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.”
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.)