On the sixth week after her father passed away, my oldest daughter presented me with a family portrait.
I told her I liked it very much. I like how Dad is standing tall, in front of the children, in a protective stance. I like how all the kids are huddled together, bonding, perhaps, in their collective memories.
I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”
She answered, “Because we just don’t know how we feel yet. We are ready to be laughing or crying at any moment. We just don’t know.”
On the sixth week after her father passed away, my youngest daughter presented me with a drawing.
I told her l liked it very much. I like how even though Mom and Dad are separated by space, they continue to share the warmth of a radiant heart enveloped in sunshine. I like how there is heaven and earth, stars and sun, and a calming symmetry between them.
I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”
She answered, “Because all the really important things you feel are on the inside.”
The Greenville Journal wrote a couple of articles related to social media and the role it plays in helping families and communities grieve and support one another during difficult times. I am honored to have been interviewed about how our global village supported us through Mary Hazel and Russell’s illnesses and continues to support us now.
It was shower night. (We aim for every other night as my children protest when I suggest they clean themselves every single day. I pick my battles.)
I was putting away laundry in the twins’ room when I heard P call out to me, in the way that your kids do the second you walk out of the room, “Moooooooom?” Moooooooom?!”
“I’m right here,“ I answered loudly. Sometimes, lately, the kids have wanted me to be a little closer. “What is it?”
“Can you come in here?” she asked.
“Sure,” I surrendered, as I piled the remaining clean laundry back into the empty basket. I poked my head around the door, making sure not to let out all the hot steam from the cozy marble-tiled bathroom. I have been frequently reprimanded. “What do you need?”
“I need you to come in. Like all the way in. Please?” she added.
I scooted in, barefoot, and navigated around the broken tile that I’ve been meaning to replace for years. I perched on the nearby shower chair which remains in the bathroom though nobody needs it anymore. “What’s up?” I asked.
My modest daughter peeled back the fogged-up shower curtain and stood there with the hot water beating down on her back. She was holding a slim crescent-shaped bar of soap and looked like she had seen a ghost.
“Mom,” she whispered. “Dad used this bar of soap.”
I smelled peppermint, tea tree oil, and a little lavender. I took a deep breath. There were several long seconds of silence, but the understanding washed over me, too.
“He used this on his body, while he was still alive,” she said. “How strange that the bar of soap is still here. And Daddy is not.”
More silence. More deep breathing. Nodding.
“Mom, I don’t think we should use it anymore. I think we should save it. It was Dad’s soap. This is how he smelled.”
I told her that I had been having similar thoughts. When I emptied the trash from the bedroom for the first time after he died, I took inventory: a banana peel, an empty yogurt cup, a napkin, a tea bag. His last snack. And I thought, “How strange that the banana peel is still yellow.”
How strange that his phone is still charged, waiting for a text. How strange that his slippers are still poised under the bed ready to receive his tired feet. How strange that he still gets mail. How strange that the grocery list he started on a pink Post-it Note still waits in the drawer. How strange that the cat our daughter chose from the Humane Society on her eighth birthday outlived him. How strange that his laptop is still plugged into the same outlet, where he wrote his last journal entry, on the day before his heart stopped. How very strange.
On the afternoon I squeezed Russell’s right hand, and the palliative care doctor held his left, his voice cracked when he responded, “How strange…” He had just been told that the medicine was no longer working. “How strange that I never will finish writing my second novel. How strange that I won’t see the children graduate,” he hoarsely whispered. “How strange that I won’t be around to take care of my mother and father.”
And it is all just so strange. The negative space. The echoes. The ripples. The feeling that he has just been in the hospital a little longer than usual but will return any day now. The illusion that he is still whole in my mind, when I close my eyes.
We are only a month into this grieving process. I expect that eventually we will put away his razor. We will sort through his clothes. We will consume the last of the groceries we bought while he was still with us. And then, I’m sure, there will be a completely new and different kind of strange.
Eventually, I realized my daughter, soap sliver in hand, had been shivering at the shower threshold for some minutes. We had been staring right through each other, lost in our own strange thoughts. I got up from the plastic chair, held her wrinkled hands, and drew her small, wet body into a clean, warm towel where we stayed until the shaking stopped.
I wonder how long soap will keep in a Ziploc bag.
C: “Mom, where is Dad? I mean, physically. Where is he right now?”
Me: “Well, Buddy, his heart was too big and his body got tired. His spark just flew right on out of there. I was holding his hand when it happened and I saw it.”
C: “So if his body doesn’t work anymore, does that mean he can’t use his brain? Dad always said when he couldn’t use his brain anymore, it was time to move on.”
Me: “Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think it works in the same way we’re used to.”
C: “Can he remember things?”
Me: “I like to think so.”
C: “Is he conscious?”
