After an unexpected delay in mid-September, I am finally on my way to Haiti. The adoption is final. My son and I will be starting a new life together, here, in Chicago. In honor of my friend’s father, who was Haitian and who loved to call me “cottage cheese,” I offer his story once again.
I drove my friend home the morning her dad died. She clutched his faded denim fisherman’s hat close to her heart. It all seemed so wrong: to walk out of the nursing home with nothing more than his hat. Just days before he’d been begging for a Big Mac and a smoke, neither of which he was allowed to have. And now, in ways too permanent to fully grasp, he was gone.
“Come on,” I’d said as the nursing home doors slid closed behind us. “I’ll give you a ride home. I drive nice and slow.” Karin laughed out loud. Earlier that morning, in a fit of passion and grief, she’d insisted on driving back to the nursing home, magically thinking that if she floored it, he might still be breathing when she got there. I blocked the door to stop her from driving off in her car. “Move,” she hollered. “This is about daddy.” I stood firm. “No offense,” she hollered even louder, “but you drive too slow.”
Hours later, I took her home. Brick courtyard buildings and elaborate greystones passed by outside, their stillness echoing our silence. The winter clouds and silhouetted trees watched solemnly as we made our way down King Drive. Yard after yard lay bare, the ground frozen hard beneath the mighty oaks and prodigious evergreens. My friend’s father had struggled with pancreatic cancer for seven long years. Other than his hands and his feet, his six-foot, five-inch frame was gaunt.
When I’d walked into his hospice room the night before, his brothers and sisters had already said their goodbyes. The lights were low. Karin’s mom sat in a chair in the corner. They’d divorced at a young age. Karin sat on the bed, next to her father, running her hands tenderly across the top of his head. His breathing was labored, the rattle reverberating in my mind long after it had passed. I watched as she touched his face and caressed his ears. She held his hands and rubbed his back, whispering her peace to him as tears slid steadily down her cheeks.
I knew this wasn’t what my friend wanted. She didn’t want to lose her father. Not now. Not this soon. He had an eight-year old grandson who adored him. He had a raft of nephews who admired him for seeing the world. He was a musician and an engineer, a lover of books and sophisticated words, a military veteran and an addict, and an absent father who’d found a way to heal the past and reconnect with his only daughter. Not to mention, he was funny as hell. Irreverent, too!
Karin sat vigil with her dad until 5 a.m. when the hospice nurse sent us home to get some sleep. “I’ll call you,” she promised, “if anything changes.” The first call came within three hours, suggesting that she come back before the morning was out. The next call came within moments. “No,” I heard my friend scream, “I was on my way… I was on my way.” Her hands shook wildly. She flew from her bedroom to the bathroom and back before collapsing in the hallway, wailing.
I sunk down on the hardwood floor across from her. She had wanted to be with him when he crossed over. The fact that we all knew he likely wouldn’t allow that didn’t make her want it any less. I said nothing as she wept. I didn’t want to diminish her grief or console it or try to make it go away. I knew better. Grief is bigger than me. And it was bigger than her. I just wanted to bear witness to it, to honor the depth of her sorrow and of her love.
When we finally turned into her driveway, I was stunned to see the same boxwood bushes lining the front of her home as if nothing, and everything, had changed. Karin lifted her dad’s hat to her nose and breathed him in. “How can he be gone?” she asked in the voice of a young girl. I stared out the windshield remembering the regal black ravens that had swooped and swirled in the tree outside her dad’s room earlier that morning. I turned towards her, shaking my head, and we both began to cry, sitting there, in the stillness of the car.
Karin’s dad was the first of many funerals this year. My friend Delia’s parents died within six weeks of each other, the ground still soft from the first burial. My colleague’s teenage son died. A mentor’s mother. A friend’s husband. Karin’s Uncle Charles. My own Uncle Chuck, whom I never had the privilege of meeting. And a friend I barely got to know.
I don’t know what any of it means. I don’t really know what happens when you die or where you go. But I believe we come from love and we return to love. And in the in-between, all we can do is be present, loving this moment as much as the next. I used to expend so much mental energy trying to plan my life. Mapping it out and imagining it, trying to tell God how to get me from point A to point B, hoping to claim my destinations. I don’t want to live in my mind. I just want to be here, right here, with my full attention.
My friend Karin showed up for her dad, not in the way she had planned, not in the future she’d mapped out, but in the way life demanded and in the way life unfolded, her love for her father being stretched and pulled forth with a force and tenderness beyond her reckoning. I still think about her dad’s fisherman’s hat and what he’d want us to learn from his death. In the early mornings, sitting in my sunroom, I pray. And what I hear in return is: Be here. Now.