Last night I put out my fall decorations. I love fall, especially fall decor. Bright oranges, burnt yellows, harvest greens… nothing feels homier. But last night as I lit apple and cinnamon scented candles, a distinct sadness came over me.
I think the hardest part of missing my dad are the firsts. Anything I do for the first time without him is really tough. The first college football Saturday without my dad’s obnoxious Gator phone calls, the first soccer practice for Bean, the first day of school. All those firsts are painful. But it is the unexpected firsts that are hardest of all.
Pulling my fall decorations out of their neatly packed boxes, my dad was the last thing on my mind for once. I concentrated on wreath placement and candle distribution, and all of a sudden I stopped in my tracks and thought, “This will be our first fall without Dad.”
It’s not that I associate fall with my dad. There was nothing particularly poignant about that season that reminds me directly of him. But to be leaving the season where I last saw him and moving into another reminds me that he’s not going forward with us. It was such a painful realization that I literally had to stand very still until the moment passed me and I could catch my breath again.
Generally speaking, I’m doing pretty good right now. For the past week or so, I could think about my dad and talk about him without crying or becoming too terribly sad. But I have been shying away from anything really personal. I can talk about him in broad strokes. “Dad would have loved this…” or “Remember when Dad did that…” But I had stopped thinking about him as a presence in my life. I didn’t, for example, think about his laugh or the feeling of his hugs or the sound of his voice. I think I was just tired of crying so damn much that whenever those things crept into my mind, I would simply do something else. I had a picture of him as my computer wallpaper and my iPhone screen saver, and I took those down last week. It was just too much to see him or feel him too closely. So, for a couple of days, I took a break from that and thought about him in very impersonal ways.
But putting up those fall decorations brought all of that flooding back to me, and I felt as sad and mournful as I did during the immediate days after his passing.
On my way to work this morning, I heard him talking and laughing. I hadn’t allowed myself to think about that in over a week, but hearing that distinct, joyful voice calling out, “Katharine!” took my breath away. Work itself was uneventful, but also uninspired. I felt exhausted from grief and I haven’t felt that weariness in over a week. After work on my way to pick the kids up from daycare, I could feel my dad sitting next to me. I don’t believe that when we die we hang around earth, so I don’t think it was him sitting there, but I could picture him so clearly sitting in my passenger seat, asking me about my day, about the kids, about Chris. And I had such a strong desire to just pick up my phone and call him. But I couldn’t.
And then, as luck would have it, on our way home from daycare, Bean asked me about him. He hasn’t asked about Granddad in two weeks, but today Dad must have just been on all our hearts because Bean asked me out of nowhere, “Mom, where is Granddad again?” And once again I told him that Granddad had died and now lived in Heaven with God.
“And Lt. Dan?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said, smiling, thinking about how my dad would have laughed his head off at that logic. “Yes, Granddad is in Heaven with your fish, Lt. Dan.”
“When will we see him again?”
“Well,” I said, struggling for words to a question that Bean had not yet asked me before. I didn’t want to tell Bean that we would see Granddad again in Heaven because I didn’t want Bean’s little literal brain to think that we were going to see Granddad again soon. And he’s not yet old enough to get too religious or philosophical with yet. So, I decided to just be straight and simple with him. “We won’t see Granddad again, Buddy. When someone dies, we don’t see them anymore. But we can talk to them when we pray to God and we can miss them and talk about them together. But we won’t see Granddad again.”
Bean sat there for a minute quietly and then said, “I miss him.”
I told him that I missed him, too. “If Granddad were sitting in this seat right now,” I said, patting the very same passenger seat I had just pictured him sitting in not 15 minutes earlier, “I’d tell him about how I went running yesterday for the first time in a long time. What would you tell him?”
“I’d tell him about my soccer game!” Bean squealed. “And I’d show him my soccer ball!”
“Oh, good one!” I said.
“Where is Heaven, mom?” Bean asked very seriously.
“It’s up in the sky, buddy. See those clouds way up there? That’s where Heaven is, and that’s where Granddad lives now.”
“But I can’t see him,” Bean said, looking out his window.
“I know. We can’t see people when they go to Heaven. But I bet Granddad is sitting up in one of those big clouds, just waiting to see you play soccer. Maybe on Saturday at your soccer game, we’ll see some clouds and maybe Granddad will be sitting up in them watching you play!”
“YEAH!” Bean shouted, clearly happy with the idea of a heavenly audience.
“Austin pushed me down on the playground today…” and our conversation quickly changed. Leaving me sitting there with a heavy, heavy heart and tears in my eyes while we talked about Austin being put in time out today at school.
Some days, things are okay and I can laugh and get things done and think about Dad without that panicked feeling. And then on the other days, it is the simplest of tasks, like putting out pumpkin decor, and the most innocent of questions, like “When will we see Granddad again?” that take me right back to the day he died all over again. But each time that fall happens, it takes me a little less time to get myself back upright. I can pull myself together a little quicker. I can smile and take a step forward a little sooner. And maybe that’s how the loss of a loved one lives inside of you.
The fall never hurts any less, but you learn to stand up a little faster.