73: First Day

73: First Day

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

First Day

I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday.

~Author Unknown

My daughter Elisa recently e-mailed me pictures of her daughter Gillian smiling and ready for her first day of school. I’m certain my granddaughter hugged her mom goodbye with fear and excitement and walked away into a brand new world, just as Elisa hugged me about 25 years ago. But I wonder what Elisa did after Gillian disappeared into that swarm of first-day students? She probably choked back a tear and marveled at how quickly the time had gone: all those natural and sentimental feelings of parenthood.

The day I dropped Elisa off for her first day of school I returned to a quiet and empty house for the first time in my life. I’d been raised in the crowded, loud and rollicking house of Irish immigrants. A brother or cousins or neighbors or a priest or aunts and uncles were always eating and drinking at our kitchen table. I married young and had five children of my own, the best way, rapid fire, so you can deal with them when you’re young and energetic and stupid. But then my wife died (of a rare, quick, and deadly cancer) and I was now widowed and young and sad and stupid. The eldest was ten when Luanne died and Elisa was three and I was busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest waiting tables and wiping noses and helping with homework and driving to soccer games and cooking and trying to finish my first novel.

Thank God for that hurricane of confusion. If I had time to deal with the dread and perplexity of facing a life, alone, with five children I probably would have given up. But if you have kids you can’t give up.

I remember when Elisa was about Gillian’s age she woke me up at two in the morning. She stood in front of me in the half-light of the bedroom. Her hair was mussed and her Flintstone pajamas were rumpled. She had been crying. In a voice that barely trembled she said, “I can’t remember what Mommy looked like.”

I didn’t say a word. At that moment her grief was inconsolable. The world had snatched another thing from her: Luanne’s face no longer existed as a ready and reliable memory. For Elisa the time to cry and say goodbye to her mother wasn’t at the official funeral, but in her pajamas on a warm August night 25 months later. On this night, with Elisa, I did the only thing a father can possibly do in this situation.

I made hot chocolate.

Elisa was sitting on my lap, drinking her chocolate, when I asked her if she wanted to look at some pictures of her mother. She nodded a silent yes. As I rummaged in the closet for photo albums I wondered if I were doing the right thing. At times it had been comforting to look at old pictures and re-read poetry I had written for Luanne. At other times it was like picking a scab.

But Elisa and I sat down on the kitchen floor and soon—it would have been sooner, but I spilled my hot chocolate—pictures were scattered all around us. Elisa latched onto a picture of Luanne holding our older daughter Rachel. “That’s me, huh Dad?”

I couldn’t lie, “No, Ellie, it’s not.”

She asked, “Can I have this picture?”

I said yes and she walked to the refrigerator, grabbed a magnet and positioned the picture halfway up the door. She returned, kissed me and hiked off to bed. It didn’t matter to Elisa that she wasn’t the baby in her mother’s arms. There was something in the image: Luanne’s eyes, her hair, the way she held the child, that resurrected the spirit and memory of her dead mother. All the kids had their moments like this while dealing with their mother’s death.

My moment was Elisa’s first day of school.

I dropped her off and returned to a house strewn not only with five children’s detritus but with the overwhelming fact that I was alone. Not suddenly, but finally, the grief had me to itself. Man, it hurt. It hurt beyond pain and tears; it ached to the point of surrender.

You can delay grief with activities or chemicals, but you cannot deny it forever unless you choose not to heal it. Elisa’s first day of school was also the first day I faced, and precisely the time I began to mend, the actual and excruciating emotion surrounding the death of the woman I loved.

~Rob Loughran

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