Tuesday marked one year.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Should we celebrate? Mourn? Laugh? Cry? Should we let it pass quietly or make a fancy dinner?
“What was Papaw’s favorite food?” my five year old asked me a couple weeks ago. “I dunno,” I replied. “I guess steak?” “Well, then maybe we should cook a steak.” “Maybe we should,” I said. “Papaw would like that.”
The date arrived at the end of a string of days that felt like walking a path broken glass in bare feet. Sharp. Painful. Necessary. We did not grill steak. We weren’t even all together. We were scattered – my two boys and my husband here at home, my daughter spending the night with my mom, my brother’s family at their home in another state, and me six hours south, sitting in a full sanctuary at another father’s funeral. He was the father and father-in-law of two of my dear college friends, and he passed away suddenly in his home with his wife, five children, five children-in-law, and ten grandchildren in the next room.
His may have been the most inspiring funeral service I’ve ever attended. I did not want inspiration, not that day of all days, but the invisible ones that bring inspiration do not ask permission before entering. They just show up and snap you to attention.
It felt strange but comforting to be reunited with the friends who have known me longest and loved me best at the funeral of another father – one of theirs – on the first anniversary of my own father’s passing. It felt odd but beautiful to sit in a memorial service in a formal sanctuary-turned-circus, its large stage colorfully decorated for Vacation Bible School. A two-story wooden ferris wheel loomed over on the right, a glittery ticket booth stood on the left, a photo-opp clown with a hole cut out for the face standing joyfully in between. A six-foot banner hung vertically in the center of the stage right behind the pulpit, in perfect line with the flower-laden coffin in the front and the large white cross hanging above the baptismal in the back. The banner read in bold carnival letters, “START.”
I suppose death for the believer is the grandest of starts, but it sure hurts like hell for those of us still here.
So there I sat in the makeshift circus, listening to the three oldest sons say what every father hopes their sons will one day say. And there I stood, singing the old familiar hymn, weeping at the images of my daddy conjured up by the last stanza:
And then one day
I’ll cross the river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death
Gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights
Of glory and
I’ll know he lives.
I can’t not see him in his hospital bed, restraints on his tired arms. I can’t not see him in his leather armchair, coming in and out of sleep as grandchildren play at his feet. I can’t not see him in his hospice bed, weary lungs shaking out each breath. I know he lives a new life now, but I can’t stop seeing him die.
We had dinner together Monday night — my four of my oldest, best friends in the world and I. It had been twelve years and twelve babies since we had last seen each other. We ate fried macaroni with the giddiness of children and made margaritas and laughed at the stories that only the five of us know how to tell. It was a balm I did not know my soul desperately needed.
I drove home Tuesday night after the graveside service and listened to Matt Mays on the stereo as the painted sky changed hues of purple and orange. I soaked in the freedom of the straight, empty highway and drank in silence like only a mama away from her babies knows how. I called friends on the phone and talked about my dad, and I listened to track eight of Good Light until it broke me. And then I listened a few times more.
The next day I scooped up my two boys and drove to my mom’s house to pick up my little girl, the largest white balloon I’d ever seen bouncing around the back of the minivan. A friend left it on the porch while I was away with a note that said, “Thought you and your kiddos could tie a knot around a note and send it up to your papa.”
And so we did. We tied drawings and letters with pieces of gold string, kissed the balloon and carried it to the open spot of the backyard between the trees. With a few last hugs and kisses for Papaw, we cut loose the long white lace and watched it soar until our eyes hurt from the sun and the balloon was a tiny star disappearing into blue, until it had sailed away “to his new house,” said the three-year-olds.
There were no tears, no dramatic pauses, no sad sighs. There was no steak. But there were squeals of delight. There were moments of remembering. And though it did not go as planned, it felt just right.