June 12, 2022 – Niles, MI
The easy part of my story about my dad is that I miss him. I miss having breakfast with him where the waitresses always knew the kind of mug he liked for his coffee. I miss taking him with me to visit family cemeteries and the historical society in the county in Indiana where his dad grew up. He showed me the storefront that used to house my great grandfather’s blacksmith shop. And I could tell him all the stories I learned from doing family history research. None of that has any real substance though, as easy as the stories are to tell.
When my father died, I found myself suddenly placed in the position of being the one making the “arrangements.” I wanted to lie down and feel sorry for myself but instead, I met with the funeral home, the priest, my family, our neighbors, even my sister’s former classmates and friends who drove up to attend the wake and to see her. I think about those few days now and all I see is me talking. Nothing but talking.
Oh, and crying. I was worried I might become known as “that woman who comes to church, sits down, and cries to herself.” There was even one sweet member of the church choir who came over after the service and gave me a hug because she thought I looked like I could use a hug. Boy, did she get that right. Churches have been my sanctuary for a long while, but in this instance, during the days just before and just after my father’s death, I would walk in, sit down, and just cry.
Ironically, I really did want to get the funeral and burial just right and I can see now that I missed that mark by a long shot – but I know why now. At the time, I thought I was just acting without thinking.
The service was lovely, but I held up the drive from the church to the cemetery because I was talking to the organist and the singer about the years I had spent singing in the choir – as if a hearse, cars, family, and neighbors weren’t all waiting to leave.
That pales compared to my behavior at the cemetery. I had arranged for a burial with full military honors. My father was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in WWII and was stationed on Iwo Jima. It was appropriate. When we turned the corner off the highway into the graveyard, I could see the honor guard waiting for us. The local American Legion post sent two uniformed soldiers, and a chaplain who was accompanied by a bugler and a row of Armed Services veterans who stood at attention while the prayers were said and the flag that had draped my father’s coffin was folded.
I have no experience with military funerals. I sat, listened to Taps, heard the 21-gun salute, and watched while the two young men prepared the flag as if every crease, every fold had immortal significance. Then, one of the men came over to me, knelt on one knee and looked me in the eyes, saying that the flag was presented to me on behalf of the President of the United States. I held it close, passed it to each of my four children so they could hold it for a moment as well.
And then I gave it back to him, saying, “You know, I’m moving and I really don’t have the space for it, you know.”
My cousins were aghast; my neighbor came over to me. They must have thought I had lost my mind. No, I told them, I’m downsizing and I’d just hate for it to end up in a closet, you know.
My dear sweet Lord, what was I thinking?
Later that day, my son said he’d like to have his “But what was I thinking? How did I get it all so very wrong in that moment? See, my dad would have already told me what to do with his flag – but he was gone.
In retrospect, where all my great realizations suddenly come into focus, I know that while I was grieving the loss of my dad, I was also grieving the loss of my own childhood. I’m old enough for Social Security now, but my childhood was suddenly wrenched from me when my father died. My being a child – even up to now – relied on his being there for me.
If I did something fun or wonderful, I wanted to tell him – the same way it was when I was small and living at home. If I did well in school, which wasn’t all that often, I wanted my dad to know. We would share favorite TV shows, talk about cars and radios, eat bowls of cottage cheese and small bits of liver sausage on Wheat Thins with some cheddar, all washed down with ice cold root beer – and I could tell him all about everything. We would sit on the front stoop at night and listen to what my mother called the “night noises,” most times not even saying a word.
That gap is what grief is all about. It’s why people call it a “loss.” You lose so much and it happens so suddenly even if the actual passing is expected or anticipated. But in time, I think you can gain so much, too. When my dad could be on the other end of a phone call, I could rely on the one person who had always been there for me. There was a knight in a corner of my chessboard, waiting to move if I needed him to protect me. It’s just my turn now to be that knight.
I am fortunate that I did have my dad in my life for as long as I did. I am fortunate as well that our relationship was one of shared time and interests – and such love.
You hear people say, when their parents die early in their lives, that mom or dad would be proud of the adult they’ve become. I’ve only been an adult for a short while, but I think when I really get the hang of it, I’ll be good at it too.
Like my dad.
Excerpt from “These Winter Months,” edited by Anne Born
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My notebook no longer contains…
My notebook comes along with me when I leave my house,
you never know when elusive inspiration will be found lurking
around the corner, down the block, over your shoulder.
When it will be better to write than to grieve or to laugh.
But now, my notebook doesn’t carry any of the thoughts I want to write
It holds the receipts, the holy cards, the phone numbers, bills for the car or the hotel.
The tiny note cards from the flowers.
Not one word can I write,
not one thought with any level of clarity
I know there is usual healing in words,
salve in poetry for the open wound
Or in some short narrative, a remembrance;
but it’s just not there.
Instead of being reminded that I am a writer –
by opening to a blank page,
Instead of being reminded that I take words at face value
to spin my stories, to tell my sorrows,
joys, memories –
I see only the shards, the detritus of my loss
and words simply pull farther and farther away.
My notebook no longer contains
Stories of today or plans for tomorrow.
That all stopped on Saturday.
While I know this is as temporary as a life,
It is just as maddening.
If you’d like to read the Late Orphan stories, look at My Books for These Winter Months and These Summer Months.
Welcome to These Summer Months: Stories from The Late Orphan Project. The Backpack Press is proud to announce the writers whose work will be included in this second volume of stories. This volume will be available April 14, 2017 on Amazon, paperback and Kindle, and by special order at your favorite independent bookseller.
Mary Kay Fleming
Brian T. Silak
Margaret Van Every
If you would like more information on the Late Orphan Project, or the previous volume of stories, These Winter Months: The Late Orphan Project Anthology, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Late Orphan Project is reopening for submissions starting November 2, 2016. Essays, journal entries, poetry, theater – all will be considered as long as the theme supports the Project.
The Project – to encourage writers to discuss the death of your parents. The easy story is to write about what happened. My mother’s long history with depression, my father’s heart ailments – easy to write because they tell a story that happened. This happened, that happened, and then they died. What the Project tries to do is not to discuss the details of the death or what led up to the death but rather what happened next?
How did this loss impact you?
When your mother or father dies, the impact is considerably stronger than other deaths in the family and the impact is frequently unpredictable.
How are you changed? What did you learn? When you picked up your life again, how was it different, or better, or worse? How did you chart your life without your parents?
What the Late Orphan Project was able to do in the first volume of stories was to show that the most personal story displays the most universal truths. The reader understands and feels empathy with the writer and the writers can sometimes find closure or healing or a deeper understanding of the events that followed the deaths.
This is not a sad project even though the stories will likely make you cry. Rather it is a celebration of real life through the telling of these very difficult stories.
Submission deadlines – November 2 to December 2, 2016.
Guidelines – All entries should be approximately 1000-1500 words.Shorter pieces will be considered but longer ones may not. One entry per person please. Stories should be accompanied by the following:
1) A 6-line author bio, written in 3rd person.
2) The name of the mother or father in the story, including birth and death dates and geographic location.
3) The word SUBMISSION in the subject line of the email.
4) All submissions to email@example.com
5) Identify please if your story has been published previously with a note that you have secured permission for The Backpack Press to republish if you story is selected.
If you have questions about submissions or the Project in general, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.