When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
- Mary Oliver
I was not present when my father died. Yet I had so wanted to be there.
I struggled in the weeks and months to follow. Not least because circumstances had denied me the opportunity to be there when he departed.
So the loss was double.
In the midst of my mourning a friend appeared. She floated into my life as a message in a bottle. I didn’t know her from before. I don’t know her now. She was one of those brief acquaintances that comes. And then leaves again.
We talked about this, about the other. Then I told her about my dad. How I grieved not just his death, but also missing that last farewell.
“If you had the choice, how would you have liked it to be?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Just imagine what could have happened. And then tell me about it.”
“What could have happened?” I said, and wondered what my preferences had to do with it. My dad was gone. I had not seen him off. Facts were facts.
“ Just play around with it,” she said, “just make it up.”
Reluctantly I let images appear. Of how I had wanted it to be. If there was a choice, that is.
“I’m sitting in a chair,” I said, “next to his bed. I lay my hand on his forehead.”
There was a pause.
I stretched my neck. Tried to sit more upright in the chair. Was this serious? Did she really want me to produce some make-belief story?
She spotted my bewilderment and tried to ease the situation. “You’re sitting in a chair,” she repeated. “You lay a hand on his forehead.”
“I’m not sure it was my hands,” I said. I could see a pair of hands, but I was confused as to who they belonged to. I looked down at my own fingers. As I spoke I felt the warmth of my dad’s skin against my palms. “Perhaps I’m holding his hand,” I said. “And then there is something else on his forehead.”
I tried to grasp what my imagination told me.
Gradually an image of a bird appeared. A feathered creature perched on my dad’s forehead. A quiet little thing, patiently waiting.
Then I could see the hands again, but were they my hands? No. They were not hands at all, they were wings. Then a pair of hands appeared, waving. My dad’s hands and the wings. The wings and his hands. The two images were one. The waving and the flapping, the flapping and the waving. I couldn’t discern which was which. But this I knew for sure. Here was my dad. Waving.
In the New York Times article “Write Till You Drop” Annie Dillard writes “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
“Strange seizures beset us,” she says, “ Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl's drawers visible when she's up a pear tree.”
Whenever I read this article I learn something about my astonishment. I stop and go back. What appears to amaze me again and again invariably involves the imagination. The strength of it. The intensity. For better or worse I may add, for I have also knowledge of the latter. I have experienced that reality is relative. And that facts come in many forms.
My father’s departure is no longer a trauma. Whenever I think of this moment, I see the hands and the wings. As the bird lifts, there is the flapping. And the waving.
And I realize my imagination is sacred, for it has far more knowledge than I will ever have.
(And then, of course, I am curious. For what is your astonishment?)
Mary Oliver, When Death Comes, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).
Photos © Grete S. Kempton