Photo by Francesca Borchardt
He lies quietly on his hospital bed placed in the middle of the family room. The sound from the television serves as perpetual background noise. Is he watching, understanding the show that's on? I don't know for sure. His wife, children and grandchildren are all around in different areas of the house. There is subdued chatter everywhere. Again, more background noise.
My father-in-law's first stroke happened in 2008. Since then, he has been in and out of the hospital, in and out of therapy, up and down, a roller coaster ride. The family, of course, has also been with him on this ride. A period of panic, and then calm, complacency, perhaps even denial. This is how life has been for the past several years but this time, there seems to be something definitively different. His inability to move on his own and care for himself, his imprisonment in that hospital bed, the undeniable fragility of his thinning limbs have forced everyone around him to confront the inevitable. Nobody knows when it will happen and everyone can't seem to fully exhale. 'Have you accepted it?" seems to be the most common question from any outsider looking in, and there can only be one logical response: "I think I have, to the degree that my humanity allows". The subtext to this of course is that the mind can process what it sees and knows what needs to be done, even though the heart remains fraught with hanging questions, unfinished conversations and the heavy presence of unending grief hiding in the shadows.
He is crying. Everyone takes notice that quiet tears are flowing down his face.
Could he be in pain? He says no.
Could he be sad? Is his heart breaking at the thought of leaving his wife and children behind? Is he grieving for unfulfilled dreams, plans he now doesn't seem to have enough time left for? Is he thinking about regrets?
Could these be tears of joy? Is he reminiscing about the first sight of each of his six precious children? Is he suddenly feeling the ghost sensation of the very first kiss he shared with his wife when they first fell in love? Are these tears brought by all the fun family vacations and parties celebrated through the decades? Are all the beautiful memories now too much to take in all at once?
Or could this be fear? Is he uncertain of what lies beyond and feels confused about how this will all end? Is he afraid of what would happen next? Or is he more afraid of what might become of his wife and her shattered heart?
She is right beside him, holding his hand and telling him, "I will be fine. Don't worry about me". She musters all her strength until she couldn't anymore and decides to leave his side to break down in the other room. Her daughter stands with her and helps muffle her wailing by holding her tight. They both need this release. And they both know this is only one among many that will follow.
I know this too. I have had to hold my own son as he tries to process the change that he is witnessing and sensing around him. He has broken down in the dark one night as I was tucking him in. He feels it all but can't fully understand, let alone label the sense of grief coursing through him, as if breaking open his chest. When the time comes and all the goodbyes have been said, the grief will visit him again. As his mother, I need to help him understand that it is best to make friends with this grief. It will pop by when he least expects it. He can't shut his door because it will always find its way in. If he at least makes friends with it, he will know that grief is stubborn. It respects no timelines or deadlines. It may frequent you less as years go by but it will be there. Its only request is that you respect the space you share with it. Just be in it, with it and let it move through you, or even consume you. Just believe in your heart that from the ashes you will rise again...and again. Grief is not greedy that it will want to take your life and happiness with it. Only you can make that choice.
And so each of us in the family grieves slowly as we brace ourselves for the inevitable. My father-in-law, or Big Daddy as we call him, is with us still. And even after his fragile shell gives up, I am certain we will find comfort in him living on simply because he has touched each of our lives and loved us as best as he knew how. This love is imperfect but one can't deny the perfection it created in the form of his family's devotion. Now I realize that more than just watching grief these past few days, I've also been privileged enough to witness that grief always manifests itself with Love. I find not only comfort in this, but most of all, peace.