I can identify each person in my family by the sound of their footsteps. My little brother stomps irregularly; my mom has a quick and springy step, unless it’s after nine p.m. and the dishes have tired her out. My dad walks the slowest—as if he is planting a lotus with each step. But that night, he came down the stairs slower than usual. That is how I knew something was wrong.
His mom was sick. She had been for a while, but this was different. For the first time in a long time, he felt he needed to be there. My dad was to take the first flight out of New York to Delhi. She wasn’t dead yet, but it was only a matter of jet fuel if he could see her before she was.
The plane ride must have felt like purgatory, only with turbulence, as he wrestled his fears and suppressed his anxiety into the space between the two armrests—his heart heavy, like an anchor to the earth. Death is like the tide—it comes slowly, but nothing can stop it. By the time he landed, it was too late.
My parents decided they would wait for my dad to return before they told my brother and me about the death. Unbeknownst to them, I had already seen a text on my mom’s iPhone from a distant cousin offering her condolences. I kept the discovery to myself. I don’t know why. It’s weird to be 11 years old, consigned to the bin of childhood, crashing into adolescence, dependent on the whims of adults who always know more than you do.
My mom and dad talk about their parents in their old age—how it feels to witness the decay and watch them shrink back into their bodies and lean into fragility. More than once, Dad has spoken about the man his father used to be: how tall he used to stand, how dark his hair was, how his voice filled the room. The day Dad returned from his mother’s funeral was the day I understood precisely what he was talking about. He wore death on his face. For the first time, I noticed his age and the toll the world had taken on his body. The person who once waited in line for three hours at Disney World with a four-year-old on his shoulders to have tea with princesses looked like the wind could knock him over. He was a carnival of dejection.
He came back smelling of unfamiliar fragrances. His head was shaved. He wore bracelets made of red and orange threads. He seemed thinner, but obviously weight wasn’t his primary loss. He was pierced by something more severe. My dad had left and an old man returned in his place.
The death was difficult to talk about. After suitcases were unpacked and gifts were given, the thought occurred to my brother. “Did she ever get better?” “No, actually, she died.” “Oh.”
That night I climbed into Dad’s bed. We were silent for what felt like a decade and ten seconds. I tried to sync my breath to his. I wondered how I might ask him about what happened. Finally, he asked if I had any questions. I shrugged and shook my head—arbitrary gestures that meant nothing. There was an urge to say something comforting or at least something that demonstrated a little acknowledgment of this significant moment, but I never did. I wanted to wade in with him, but I had not yet learned the strokes needed to swim through this vulnerable and uncharted territory of life. It was the first death of a family member I’d ever experienced. We cannot anticipate for whom we will feel grief. I wanted to see the color in my father’s face return, for the curls on top of his head to grow back, for his spirit to thaw. I closed my eyes, holding him in the Light, praying for his recovery.
Heartbreak is an elixir for imagination. I am not religious, but I am often in need of comfort. Now, I picture my grandmother—the width of the sky—watching over the world and me. That night, I prayed to her. Due to her recent “transition,” I’d figured she’d have means to mend Dad’s heart. As for me, I learned that a broken heart gives cracks for the Light to shine through. That is my belief.
The next day was a golden-gray Monday morning. The sun shined without any warmth. Like every morning before that one, Dad made me two eggs, a cup of tea, and drove me to the bus stop. We listened to The Writer’s Almanac on the car radio while we waited. Today’s poem was by Robert Hayden*:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
The bus came at 7:26 a.m. with its flashing red lights, a warning for cars. This warning ends once I am seated. But what ends without warning? The act of living is the act of walking in the direction of death. How do we arrest the ephemeral qualities of life? Plant a lotus with each step you take.
* “Those Winter Sundays” reprinted from The Collected Poems of Robert Hayden by Robert Hayden (c) 1966 by Robert Hayden. Used with permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.