“Did Poppi kill the bear or save it?,” asks my son months after my dad was buried. He is playing on the floor, and I am trying to swallow grief long enough to go through the motions. Cook the breakfast, sweep the floors, cry quietly in the bathroom, wash the dishes. This has become the routine since losing my parents, a fine balance between faking okay and admitting I’m not. The question is as immediate as it is random and I’m taken aback by this sudden mention of my dad. It takes a second for me to place the bear reference but then I understand, too. The funeral might’ve been three months ago or yesterday to his 5-year-old mind. I tell the child that his Poppi saved the bear. I tell him that his Poppi was so brave, lived his whole life helping and never, ever hurting. I tell him, through tears now, that his Poppi saved the bear. He loved the bears most men were too scared to help. I cannot tell this little boy that his grandfather was killed by his son. I cannot explain how scary the world can be, and why, then, we keep on waking up and living in it. But I can tell him that his Poppi saved the bear, and this pleases him. He smiles and mumbles, “Good. He helped it. Good”. He’s back to crashing Hot Wheels cars across the floor before I’ve managed to catch my breath.
I don’t catch my breath. Not really. Not in nearly a year since my father’s murder. I can’t really tell you why he kept trying to save the very bear who slaughtered him. I guess that is what loyal love does? I can’t tell you how a good man lived a kind life and seemed to pay such a horrible price for his goodness. I can’t tell you with anything other than a moaning, wounded cry how desperately, wildly, wildly, wildly I miss him.
I can tell you how I was his Chicky Tori Lou. I can tell you about his laugh that always held back tears (of joy, of sorrow, of a full heart). I can tell you about his same ten jokes and same five stories he’d tell on a predictable loop. I can tell you of his beat up old cowboy boots, his ragged Tennessee sweatshirt, his shock of white hair, his frayed jeans, how somehow he looked nice despite his worst efforts. His eyes were kind enough to distract from his clothing. I can tell you how I’ve never seen such a natural connection to the babies who called him Poppi. I can tell you his heart & theirs had known each other long, long, way back before they ever got here. And when his grandkids did get here, he held them and told them who they were. Named them, we’d later learn, exactly right: Wise, Beautiful, Calm, Feisty, Kind, Content. I can tell you his biggest faults and best traits were the same: he didn’t care enough about himself. He didn’t think he was all that special but, my God, he thought you & you & you sure were. These are the things that drove me crazy and made me admire him and made me want to shake some sense into him while figuring out how I could be more like him. I can tell you he loved music, could hum and name any artist and song title but would butcher even the simplest of lyrics. I can tell you what a secret poet he was, how he gave up artistic dreams for decent-paying tech jobs and fatherhood. I can tell you that he knew struggle in his fifties and lived through a time when he lost his fancy job and house and somehow couldn’t get a job at a toy store. I can tell you that even then he exuded happiness and a hopeful certainty that life was good and everything would be just fine. I can tell you how he cried and cried when we visited his mother’s grave months before he’d end up being buried in his own plot close by. I can tell you how I finally understood the meaning behind his repetitive stories, his tears for her. I finally listened closely enough to hear him say “Listen. I need you to know how wonderful my mother was. Listen. I need you to know how much I loved her. I need you to know”. I can tell you I get it now. My heart, I get it now. I can tell you that being his daughter was an absolute privilege. I can tell you about a crowded chapel, two levels of mourning eyes who came to weep for him. I can tell you how they looked down on me as I shook at the podium behind his casket. Their eyes spilled over with sympathy for themselves and for our family and for him because he was such a big light put out and we’re all terrified of the dark. I can tell you what I read to those sad eyes that day, Rumi’s ancient words that had to have been meant for my dad:
“A courageous man went & rescued the bear. There are such helpers in the world, who rush to save anyone who cries out. Like Mercy itself, they run toward the screaming. And they can’t be bought off. If you were to ask him, “Why did you come so quickly?” He would say, “Because I heard your helplessness”. Where lowland is, that’s where the water goes. All medicine wants is a pain to cure. And don’t just ask for one mercy. Let them flood in. Let the sky open under your feet. Give your weakness to the one who helps.”
So I can’t tell you how this first Father’s Day without him will go. It will probably hurt and sting and make me want to hide. It will make me feel small and evermore in need of a dad to pick me up and carry me. He was, after all, the one I gave my weaknesses to. But I can tell you he made us brave enough handle the hurt. I can tell you in my life he was Mercy itself. I can tell you forever and ever until I’m with him again how proud I am that he made his way through this world kindly, that he helped and never, ever hurt, that he was brave enough to save the bear.