Me: “I think it’s a different kind of state. Something we can’t really understand yet.”
C: “If he’s not conscious and his brain doesn’t work like it used to, I’m scared he doesn’t remember me. And if he doesn’t know who I am, then it makes me feel different.”
Me: “Different how?”
C: (Pause) “You know how you look in the mirror every day and you see your reflection, right? Like every day. There you are, just like you expect.”
C: “Well, now I kind of feel like I don’t really have that reflection anymore. Like when Dad stopped being able to remember me, my reflection kind of just disappeared.”
Me: “Oh my goodness.”
Me: “Not only do you look just like your father, you’re starting to think like him, too.”
C: “Is that a good thing?”
Me: “It is. Just remember, your Dad is always with you. You carry him around in your heart and in your memories, and I feel he is with us.”
C: “I know all that, Mom. I know that when I miss him I can remember him; I just…wish he could remember me.”
Me: (Hugs for hours.)
The first time I met Russell, almost twenty years ago, he had just locked himself out of his house. And he was not happy about the situation. Over the course of the next two decades, he managed to lock himself out of the house just slightly more often than he misplaced his keys inside the house. Which was pretty often. It was an ongoing joke among our close friends. He received more than a few ridiculous hide-a-key tchotchkes for birthday presents. Our lawn, at times, resembled the Jockey Lot on a bustling Saturday afternoon, covered in gaudy decoys, like concrete frogs and Chia pets. (The only things missing were some boiled peanuts and funnel cake, both of which Russell was extremely fond.) Eventually, we just stopped locking the door. We joked we had nothing worth stealing anyway. The things that mattered most weren’t things, after all. Russell was happy knowing that he could always go home when he wanted to and there were no more obstacles preventing him from doing so.
Russell was always happy being home. He was comfortable in his chair, his spot on the couch, his place at the kitchen sink washing dishes and gazing out the window at the songbirds and daydreaming about his “stories”. He was comfortable with his thoughts. He was not afraid of the quiet. He was also, however, a great lover of people, of their energy and their unique ideas and perspectives. He loved to learn; I’ll never forget the day he first discovered this little website called Wikipedia. It took the place of his gold-leafed set of hardback encyclopedias that his mother reports he used to drag to the bathroom when he was potty training at the tender age of two. He was the epitome of a Renaissance Man; when he was in his twenties he rebuilt the engine to his 1967 baby blue Mustang (twice, actually) by reading the manual. He knew the etymology of every word he spoke and whether its root was Latin or Greek. And now, so do our children. He loved a good salon, explained helpfully by our friend, Wikipedia, as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace’s definition of the aims of poetry, ‘either to please or to educate’.” These were some of the values Russell held most dear – pleasing, educating, and just being at home in the company of like-minded souls.
Several years ago, Poppy wrote a poem at school about home that I’d like to share:
Where I’m From
by Poppy H. (age 7)
I am from a house that has a smooth front porch and scratchy carpet.
I am from a house that has lots of toys and cats.
And a dog.
I am from a noisy radio.
I always hear the news.
I am from Dad telling me stories every night.
We love all the stories.
I am from me playing the piano C to G over and over again.
I am from root beer and saucy pizza.
(It is so cheesy.)
I am from the smell of cat litter.
And also fresh crusty quiche and berries so juicy.
I am from warm hugs and kisses.
I am from Christmas,
Being the first one up and the last one asleep.
I am from cancer check-ups.
I am from laughing all the time.
I am from Slackajack and Butter – my favorite toys.
I am from love.
When Russell and I first met, we spent a lot of time adventuring, sometimes quite far away from home. Though he was born with a particularly rare and progressive congenital condition (affectionately known as Russell Hinson Bad Leg Disease), we enjoyed ten years (give or take) of some pretty amazing outings. We discovered the love of long-distance road biking together and looked forward to the Bakery Ride to Saluda every Sunday and the cross-state tour every spring. We participated in triathlon relays together, with our friend Vanessa, where Russell held down the bike leg like a pro. It was during a trip to a race in Maui when Russell proposed. We also enjoyed many a meandering hike, where I further learned of Russell’s curiosity about the natural world. He not only stopped to smell the roses, he stopped to watch skinks (which are not the same as lizards) scuttle up trees, he stopped to examine the mechanics of a solitary walking-stick bug, he stopped to look up leaves in his Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs so he could learn and memorize the scientific names of every tree in the southeastern woodlands, as well as the songbirds who lived there. (Cardinalis cardinalis is the only one I can actually remember off the top of my head.) During one particular favorite vacation to the Pacific Northwest, he lead the charge to the top of the Continental Divide, encouraging both me and my parents to stand atop a glacier field where only few others endured the journey to enjoy the view. We used to say about Russell that all who wander are not lost.
