The night my father died, I did not sleep. My mind was humming with the kind of things you think about after your dad dies. But mostly I was thinking about how to tell my children. How to tell them that everything had changed but that everything would be okay. How to counter the blows which their faith in God, still nascent and unquestioning, would suffer. How to protect their innocence, their joy.
I sat on a sofa, waiting for them to come around the corner. My 7 year was the first one down, his hair askew, holding his blanket around his neck like a superhero cape. The child whom, a few hours earlier, I had held while the paramedics tried to resuscitate my father. The child who believed the reassuring words I had whispered in his ear to muffle the sounds of the static on their radios. He rounded the corner cautiously, afraid of what he might find, yet positive, in the way that only a child can be, that there was a happy ending. My 5 year old followed him, blissfully unaware that the world he knew when he fell asleep was no longer the same.
I was cognizant that I had to be the one to shatter their sense of security and make them feel safe again, all in the same breath. In that moment, I had to be not a daughter reeling from shock and pain, but a mother. This loss was not mine alone. It belonged to them too. It belonged to my mother, my brother, my husband, and so many more.
We all have roles that require more of us than we give to ourselves. Not because we are martyrs. But because there are people and events that are bigger than we are.
There has not been much in the last 18 months that felt like it belonged to me alone.
Except for Virginia basketball.
The past two seasons I have worn the mantle of this team the way my son wears his blanket. Amid the raucous screams and electric atmosphere of John Paul Jones Arena, covered with popcorn remnants and sticky substances that I can only hope were spilled drinks, I found peace. Onto that court I poured all the elation and fear and heartbreak that had no outlet in my daily life. A sacred space where I was in communion with my father and my children. My past and my present.
What gets you through life falling apart is the knowledge of how good it will feel when everything finally falls into place. I know it’s silly, but in the back of my mind all season long was an unwavering belief that this was the season we were destined to win it all. A perfect ending to my story arc of grief. A sign from my father, reminding me he has been sitting right next to me all along.
If last season was my catharsis, this season was supposed to be my resurrection. My redemption.
But there is not always a perfect ending. Our stories are not neatly delineated like chapters in a book. There is no real beginning and no real ending.
The season ended on Easter Sunday in an improbable defeat. The irony was not lost on me.
As before, this loss was not mine alone. And so I picked up my children, hysterical in their grief, flailing in their anger, and let them curse the universe for the fate which had befallen them. I didn’t tell them they were being dramatic. I didn’t remind them it was just a came. I knew they, like me, were mourning far more than the outcome of one game.
Grief is not a neat timeline. Each loss accumulates and builds on those that have come before. It continues to eke out, sometimes in quiet drips of loneliness and sometimes in violent explosions of anguish, usually when we least expect it.
When they finally fell asleep, exhausted from crying but still taking hiccuping, gasping breaths the way they did when they were babies, I walked into my room and fell onto the bed. And I cried. Not the usual big, sloppy, heaving sobs, but silent tears that dripped down my nose and fell sideways onto my comforter.
I cried not because we lost, but because it was over. No more celebrating with my boys’ hands in mine past their bedtime on a school night. No more shrieks of joy. No more spilled popcorn on my orange pants.
I cried because there had been no sign from my father that my storyline of loss and love had finally come to a close. I cried because I remembered that you cannot will something to be just because you believe.
I woke up in the morning my hair askew, my face creased from the lines in the comforter, wearing my orange pants like a superhero wears his uniform. I watched my children come around the corner cautiously, their eyes still puffy and red. I too felt bruised and battered. I too felt the exhaustion of grief once more. But I also felt something else. I felt…grateful.
In his post-game interview, Coach Tony Bennett referenced an old proverb: Weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning. That is not to say that we expel our grief in a torrent of salty tears and we are magically healed the next morning.
We are always trying to fix heartbreak, to find a distraction. We put timelines on our grief and measure success by how it ebbs. We think that experiencing joy or happiness in the aftermath is a sign that our heartbreak is over.
And I think we’ve gotten it all wrong.
When we try to numb the pain of heartbreak, we numb the love that underscores it. And when we do that, we miss out on something. The very love that pierces our heart is also the balm that heals it.
Love and pain, anger and gratitude, fear and hope – these are not notches on a timeline to be checked off methodically in our quest to eradicate heartbreak. They are all present together. A communion of our past and present. That is the place where we find gratitude for the love that gives us so much more than the loss takes away.
That is where, today, I found this. An orange rose inexplicably blooming in my garden after three years of being dormant.
Maybe my dad didn’t give me the sign that I wanted. Maybe he gave me the sign that I needed. That you don’t always get the storybook ending. Your life doesn’t always go according to plan. Your heart will break a million times over.
But joy comes in the morning….