On February 8 of this year, just as I was finishing up a yoga class, my husband burst into the studio with three words, “Sarah. Your dad.” Thus began a furious drive to the emergency room at a hospital in Westminster, where I arrived a half hour after he was gone, greeted by my mom and brother, and the three of us “clung to each other, crying for dad, the man we loved” as Helen Macdonald described a similar scene in her book H is for Hawk, a memoir about the sudden loss of her own father.
Since that evening, grief has been my new constant companion. It has affected my cognitive ability, as Joan Didion describes in The Year of Magical Thinking. There have been days where thinking anything of substance has been impossible. It has left me swimming in memories in photographs–my own version of Didion’s “vortex effect.” I spent the first few weeks after his death going through literally every single photo of my father that I could find and wove them–all 1000 of them–into a photo slide show for family and friends. In this way, I think I was doing what Elizabeth Alexander described as her purpose for writing about her husband in The Light of the World: “And so I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.” Looking at the photos kept Dad close, made memories salient, allowed me to hold on to him though he was just so suddenly gone.
I sought to make sense of the hole. In my world, my dad had always been terra firma as Elizabeth Alexander describes the role parents play–”terra firma, to stand, to be planted in the earth” like a 100-year-old oak tree that stands through storms that knock down most other trees. Though Dad’s presence had changed in recent years due to his Parkinson’s-related condition, the fact that he was there was resolute. Though a lot of things in my life have shifted in my nearly 43 years, the existence of my father was constant, assured, reliable. I am Sarah and my father is Ted Zerwin. This was a truth never to be questioned. Terra firma.
Until it wasn’t anymore.
The loss was “obliterative,” as Didion describes, “dislocating to both body and mind.” She explains that “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” And that has been true for me. Following the shock of the loss, and long after the funeral is over, Didion describes an “unending absence that follows, a void.” That’s where I am right now, trying to understand it, trying to wrap my head around what it means that my father is gone. How do I move forward carrying such loss?
Macdonald explains what she learned in the wake of her father’s death: “You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps.” Yes–holes, absences, losses. These are part of human life. We love and then there is loss. How do we grow around and between the gaps? Love. More of it. Kindness. Patience with ourselves and others. Gratitude. For Macdonald, this lesson came in training Mabel, the hawk she adopted following her father’s death. Only through love, patience, kindness, and gratitude was she able to forge an authentic connection with the hawk. This helped her to grow around and between the gaps of her loss.
Alexander said of her husband’s death: “I could not have kept [his] death from happening, and from happening to us. It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us.” We love and then there is loss. And what I glean from my loss are the lessons my father taught me: love boldly, give unsparingly, seek to make a difference in the lives of others. And though the grief will never leave, people tell me it will get easier to carry.