I don't know if it was coincidence or the South, but I began to notice that it was in quiet asides, not in the midst of big group conversations, that female relatives would put a gentle hand on my arm and ask "So you were with him, honey?". These beautiful, kind, strong cousins, and their husbands, that made everything possible. I was with him. And I thought that the images of his last six hours would always stay, indelible, forever pristine and painful - that I would never forget the labor of his breathing, the sound of his last breaths, my horror and wonder, the lightness of his hand, the different realities before and after 4:14 a.m. when he "crossed over" (a phrase that makes more sense than "died" for what I saw). But my heart already doesn't pound the same way to think of it - there is more marveling, less anguish. The tight space of his death expands to include a flood of images of trees and rivers and lovely loving faces. My sadness is diffused in others' memories of him, their stories, their eagerness to tell them. Death trumped the brain injury, the wheelchair, the bed - it wrenched him free of what truly had become a mortal coil. Down in North Carolina, Dad was vibrant once again: we pulled out old letters and pictures, realized that there are entire chapters yet to be discovered. Steve will start working through the multiple boxes of letters; I will look to the 8,000 slides.
I am not actually sure what happens next. I will combat these feelings of emptiness, the creeping doubt that after all the rituals are at an end, there might be nothing. Even as I know that rituals are full of the emotions we can't otherwise contain. Because they, these rituals, they were something. My father had never been one to talk about WWII, watch the History Channel, reminisce and in any way glorify his nine years in the Navy. But after the brain injury, he talked about it more often, and I wonder if the brain injury didn't free him up to ask for a military presence at the funeral. It doesn't matter. What mattered was the way those two young men held the flag as "Taps" (yes) played; the way they folded it in full length and time; the way one knelt before my mother, took off his hat, gave her the flag and spoke "on behalf of a grateful nation." This greater institution (I wouldn't have minded if God Himself had come down) acknowledging that my dad was a wonderful man - that was nice. And then, the small voice of my Oliver, beginning with "Actually..." as he sought to correct Pastor Ben in a reminiscence about my dad - precisely what Dad would have done had an anecdote presented wayward information. Was it laughter or the transmigration of souls that made us feel so glad?
I can hear my dad's laugh much more clearly now. I can more easily tell the kids the stories about the Creek, the War, Caracas, Mumbai, more travel always travel, Citibank, the "Jupiter Rex" certificate from Pan Am commemorating his crossing the equator (!), tenderness when we were sick, endless algebra sessions, trips, discussions of Ben Hur, more books always books, and (looping around) tales of his grandmother, catching soft shell crab as a kid, resting on the banks on the river. I can quote a letter that Steve found from February 21, 1971 (preserved in carbon copy!) that dad wrote to his mother and whose tender beginning makes me love him all the more for how it describes a moment so many of us share, or will:
"Watching the clock, I come to my desk to tell you of simple things with profound meaning, of a father's love for his family, of his home which he seeks to shield from the harsh aspects of life outside, not only for wife and daughter but for himself as well."