Warning: this is not a dainty piece on thinking positively. Though as a hypnotist, life coach and practice growth coach, I often teach dentists how to rewire their own brains and build a culture of extraordinary joy and peak performance in their practices, the prompt I gave myself for this article was the following: “If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want to say today to leave behind?” This is what showed up. Ok, there, I warned you.
As morbid maybe as this prompt was, I’ve been fascinated with death since I was a little girl. “Begin with the end in mind” Stephen Covey writes in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and that image of coffins, mine and that of my grandfather when I was 5, was my own personal jet propulsion engine throughout my childhood and remains with me today. I remember learning what dying meant when they told me of his sudden heart attack at age 54… that someone could be there one moment and be wiped off the face of the earth the next throttled me. Sobbing uncontrollably in my tiny black dress and patent leather shoes on the day of the funeral services, I grasped the reality of what loss meant, and I remember ruminating with deep remorse that the last thing I said to him was not “I love you.” I never exit a conversation today without that phrase.
Suddenly drawn to and simultaneously repulsed by the macabre, I developed a juvenile obsession with horror movies and books with grisly subject matter, finding the idea of contracting a fatal childhood illness so terrifying it made me obsessive and hypochondriacal, though at the same time there was a romance to it; and I remember writing a Last Will and Testament in my 3rd grade composition notebook, along with goodbye letters of profound love and gratitude to those who would mourn me deeply if I were to tragically pass away. My mother, alarmed by my shadow curiosities, banned Stephen King books from the house. As a personal protest, I would go to the library and sit in the aisles between the stacks reading for hours, imagining what it would be like to fight alongside my playmates against the evil child eater Pennywise the Clown. (Hey, I warned you, didn’t I?) The nightmares were the worst. My father and I had those in common: vivid, gut-wrenching, inescapable dreams that made you fear sleep and wake up covered in sweat. Later, I learned this was a panic disorder and that the anxiety he felt daily had been passed to me through some kind of genetic or psychic transmission. Mental illness, the gift that keeps on giving.
I am my father’s daughter in so many ways, because of him, in spite of him. So many parts of him are me: his humor, his discipline, his love of learning, his desire for adventure. His face is my face. His athleticism is my athleticism. His darkness, my darkness. The greatest gift he gave me was my love of music. My father was a drummer. I used to sit on his lap as a baby while he played for me, and I sang with him before I could talk. He even pumped Van Halen through a pair of giant headphones into my mother’s belly while I was dancing in the womb. My favorite memory of my father is one of me, coming home from school, feeling the house tremble and blare with classic rock and roll. I think he played his music so loudly because it helped whatever pain was inside him to shake itself free. I ask him who the singer is, and he says, “Jimi Hendrix.” I stare at him blankly. “You don’t know Jimi Hendrix?” I shake my head. “Hold on,” he says and rolls up the carpet. A blues guitar begins to play, “There’s a red house over yonder, that’s where my baby stays…” He tells me to stand on his feet, and I dance with him.
And in that moment, one of the few I can remember, I feel my father here, fully here, and happy. And I was happy.
I read that those who consider their inevitable death are happier. For example, in the tiny Tibetan country of Bhutan, known as “the happiest country on Earth,” the residents contemplate death five times a day as part of their Buddhist tradition. If two-thirds of Americans report general unhappiness in their day-to-day lives (don’t let their Instagram profiles deceive you), maybe the Bhutanese are onto something. As I examine the pictures around my home of those who have passed on, knowing I will, too, at some indeterminate point, I am filled with an insatiable hunger to live full-out with no regrets, and I surrender into gratitude knowing that everything changes.
