at brunch as she was 12 years ago, looking at me across the table over good coffee, fresh orange juice and an exceptional plate of Eggs Benedict. I going to think of her glowing in the sunshine of a beautiful summer day in Chicago and I’m going to think of her joyful and laughing. And I’m going to hold onto that for as long as I can.