I used to call it “The Minefield.” I never knew where the landmines may lie; when they may detonate. In the weeks and months when my grief was young, there were certain things, events or memories that would send me reeling backwards, straight into a pit of sadness for the rest of the day. Certain things, simple things like a shirt Mom used to wear. Or, as I returned to my work as a traveling speech therapist in the nursing home circuit, certain patients would remind me of them. Shortly after they died, I was working with a patient with swallowing problems. I visited with her in her room, asking her the typical questions: “What is hard for you to swallow? Do your dentures fit?”
“Yes,” she said. “My dentures fit fine.” She said this as her dentures started to fall out of her mouth. This is truly funny now, but then, it reminded me that sometimes, Dad’s dentures would come loose and start to fall out. I lost my professional composure. I told her that was all I needed to know that day, and I got out of her room quickly before the detonation. I had to hang it up and go home.
I was hollowed out for the rest of the day.
It used to be that I was incapacitated, stuck in the landmine. Any wrong turn, any misstep, and another would detonate. They were suddenly everywhere, and I was defenseless.
As the months wore on, I found I could rally and gather my strength; I could easily extricate myself from the minefield and avert any further danger, coming out victorious. As the years wore on, I no longer felt trapped. I could let the moments of grief wash over me quickly, and move on to complete my task; finish out the day.
In about 4 weeks, it will be eleven years since our parents died. I rarely have these moments anymore.
I had one last night. I was innocently unloading the dishwasher, getting ready to go to dinner with my husband and son and a friend. I had The CBS Evening News on the kitchen TV, and one of my favorite features came on. One of their special reporters, Steve Hartman, spoke of his most frequent interview subject, a subject who would no longer be featured, as he had just passed away: his father. I stopped unloading dishes to watch. I always enjoy his On The Road With Steve Hartman stories. This one would become my favorite.
He spoke lovingly of his father, a kind, loving and unassuming man who always put others before himself. He didn’t know a stranger, and was adept at striking up conversations with strangers, quickly turning them into friends.
Our dad was that way, too.
He featured interview clips with him, sharing some of his favorite memories of his favorite man on earth.
He then reported that his father had recently died. His mother died several years ago.
His next statement stopped me in my tracks and brought tears. I felt, for a few moments, that it had detonated another landmine. But this time, it was sweet-bitter. I knew it wouldn’t last long.
He said something to this effect: “I was now an orphan. The two people on earth who knew me the longest and loved me the strongest were both gone.”
For one searing moment, I felt ice cold pain burning through my heart. I knew too well how this felt. The grief came roaring back—but just for one moment. I dried my eyes and resumed the dishes, knowing I would have to appear happy for my dinner guests. And I did. They didn’t know I had just hit another landmine.
This morning, my husband and I watched morning TV while we sipped coffee. They featured a chef who spoke of foods that reminded him of home. Something about how home is where your Mom and Dad are. I looked away for just a moment just in case I had to shed a few tears. I didn’t want my husband to see. I bit my lip and kept it together. Perhaps I was still lingering on the edge of the minefield from last night. Perhaps, with all this talk of Valentine’s Day love in the air, I am feeling more sentimental than usual.
This love, the love a parent has for a child, I am convinced, is the strongest love on earth. Perhaps the love the child has for one’s parents is a close second. I have children. I know both forms. These are true love.
LOVE may very well be the most beautiful word in any language. In its purest form, it is what we all live for, how we all keep going. It is what allowed our parents to care for us as infants and children, and how those of us with children care for them. It is the most difficult job on earth. But it doesn’t stop there. I know as a grown woman who now has grown children that it lives on in a new form, in a way that lets us see the beauty of unconditional love that now no longer needs to be nurtured as tenderly and carefully as it did when our children were young. Infant humans require more care and parenting than any other species, so it’s a good thing babies are so lovable.
I remember when my boys were babies, and every new stage they reached made me a bit nostalgic for the one they had left, but I welcomed each new one, deciding that this one is the best one yet. This is where I want them to stay, because it can’t get any better than this. But it just kept getting better, and I kept thinking this as they grew. Now that my boys are grown, part of me still thinks that. I miss some of their earlier days, but seeing the fine young men they have grown into makes me happy they are where they are, and not younger.
I know now that our parents loved us unconditionally as infants, children and adults, just like I love my children. They loved us when we lived with them, and they loved us when we moved out. They loved us as we married and formed our own families. They loved us until the very end. And we loved them back just as fiercely.
Monday of last week was just another day. Nothing out of the ordinary. I worked, keeping my appointments and other obligations. Something kept nagging at me, making me ask myself did I forget something important? It felt as if I was neglecting some responsibility, some required task. Something I had committed to. Late in the day, it hit me. It was the 4th of the month. For the last 131 months, the 4th of the month rarely escapes me.
Our parents died on the 4th of the month. Every month, for the first 18—if I recall correctly—I knew the 4th was coming around again. I knew it would be another monthly anniversary. I believe it was 18 months before it hit me late in the day. Still now, most months it hits me at some point in the day on the 4th: “Oh yeah—it’s the 4th again.” This month was the first one I had to stop and think about it.
I consider that a good thing.
I will never forget that 4th of the month nearly eleven years ago. I will never forget that day, but the pain is no longer a beast in control. I am in control, and my memories are letting more sweet in, and not so much bitter.
They got to go together.
The most pure form of love for another person is that which cares more for them than for oneself.
It was so hard for us, but so easy for them. So easy for them.
We loved them deeply; lost them tragically. But true love never dies, and their love lives on.
Happy Valentine’s Day. If you still have your parents, please let them know how much you love them. While their love for you will live on forever, they won’t be here forever.
This post is dedicated to my parents, of course, and to my three boys as well.