“Don’t die with your gifts still inside you,” writes author Todd Henry. This is almost word for word what my father said the last time I saw him. I play the memory often like a favorite record, listening for a lyric or note I maybe hadn’t heard before. I am holding his hand next to the hospital bed. He is agitated, restless, his face pale and bony, his lower body swollen with fluid. “I’m sorry I didn’t do more for you, Baby. I’m sorry I’m an old man, and I wasn’t…” he drifts. “Hey,” I say to him, squeezing his flesh beneath the tubes, “Fifty percent of me is you, you know.” I smile, my heart leaking straight into my eyes. “Yeah,” he laughs. I add, winking, “And I’m pretty awesome. So I think you did a pretty good job.” He smiles again, his body softening. “I guess you’re right, Baby. I guess I did.” In that moment, any armor I had built against him in the last 32 years vanishes. It isn’t even forgiveness because there’s no longer anything to forgive, it’s just space. It feels like we are breathing one breath, an amalgamation of a sigh, a laugh and a cry all in one; and I feel the part of him that is me and the part of me that is him recognize our true souls, the “he” and “me” we were before the world ever shaped us. It was love, pure and spacious.
Long weeks later, my father passed from cancer at the age of 63, the night before my sister and I were scheduled to travel to our hometown in Florida to say goodbye to him. My grandmother called to tell me the news, and I fell to the ground and wailed a wild screeching moan for hours that tore at my throat for days. The Irish call it keening, a primal, singing form of grief. I felt the chasm open inside of me, bottomless, and I disappeared into it, knowing that there in that void were the remnants of his spirit being escorted to eternal spaces beyond. There were no words that night that could have soothed… only my sister and me weeping and chanting the words, “I’m so sorry. I love you,” over and over to one another. Or maybe we were saying it to him, I don’t know.
Something happened to me that night that healed me, changed me while being swallowed up by the darkness. I now feel my father’s love in a way he never could have loved me when he was alive; his body and nervous system just weren’t capable of it. Someone asked me a few months later, “Have you recovered?” Yet, I don’t think we ever recover from grief, I think it integrates. In every moment of my life worth celebrating, in every beautiful thing I see, I am reminded that my father is not here to celebrate or to see it. Then again, maybe he is. The truth is, I don’t think I want to recover from grief. That chasm that opened has never closed, and it makes me a more compassionate person; it connects me to the darkness in others, so that I can enter and bring my light. Knowing that my own death is waiting helps me focus my energy on what truly matters to me… because I know too well that life is way too short to waste my attention or my tears on things that don’t take up real estate space inside my heart.
I am my father’s daughter. Six months have passed, and I feel him, working behind the scenes, like my own guardian angel with a crooked halo and a set of Zilgjian drumsticks. That’s all he ever wanted to do, really, was to help me. And now he can. I carry his stories with me for my someday children. I feel myself dancing on his feet when I’m writing a song. I am free now of needing to prove to anyone (including myself) that I am enough because he is so, freaking, proud of me.
What do I want the world to know about my story? That grief is love. It’s the connection I feel between myself and the decay of each second. And as I walk through the world moving closer toward death, I feel more alive than I ever have before. It’s like saying a thousand goodbyes to everything around me with my heart broken open. Goodbye to this day, to this tree, to this friend, to this body at this age and to this second, all the while repeating “Thank you, I love you, goodbye.” Every goodbye is a wondrous moment of reverence, attention, gratitude, sorrow and extraordinary joy. Here is what it means to be alive, and I will spend the rest of my life thankful to all I have lost in order to have found it.
Maybe you, too, have lost something in the wake of this pandemic: a dream, a friend, a lover, a job, a family member, a fortune, a sock. Whatever needs grieving, can you open yourself to grief, and let it alchemize you? All is not lost in loss. Loss is the beginning of a much deeper love, one that is unlimited, unconditional, unchanging if you allow yourself to break open inside of it and access the spaces underneath. After loss, we can find a new opportunity: to choose to hold sacred the temporal fragility of our intimate connection with life and love and to welcome our souls in a moment of grace to be broken and healed each time we get to say goodbye. So goodbye for now, and hello to the next now already goodbye-ing and gone. Thank you, Dad… I love you, goodbye.