When I get the call from my sister, and she says, “Ann, I don’t think Dad is with us anymore,” I drop to the floor.
I pound the beat up pine planks there in the kitchen with my fist like a wild woman slamming the walls of eternity, begging for you back, Dad, even for just one blink of a minute.
“Grief feels like forsakenness.”
How is it even possible that can you not be with us, how can a child keep breathing without her father, how can the universe keep spinning if you aren’t in it? How in the world can you not be with us and why can’t I call you, find you, go to you? How come I never knew:
Grief feels like forsakenness.
That’s what the silence shakes with, in the haunting silence after every last heart beat: My God, My God, why have You forsaken us?
Your grandchildren, Dad, they hear my howl to the heavens at your leaving us, and they run up the stairs wide-eyed, fling in from outside, bewildered, and they circle hushed and stunned, and your first son-in-law, he kneels on the floor beside me, trying to hold me, hold me together, hold me up, and my throat hurts with this primal, guttural cry, and my fist stings with my begging pounding, but it is my heart that’s ripped and split with the severing shock.
It’s a quarter past 11 am on a grey Thursday morning, the very end of April, when my father is killed, and who I once was, or thought I was, dies too.
A child has to learn how to breathe in this world without her father, and I don’t know how to, I’ve never done this before, not even once, and my lungs burn with the gasping.
When you have to breathe in a world where your father no longer breathes, every breath can hurt.
“When you have to breathe in a world where your father no longer breathes, every breath can hurt.”
My Father was killed under the wheel of a tractor, face down in the dirt. I will have to tell myself this over and over again for weeks, repeat it to myself like a wheel going round and round, because I cannot believe this, like the neurons in my cerebellar cortex absolutely cannot compute. How is this the abbreviated story? How is Dad never going to drive in the lane again with his rattling white diesel pick-up truck? How am I never going to touch Dad’s humongous work-hewn hands ever again?
When our oldest son, Caleb, was five, his goat died, and then it happened for a month: the child started every conversation, every call with his grandfather, or his aunt, or his grandmother or the mail lady or the Fedex guy, with that one line, “Hi. My goat died, she just died,” like he had to keep telling his mind, and everyone else, to grasp the reality of the surreal.
I’d smiled weakly, flushed embarrassed then, but now, now I want to roar it, keep roaring it, like the reverberation of it could somehow make the world, and it’s all maddening fluff, rightly stop: “My father died, he just died.” I know the world moves on, the sun and moons and stars, but my lungs hurt when they move, and how does a child move on from the common era of their father, as if time could exist beyond the man whose hands had a part in her whole world?
“Fathers are our fortresses of knowledge, and keepers of the hacks, and masters of the trade called Life.”
I never realized, Dad, how much you moved like a sentry along the outer edges of my life, like my own bulwark keeping watch through the night, like a defender of family, like a lookout, always on guard for me.
I never realized, Dad, how one can be a full-grown, with grown children of your own, and yet part of you still be the child who needs to know her Daddy isn’t far, but nearby and close.
I never realized how much safer the world felt because my Father was in the world too.
How do you navigate the world when your father’s hands have fallen like the hands of a compass falling?
If you told me once, Dad, you told me a million times, like when I asked where to find old barn beams when we resurrected this farmhouse twenty-some long years ago, or when we needed an honest tile drainer for the farm next door only two months ago: “Just tell them that you’re Bryan Morton’s daughter, just tell them whose daughter you are.”
I was and am and always will be your daughter, and time and miles and the grave can’t ever stop you from being my Father.
“I never realized how much safer the world felt because my Father was in the world too.”
It is true, I am daughter of the man who was killed, face down in the dirt, I know that’s what the farmers down the road say now, but we are all more than our most terrible moments, we are all more than all that went terribly wrong.
Come Father’s Day and its pixelated streams of hallmarketized Fathers, I may not have a Father to sign a card for, but I know who I am:
I am daughter to a father whose eyes misted when he said my name.
I am daughter to a father who gave me his cowlick and his grit and his tears at the end of every moving story, like he’d rinsed his world of its scales, and said he could see again, the glorious romance of being alive.
I am daughter to a father who loved 49 Fords and worn Wrangler jeans and Welch’s grape juice with his grilled porkchops, and my Mama’s raspberry kuchen on Sunday nights for years, and I am daughter to a father who choked up when he’d close his eyes and say I love you too.
Now who knows where that carpenter is that makes those single pane windows from pine, and where the cheapest place is to get heritage hens, or where was it that Great Uncle Elmer Chambers walked those hitched horses backward from the mill store or was that all family lore, and you tell me, Dad, how I’m ever going to know how to plant that magnolia tree of yours come next spring?
“Listen long while they’re alive, the silence will be so deafening when they’re gone.“
But that’s just it: Now you can’t tell me one thing more, Dad.
How can there be so many things I forgot and didn’t hold on to, because I magically thought I’d somehow always be holding on to you?
I knew it but I didn’t:
Listen long while they’re alive, the silence will be so deafening when they’re gone.
That’s what your first son-in-law said, that farm boy who started working for you when he was green out of high school, a fresh-faced farm boy of hardly 18, and is now a wizened Farmer too because he learned it all from you, and he’s said it more than a few times in the weeks after you seemed to up and vanish into thin air: “So many things I think of, that I wished I’d asked him, that only he knew,” answers that could be found only in the ringing recesses of his mind.
Fathers are our fortresses of knowledge, and keepers of the hacks, and masters of the trade called Life.
Why did I think the hands of time would be easy on us and there’d always be more time with another rap at the back door, another call and you right there: “So this is your Faaaatheeer calling,” like you needed announcing, like you could ever hide the gentle tease and fierce love in your voice.
You were our family repository for rare and uncommon knowledge, of all sorts of lost how-to-do-itness and wonders, of our creased and tattered memories, the yellowed newsprint of fading family tales.
You were a watchtower always looking out for me when I wasn’t even looking.
You were a shield that I didn’t even know I gripped in a million battles.
You were always the sure voice at the end of the line that felt like a steadying lifeline.
Is this why I feel adrift in a world without you, in a world where you will never pick up my call again and I will forever ache for your voice?
“Sometimes you don’t know who you are counting on till they are no longer counted among the living.”
Sometimes you don’t know who you are counting on till they are no longer counted among the living.
On the Shaker peg hooks lining the mudroom, Dad, you’d find it hanging there permanently, like a memorial flag flying at half mast, your blue plaid flannel jacket, that one you wore out to the shop, to the barn, to the tractor, to our kitchen, a solid 8 months of the year.
The day you were killed, I held on to your faded plaid jacket, hugging it close, stroking its arms and weeping,“Dad, oh Dad,” as we waited for the police to release your covered body laying there in the rain, as I split with the clouds, cried with the sky.
And my sister was right, and she was wrong.
You aren’t with us anymore, Dad, and you will be with us evermore.
Fathers are a singular gait you can still see coming across the back lawn like love looking for you, and they are a gate to a million places you can close your eyes and return to anytime you need, and fathers are a remembered line in your mind at just the right time, and you find you’re never lost, you’re never alone, you’re never forsaken.
Your father is still with you, always with you. Like a faded thin jacket you’ve pulled on and wear like skin, like the fingerprint-grooved worn hands you’ve memorized like a map, like a floor you can drop to and the memories hold.
How is there any other way for a true Father to be, but like the Father: with us.
Pick up our story of The Broken Way and how to love a brokenhearted world. This one’s for all of us who have felt our hearts break a bit…
This one’s for the brave and the busted and the real and dreamers and the sufferers and the believers.