Monday, November 28, 2005

One Year Later

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

Today marks one year since my father was taken from me in a house fire. It feels like just yesterday, yet it also feels as if it happened in a past life. The psychologists tell us that there are phases, stages, levels of grief that you move up like you would steps in a Twelve-Step program. These people have never experienced grief. It doesn't work like that. Any given day can be a roller-coaster ride from denial to acceptance and back again. I can go days without thinking about it, then suddenly a song, a voice, a car, will bring back the memories, bring me face to face with the reality no one would want to face. On one level, I have accepted what has happened; yet on another level, it still doesn't seem real to me. There are (very) occasionally days I cry and days I'm still angry with my father, and with God for taking him from me. Irrational though it is, there are times when I just wish I could go back in time and save my father, times when I curse myself for not trying to find him that horrible morning or the night before. I was in Greensboro for Thanksgiving Break, I could have saved him if only I'd known... I told you it was irrational, but we humans are not rational animals and grief is anything but rational.

I have learned so much more about my father over the past year. Most strikingly, I learned from my aunt Beverly, his sister, that his bad back, which he'd always told me was because of a fall during a nighttime training mission in Alabama soon after he enlisted in the Army, was originally due to a car accident he got into when he was 19. He had to undergo months of recovery and surgery. He'd never mentioned it to me.

If there has been any good that has come out of all this, it is that I have grown much closer to my aunt. As his sister, she has been affected by this at least as much as I have and we have spent many an evening looking over old photographs and talking about everything under the sun. We had never been close before, but now, Beverly (and her daughter Julie in Georgia, my sister Cat, and my half-brother Zachary in Texas) are the only family I've got on the Smith side, and I treasure the moments I spend with each of them.

Time stands still for no one. This year has turned out somewhat better than the last, in that there have been no additional deaths, though I have lost the father figure in my life, and all respect for him, only a year after losing my biological father. I went to Europe to visit my cousin in Paris, truly the best time of my life. I trudge on through exams and finals and the daily grind of "paper or plastic" at work. I have more than enough to occupy myself with than thinking about the past all the time.

I try to go and visit my father every time I'm home. His VA gravestone finally came in only in the last couple of months. It's simple, merely stating his name, the years of his life (May 15, 1959-November 28, 2004), and the branch of the military he served in. My dad always hated long drawn-out goodbyes, and he wouldn't have wanted a large expensive ostentatious gravestone. I like to think he's pleased with it. I know it's "irrational" but I talk to him when I visit the gravesite. Somehow it makes me feel closer to him. I know he can hear what I'm saying. If a psychologist thinks that makes me crazy, or means that I still haven't fully dealt with his death, so be it. I don't intend to stop.

About a month ago, while visting, it struck me that I was angry with God. Well, angry is probably not the right word, more like dumbfounded. I know, as I put in my post last year, that "We may want an answer, but since we are not omnipresent and cannot comprehend the true grandeur of the Lord's creation, neither can we question, or even understand, his motives. 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.' It is certainly not satisfying from an intellectual standpoint. My inner Socrates continually pushes me to boldly challenge every assertion and skeptically examine every aspect of the world around me. But, for today, that answer is enough." Yet, there are days when that answer no longer suffices. Don't get me wrong, I haven't lost faith in God. On one level, I understand and accept as an article of faith. Yet, on another, deeper level, it fails to comfort. I will never know just "why" God chose to take my father at that particular time, so soon after his mother. For that reason, though I have not lost faith in God, there is still a barrier between us, an elephant in the room. Perhaps with time, that will change.

One last thought that struck me the last time I visited: My father owned a cat, Stuey, who died with him and was cremated and buried with him. I visited my father's house five days after the fire. Fire is a strange creature. The kitchen was scorched with flame and the plastic containers were melted, yet the roll of paper towels immediately adjacent was not even touched. It was like this throughout the house, even in the living room, where the fire started. On one bookshelf, the contents of the top shelves had been destroyed, but on the very bottom shelf we found, completely intact, sheathed in plastic bags, Christmas presents for my sister and myself that he had already wrapped and labeled. There were areas of the house the fire did not touch and the smoke did not get too thick, areas like underneath the beds that Stuey could have hid under and survived the fire. Instead, the firemen found him on the living room couch, in my father's arms; unlike my father, Stuey almost certainly died from the flames rather than the fumes. Let no one ever say a cat can't be loyal. It is humbling to think that a cat I never met, a cat who could have hid and saved his own skin, chose to be with my father at the end, even at the cost of his own life. It was highly irrational, but then, what is? It still means the world to me.