When we went to see Wild, the thing that struck me most was the perfect way the soundtrack was handled. As Reese Witherspoon’s character hikes the PCT, she hears snatches of songs playing in her head, in that echoey tinny way your head replays things. They loop and play and loop on endless repeat, pulling memories along with them on every loop.
I thought about that in the shower 15 days ago. Dad was gone, suddenly. Harshly. Heartbreakingly. And in my head I kept hearing: “but death is just so full and man so small / well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before” in the echo chamber of my head, and relieving the past 36 hours, the past week.
Look, the thing is I know I’ll be ok, eventually. I’ve been through this before, and I’m resilient, and I have an amazing support network. But knowing that doesn’t help when you face an empty house, or find those heartbreaking little mementos of a life lived — the lists, the notes to self, the personality shining through an object.
I have a lot of guilt, anger and grief roiling around, each one vying to be the boss.
But there’s something else. Death can bring clarity. It sharpens all the edges — and the edges cut through the comforting layers we build around ourselves to just make it through the day. The layers that tell us things will stay the same forever, that there’s so much more time, that we’ll get to it — eventually.
And it also cuts away some of the nasty layers, like the ones that say that being a bad friend means your friends won’t forgive you. The ones that say that you should keep feeling guilty for things long forgotten. The ones that leave you feeling paralyzed — they’re suddenly given their proper proportion.
Don’t get me wrong, my sense of proportion is all sorts of messed up — little things seem impossible, huge things incomprehensibly unimportant. But still, there’s that diamond sharp clarity underneath: this isn’t what matters.
When we were sorting through the pictures of my dad, the thing that struck me so hard was the absolute joy of many of them. He gradually lost that joy — not completely, but enough that looking back I can’t believe how much I didn’t see. But he was a man with a huge heart who found happiness in his family and in making them happy. His best friend, devastated at the news, wrote us:
He was the most kind, generous, loyal, self-deprecating man I’ve known, and it pains me beyond words that his great and open Irish heart is stilled. He gave good crack in the highest Gaelic style; he wore his admirable, deeply earned success as if it were a lucky accident; his warmth was as homey and embracing as a good peat fire.
And I can’t put it better than that.
I put my life on hold for grandma and then my dad. I didn’t have to. I probably withdrew more than I needed to. And don’t get me wrong, there were some happy times there, some quiet contentment among the hard moments. But when I look at these pictures of a life so full and well lived, I realize that I haven’t looked for enough joy in my own life.
And in those first few days after he died — after I finally slept, after I started to process what is happening — I felt the shift. The realization that I want those happy pictures in my albums. That I want to answer the phone, and I want to say yes, and I want to throw myself on the kindness of friends, and I want to be a better sister, a better niece, a better aunt. I want to find joy and fill my life up to the brim.
I can’t think of a better way to honor my father, who above all wanted nothing more than for us to be happy.
And who would make himself foolish to draw a smile.