Image is one of my favorite photos of Noelle
Grief is such an awful thing—it comes unexpectedly and sometimes punches you so hard that if you’re driving a car, you have to actually pull the seat belt away from your body to allow for the space it takes up inside of you.
– Mary T McCarthy here
I’m sitting across from the doctor when she asks the question.
The brown faux suede arm-chair is almost comfortable, but there’s too much space between it and the identical mate opposite it to feel at ease. I speak just a little more loudly than I normally would to cover the distance between us. It would be obvious even to the most casual observer that this conversation is contrived.
A third, slightly more officious looking chair sits empty, facing the blank space in the middle. I wonder if she does couple’s therapy and sits in it when she does – in between the couples, analyzing what stands between them as they look past the distance toward one another. That must be awkward, I think. But perhaps no more awkward than this.
“So the period that you referred to as possibly being depression,” she says, “how do you know it wasn’t grief?”
I laugh, which I have to assume is not an uncommon reaction in this kind of place. I feel like I’m living in the theater of the absurd, but, well, how could it be anything but funny that I never thought that perhaps it was grief?
I never felt comfortable owning my own grief — or even the idea of my own grief — after Noelle’s death. The grief was my dad’s, IS my dad’s, I reasoned, so it couldn’t be mine.
But the truth is that I am grieving.
I loved Noe. I always loved Noe. Even when she was quietly calling me out on my teenage bullshit, even when she was urging my dad to see that I was spinning out of control, even when I was rebelling against everything in my path, I loved her. I couldn’t have resented her even if I tried. And somehow, miraculously, I never, ever tried.
Let’s be honest, that’s a pretty extraordinary thing. I was fifteen when she came into our lives. My dad and I were so close that one could not have been blamed for thinking it would have been a disaster. But I swear to you, not once in nearly thirty years — not ONCE — did an unkind word pass between us. Not once did I feel threatened by her presence nor she mine. Not once did she do anything but support me, my dad, and me and my dad as a unit. And vice versa. Not once.
I learned so much about her in the last weeks of her life and then after her death that I wished I’d known earlier. I grew so much closer to her in those last days when there was everything and nothing left to say. She taught me so much about love and trust. About hanging on and letting go. About honor and humor and unwavering grace in the face of unimaginable horror.
There were so many facets to Noelle. I want the chance to see in action the ones I learned about too late. To hang out with her and her friends. To visit Jasper. I want to bake with her.
Above all, I just want to watch her make my dad the happiest guy on earth just by being in the room, just like she always did.
So yeah, I guess I’m grieving too. I’m grieving her loss, I am grieving for my children’s pain and the loss of their innocence, and still … always … I am grieving for my dad. For the private, intense, unfathomable pain of a world, and everything in it that matters, exploding.
As a matter of course, my life is an exercise in perspective taking. It’s not something that I can shut down. It’s not something that I do; it’s who I am. So I’ve spent months now looking at the world from inside my dad’s heart. Thinking about how I would feel if it were me trying to find a path without Luau.
So sometimes I have to pull the seat belt away from my body to make room for the grief.
The doctor’s question hangs above the too-big space.
“I don’t,” I say.
“I mean, how can you tell the difference?”
She doesn’t answer. I’m guessing that sometimes you can’t. And that’s okay.
She asks how I’m doing now.
“You said that it’s abated a bit, yes?”
I tell her it has. I wonder though if my mascara is streaked from earlier. I wonder if she’ll see it and think I’m lying.
So I tell her that I called my dad on the way home tonight and that we cried together because that’s what we do sometimes.
“We’re criers,” I say, “by nature. Always have been.”
I add, “So it’s hard to tell sometimes.”
I laugh again.
I look at the empty chair.