Even before Russell’s mobility became a challenge, he was a methodical and deliberate soul. His attention to detail was often at the expense of punctuality. He could easily spend two hours in the shower. He evened out the laces on his tied shoes so they were equal on both sides. He had the most impressively-groomed eyebrows in the house. He didn’t simply do things to do them. He took careful measure in the doing. One autumn day, I chided him for taking all afternoon to rake a small patch of leaves in the front yard. “Wouldn’t it be faster just to use a leaf blower?” I asked. He answered, “I wasn’t just raking leaves. I was working on my novel.”
My daughter said to me just the other day, “I sure am going to miss waiting for Dad.”
Unfortunately, the week our baby girl was born, Russell underwent a laminectomy (another word I learned from Russell) to remove a tumor in his spinal cord. This procedure bookmarked the point in time when the kids’ daddy developed his “boo-boo leg”, when he started walking with a distinguished cane, when he was no longer able to ride his bicycle or hike up mountains. This marked the time when Russell was home.
And Russell was home.
When the children came home from school, flinged their backpacks in the corner and threw off their shoes, they knew dad was home. When I took my shift carpooling neighborhood friends to and from (fill in the blank), I could drop off one of the possums and know that dad was home. While I enjoyed running most mornings, the kids were gently awakened by their dad because he was home.
Over the last few days, the kids and I have repeatedly noticed the echo of their father’s presence at home. Poppy observed, “I miss the way Daddy cleaned the bathroom sink after we brushed our teeth.” Mary Hazel remembered how he used to happily torture them with the exaggerated attack of “Monkey Paw and Raven Claw”, a tickling ritual that filled the family room with raucous laughter and loud squeals. Charlie wished yesterday that his father were here to watch Avatar with him on Saturday mornings because he was the only one who understood the epic battle between the Fire Nation and the Earth Benders at Ba Sing Se. Because Russell was home.
Russell was the sounds of home. The frequent tapping of the keyboard. The walker shuffling down the hall in the early pre-dawn hours because of stupid insomnia. The radio always being tuned to NPR even when nobody was in the room because the cats might get lonely. The sound of the Eastern towhees when he opened the windows on a spring day. “Drink your teeeaaaaa!” The microwave beeping periodically throughout the day as he heated up his tea, because it took him sometimes all day to fully enjoy one cup of the gentleman’s coffee. The lock on the door clicking not once, but always twice, at night when he put the house to sleep. The score to Fiddler on the Roof. Gillian Welch singing sad ol’ songs on his favorite Pandora station. The streaming water at the kitchen sink every time even one piece of silverware was left for longer than a minute. He was “Hey Baby and Hey Buddy” every time he greeted the twins. He was “Hey Lucy. How’s it going?” whenever the neighbor girl from across the street came over to play. He was “Sweet dreams. It’s time to close your eyes now,” when Mary Hazel pulled out just one more book to read before bed.
Russell was the smells of home. Dinner being warmed in the oven upon our return home from late soccer practices and chorus rehearsals. Fresh kitty litter in the laundry room. Dryer sheets. He was the smell of red wine and chocolate, and sometimes Southern Comfort. The fire log burning and crackling on the first chilly fall night. The smell of balsam and cedar and noble currant candles lit by his bedside. Deodorant soap and coconut shampoo.
Russell was the sights of home. He was standing at the front door on school day mornings waving goodbye to the children despite the difficulty he had getting there. Tidy piles of paperwork. A laptop that was never closed. An electric razor always plugged into the bathroom outlet because he shaved every day, even if he expected to see no one. Neat piles of laundry on the sofa, always a work in progress. His owl collection. His book collection. His birthday card collection, because he kept them all. He was consistently the last person the babies saw when they closed their eyes at night because he always promised to put up their rails and check on them “one more time”.
For the last couple of years, Russell was indeed home. And because of that, Russell was home.
We struggle to move one single thing that belonged to him because then it just wouldn’t be the same as it was when Russell was home. And, of course, how could it be? But aren’t we the lucky ones for the memories? The memories of a father who was always home, never away on business, never not having time for bedtime stories, never saying, “I’m too busy right now.” Aren’t we the lucky ones because he helped create a secure, loving, nest from which our fledglings can be brave and take flight, when the time comes. Aren’t we the lucky ones for knowing a man whose consistent, thoughtful, and kind ways are forever etched into the foundation of what we know as home? Poppy, Charlie, and Mary Hazel will always know what “home” feels like.
In large part, because Russell was home and, no matter what, he can never be locked out again.
My oldest daughter, who is not fond of change, gets the post-Christmas blues even more profoundly than our Elf on the Shelf when he is boxed up and stuffed back in the closet for the next eleven months. (If she knew this was Blackberry’s perennial fate, rather than returning to his cozy home with Santa at the North Pole, she might never recover.)
