Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

Change of Heart

Sometimes a deeply held story changes in a heartbeat. Or the cessation of one.

Christopher, a fellow parent in our intimate Waldorf community, died of a heart attack a few days after his 54th birthday while preparing dinner for his family. As we’d each had a daughter in the same class for 13 years, I knew Christopher in simple, consistent ways: attending parent meetings; co-volunteering at school events; dressed-up and handsome at the annual Spring Benefit, his beloved wife, K., a Waldorf kindergarten teacher, transformed in evening attire.

Over time, we’d shared more direct conversations about our daughters, as they navigated first employment, shared trips to music festivals, and the “what’s next after high school” trajectory. I found him caring, thoughtful, and articulate. In particular, I witnessed and felt how much he loved his three daughters.

I learned Christopher had died on my way to work, my car pulled over to take the call from my husband. When he asked: “Where are you?” in the universal ‘brace yourself’ tone, I immediately asked about our daughters. He told me in one, short sentence. Then paused.

Stunning loss is always the same. The words initially crash against belief, not permeating, then linger in the air, bouncing back and forth between belief and the glass wall of denial. Eventually, as has to happen when enough belief penetrates, is utterly inescapable, the tears and sobs follow. When the first response begins to fade, your vision clearing, the landscape is forever changed. One friend down. And most importantly, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a best friend, all down, and all those loved ones grieving in disbelief and despair.

Later on, I envisioned Christopher as he woke up on the day of his death. Innocent. Another Monday. I wondered how he started the day, what clothes he chose, his last moments and interactions with his wife and daughters. All familiar and without the knowledge he was walking a final path, that these simple actions and interactions were finite, precious. Nothing could be unwritten or changed. Never suspecting that before the night ended, before dinner could be shared, he would be gone. Irrationally, a part of me wanted him to know, to be able to fill these hours with as much love as he might have wanted to. Later on, a part of me wanted to remember this every morning: be loving, present, and grateful. Remember that we all eventually wake up to the day of our death.

When you reach your 50’s, mortality is no longer a future thought, a faraway someday. People begin to die. Yes, usually aging parents, but yes, also peers. For some of us, the experience of mortality arrives earlier in life. My father died when I was 8½, a year and a half after my parents divorced, and so mortality was carved into my young life, a permanent reminder of impermanence.

This first significant loss was initially imbued with innocence and magical thinking. When I was told my father had died, I could only focus on getting a new dress, a novel experience in my life. “Your Daddy is dead” was an amorphous idea. Until then, death happened in children’s games and “the dead” popped back up and ran around the house together giggling. Or moved onto a new game. But when I arrived at the funeral home and was shown the coffin, I understood; there was no looking away from death, the reality, or mortality, the concept. I knew my father was in that box and was never coming out. After that, death was never again a game, a magical idea, an event in a fairy tale. Death arrived and took away the most important people. At a very young age, I learned to watch out.

Just like with Christopher’s death, but much more personally and innocently at 8 ½ years old, the tears and sobs crashed through. My grief was raw, loud, and clearly uncomfortable for the adults around me. So much so, I was removed from the funeral home and taken outside to be with a family friend.

My father, like Christopher, had died of a heart attack. But due to his living circumstances (residing in a duplex next to his widowed sister), he was not found for a couple of days. As a result, the casket was closed during the service and only my older siblings were allowed to have a final viewing. I was told I was “too young” and this decision to separate me from my siblings ripped away any last vestiges of support or containment. Given my age and family’s instability, my older siblings were my pack, a clung-to web of safety, and I did everything I could to be with them, a part of their collective.

Ever-after, I told myself that this decision marked the trailheads that cleaved the separation of our paths, my siblings in one direction, I in another. I also told myself the decision was wrong and ignorant. I believed it was my right to see my father one last time and the lingering lack of closure I felt was deeply linked to this choice. For decades, I was resolute, even righteous in this belief. As everything else about my father’s absence and lack of memorialization in the following years was thoughtless and insensitive, I came to believe this was the foundational flaw that spawned the rest. Forty-nine years later, Christopher died and my belief about this particular decision was challenged and a well-worn story died.

In keeping with his family’s wishes, Christopher was laid out at home on dry ice for a three-day vigil, an Anthroposophical practice during which it is believed that the spirit is leaving the body. I had heard of this ritual peripherally twice before, but had no personal experience of it. On the second day of the vigil, I had the chance to visit their home and take some time to be with Christopher in death. I was deeply grateful, moved, and surprisingly distressed beyond grief.

Christopher in life and Christopher in death looked remarkably different from each other. His face and lips were swollen and mottled purple; his abdomen was distended. I struggled between the part of me that is grateful to see a deceased person and the clarity of completion this brings and the alteration in his looks. I wanted to be present to the reverence and love inherent in this ritual and I wanted to remember the Christopher I knew and what he looked like. I wanted to remember him as he leaned forward to comfort a fellow parent in our last parent meeting together, his eyes filled with love.

The conflicting emotions and sensations felt connected to the present moment, Christopher’s death and loss, and my deep sadness and empathy for his beloveds. But later, unsuspectingly and unbidden, I felt a magnetic pull to the past. I remembered the decision for me not to view my deceased father, and for the first time ever, I would wonder if it was sound, even loving. Had my father’s face, too, become drastically altered from his living appearance? At such a young age, would I have been deeply frightened, possibly plagued with nightmares? What does it mean to love a living being and then to connect with their physical remains, especially when their appearance has notably altered? What lingers in memory afterwards? What serves? Obviously, the answers to these questions are personal and unique.

Our most important life experiences are captured and translated in stories. At times, we hold these stories in our hands like a worry stone, rubbing and imbibing the surface with repetitive meaning. If we’re open, new experiences have a way of altering or evolving the narrative. Sometimes unbeknownst to us, a new story is needed or provided to go forward into the next chapter.

What I know for sure is that I never had a chance to say goodbye to my father or to see his body in death. The hunger for his presence, a fathering presence in my life has resided within me all these years.

However, Christopher’s death, deeply sad and tragic in its early arrival, unintentionally provided a realization that even long-held beliefs can and sometimes should change. I now know that acts of ignorance can exist next to love, that blindness and neglect may still reside beside unrecognizable acts of caring. And that while death leaves us all bereft, the experience of unimaginable grief and what it means to say goodbye can shift and change over a lifetime.

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