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Family Grief

Starlight

At this point in the pandemic, daytime brings hope. Pictures of friends getting vaccines, talk of summer travel, and, at work, I am not responding to crisis. But the nights are for grief, and grief has its own habits. I leash up our dog, check for deer and raccoons lest said dog go berserk, and together we walk into the dark. Orion, the Hunter greets us over the house across the street. He’s accompanied by the Gemini aka, Castor and Pollux. As we turn the corner, The Big Dipper comes into view with Cassiopeia rising over the bike path. The stars in our neighborhood seem so much brighter these days. Maybe less pollution or ambient light or perhaps they shine brighter as a reminder of what remains when the world goes sideways. 

Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the last day I spent with my dad. I’ve tried to remember all of it. But I can’t. Just the terrible moment when I returned after running a few errands and the door to his assisted living facility was locked. The tears, the hyperventilation, banging on the door, the relief when his hospice nurse walked up and said she’d work something out, splashing water on my face so I wouldn’t alarm him before I returned to his room. I pretended there was no problem and we picked up reading our latest Sherlock Holmes tale. As evening came, the story ended, and it was time to leave. I kissed his head as if everything was normal, saying I was flying home, but would be back in a month, maybe a little longer this time… “Okay, Mimi V.” he said. “Tell the boys hello for me. Pat the good black dog. You be so careful. And come back as quick as you can.” Now, I can’t remember that morning’s activities or even what we did during the preceding five days of that visit. Did I take him walking in his wheelchair on the path he so enjoyed? Did we go out to lunch with friends? Was I there for bingo day?  Those memories are lost to the trauma of that awful afternoon. 

My dad found wonder in the stars, even if he had learned about them quite literally under fire during World War II. My favorite childhood memories put me in the back yard with him as evening turned to night. He would’ve been gardening and I would have been playing or just home from an after-dinner bike ride. We’d sit in big redwood chairs — me on his lap when I was little — then side-by-side as I grew up.  He would enjoy a cigar, blowing smoke on me in summer to keep the mosquitoes at bay.  As sunset gave way to starlight, he’d start with Venus on the horizon, the great dipper, as he called it, which points to Polaris. Then he’d go on to whatever was on view that time of year. Pegasus, the winged horse. Taurus, the bull. The Winter Triangle. Jupiter. He could name them and tell the ancient stories behind them. He could show me how one star pointed to the next, which led to a group of others creating maps that helped lost sailors find their way home.  I suppose it is natural then, that on my nighttime rambles, I look for him among those twinkling friends he introduced me to in childhood. And as I walk I tell him over and over how sorry I am for how our time together ended.  

He doesn’t talk back. I’ve yet to hear from him in a dream or feel a chill that signals he might be about. Not a surprise, really. He was not a ghostly person. He appreciated the good earth, the here and now, the ordinary miracles: the growing garden, the deep green forest, the night sky. He had the gift, or perhaps the discipline, of finding contentment with what came his way, not longing for a past he couldn’t change or a future over which he had little control. When my mother died and I was second guessing my decisions, he told me “That’s a cat you can’t put back in the bag. Let that one go.” There is a lot to be said for such a perspective. Even as I walk with my sorrow each night, his example helps me live my pandemic days with considerably more grace than I’d be able to without it.  

I read something yesterday – I’m sorry I don’t remember where – that talked about the relationship between light and darkness, how light was needed to fix things in the material world, but the spirit needs the dark to heal and find its voice. Maybe that’s what is happening to me as I walk each night with my good, if sometimes overprotective dog. (A possum in the drain can be a threat, after all.) Everything in the day-time world is improving. Cautious optimism lets me think about dinner parties, visits with family, maybe a weekend with friends at the beach. Anxiety is giving way to reflection about what should be kept and discarded from this pandemic year. But there is still mourning to be done and finding a place, both physically and psychologically, to do it is complicated when life starts to move on. My dad is not yet buried, anathema for a boy raised on a farm. I will feel more settled when he is finally laid to rest. But I don’t know whether I will ever stop looking for him on my nighttime walks. Perhaps, just as I walk with my dog, my dad walks with Canis Major, the great dog in Latin, who trails Orion according to legend. If so, he must be right there over our neighbor’s house. I’ll look again tonight. 

Drawing: The Navigator by Skylar Chapman Searing in memory of James F. Chapman, Captain USN-R, Judge, Husband, Father, Grandpa

By Mimi Chapman: Writing about the intersection of personal and professional life

Professor, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I started this blog because I enjoy reflecting on different parts of life and work and sharing that with others.

One reply on “Starlight”

So beautifully sad and filled with love, Mimi. I so enjoy your writing but this one also brought tears to my eyes. It made me recall how much I missed my own father (who died 5-1/2 years ago) and all the funny and loving moments with him that I will forever treasure. He was a great story teller and had funny observations for practically everything in my life. I miss him just as you miss and grieve your wonderful father. Both our dads are part of us and we carry them in our laughter, our hearts or even on a star gazing dog walk.

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