She says a prayer for Blackberry every December 24th because not only does his departure signal the beginning of the end of the holiday, she genuinely misses him and the magic he brings. She cries every year when the Christmas tree is left bashfully naked on the curb to be manhandled by city workers on recycling day. There are fewer tears with each passing year, but still. We extend Christmas as long as possible by waiting until Epiphany to take down the decorations. We bake cookies, build a fire, and recount our favorite holiday memories. The children also look forward to opening the very last present under the tree on Twelfth Night. Mostly we do this in an effort to ease our daughter back into the mundane world of routine as gradually as possible, where there is typically a stark lack of magic and wonder.
Last week, I rubbed her back and sang her to sleep because she was sad about returning to school. When I asked her why that made her sad, she whispered, “Time is just whooshing by and I won’t be little for much longer.” She is eight.
My instinct is to tell her not to worry. I realize this only makes her more anxious because she cannot help it.
In an attempt to cheer her up, I reminded her that we were planning a wonderful summer vacation with the extended family. She perked up a little.
“So, we’re going back to Pawleys Island again?” she asked hopefully.
“Oh, well…not this year,” I answered carefully. “We need a bigger house since there are more of us going.”
“So we’re not staying at Seacliff again?” she asked.
Seacliff, the splintered, weathered, oceanfront house we have visited so many times with the kids, is not fancy. It is exactly the opposite of fancy with its multitude of faded sticky notes advising you to jiggle the toilet handle so the water doesn’t “jump out” upon flushing, instructing you to lubricate the curtain rod with soap before attempting to take a shower, and warning you to never, ever, ever move the special screwdriver from atop the unreliable thermostat. (I am not exactly sure why, but I am not going to be the first one to find out.) Seacliff, the place we love to tease in the way only you can mock one of your own siblings, was the single house we could afford – in the offseason.
“No, Baby, not this year. We are going to stay in a cute house at St. Simons Island instead,” I encouraged. “It’s called Avonlea.”
“Oh,” she said flatly.
“Do you want to see pictures?” I offered.
“No, not really. I am sure it is fine.”
“Why are you sad?” I asked.
“Because it will be different,” she replied.
“Different doesn’t have to be bad,” I said. “There is a pool and bunk beds and a golf cart…”
“I understand,” she said. “But that house doesn’t have all our memories in it.”
I couldn’t let her know how much I understood exactly what she meant. If she sensed my wistfulness for the time when my toddling twins first ran down the beach, holding hands and laughing as the wind tangled their hair, I would never have a chance to convince her otherwise. This was the first place we vacationed after the baby’s first clean cancer scans. Countless fortified sandcastles destroyed by high tides, sweet Jack and Ruby who vacationed next door, ghost stories of The Gray Man; I had to check myself.
“That’s true,” I countered. “But we have the opportunity to make new memories, different ones.”
“Can you show me the pictures of the old house instead?” she sniffed. I obliged.
“See that blue couch? That’s where DanDaddy always reads us bedtime stories. And that screened-in porch is where we always eat our Cheerios in the mornings. And there’s the outside shower where we wash our treasures before we spread them out on the porch to dry. And remember the year you had Mary Hazel in your tummy and you didn’t even know it yet? That was the year we danced to The Beatles in the living room. And every night, we walked across the road to the creek to see the sunset and ring the bell on the dock. Remember, Mom?”
“Yes, I remember all those things,” I nodded and smiled. “What wonderful memories we made!”
“I don’t want it to be different,” she said. “I don’t want things to change.”
“We can’t stop things from changing,” I said. “We can remember the special things and look forward to new adventures at the same time.”
“I feel like the old house will be sad if we don’t come back.”
I wanted to tell her that the house wouldn’t know, that it doesn’t have feelings, but I didn’t.
“I’m afraid that I will forget everything,” she said.
What can a mother say to a daughter whose soul is older than weathered Seacliff itself?
Sometimes, I find myself overwhelmed when trying to take the weight of the world off my daughter’s shoulders. But I think the world is probably better off being inhabited by tender souls who feel too much. These are the artists, the thinkers, the poets, the saints. Would I take away all her worry in order for her to be a happier little girl? As her mother, yes, I probably would. But sometimes, even mothers do not get to choose.
I hope my daughter will grow up to understand one day that it wasn’t the house that made those vacations special; it was the fact that she loved and felt and noticed all the things she held important. Knowing she is blessed with her father’s keen memory and her mother’s sentimentality, I am hoping to read her memoir before I leave this world, knowing the reward for her anxiety just might be a beautiful thing.
Until then, I will continue to sweep up the piles of dried pine needles and wait until my daughter is happily distracted on a play date before I drag this year’s Christmas tree to the curb and throw away the last of the wrapping paper.