I never wanted to become the woman who is only defined by her grief, but this is who I’ve become. I am the woman who lost her father.
There was me when he was still alive. And then there is me – the me who had decimated every woman who I ever was.
The woman with 1,000 ideas to defy and smash the patriarchy.
The woman who knew she could make a difference in the world.
The woman who loved flirting and made a sport out of it.
The woman who never stopped learning and evolving.
The woman who worked like crazy.
The woman who may be afflicted by severe depression, but will always bounce back with creative, manic energy.
The woman who loved dancing.
The woman who could match her nieces and nephews’ energy.
The woman who laughs hysterically.
That woman knew she could be all, she could be more. I look back at her with such admiration and jealousy – this was a woman untouched by what life was about to throw at her. I look back at her and realize she is long gone. She died the same day her father did.
Now, I am a woman who lost all her identities. All I really am is just a fatherless woman. I can’t even open a blank word document and write anything else other than Papa’s death or how it has paralyzed me. Everything in me is just tethered to this grief.
The ball in the box
Shortly after Papa died, I came across this three-year-old viral ball-in-the-box analogy on Twitter. In her tweet, Lauren Herschel explained that grief is like a ball inside a box with a pain button in it. In the beginning, the ball is almost as big as the box that contained it – thus it constantly bounces against the pain button. But as time moves forward, the ball shrinks. The ball still exists, but it’s less likely to bounce against that button.
Six months on and my ball did not shrink. I am stuck in this limbo constantly hitting that pain button. What has changed over time is how my body reacts every time the ball hits that button: less violent crying, more sleeping. It seems like I’ve cried myself to exhaustion. I’ve exhausted myself to the point that I can barely function. I stay in my bed paralyzed as dirty dishes and responsibilities pile around me. I barely even eat. Those rare days that I get to cook myself a proper meal, eat well, and then brush my teeth are days that I feel like I’ve succeeded. The rest of my days, I continue to fail.*
I do have my pretend days. Days when I had to force myself out of bed so I can be there for family: Christmas and New Year’s at my sister’s; two weeks at the hospital for my mom’s surgery; one month of cooking and serving my mom when she stayed in my apartment; Saturdays when my sister visits me. These days may serve as a salve to my battered psyche, but at the same time they bruise me, little by little. Almost every moment of these days I wonder What would Papa do if he was here?
*I did have that day when I actually had the energy and determination to get out of my bed – but only to ultimately end that cycle of suffering. And in that attempt, I failed, too.
Reining in grief
Although I like getting some sort of salvation by analyzing and re-analyzing my grief through writing (writing is introspection), I’m still aware how egocentric this is. I know that outside these words I’m piecing together, I am not at the center of this trite melodrama. I am just a daughter. The ball of grief that I carry compares nothing to that of my mother’s.
Mama had known my Papa almost all her life. They were children when they met, she from a wealthier, well-connected family, him from a poor family. Their love story spanned half a century, a story of loving, and leaving, and reconnecting, and surviving.
For someone who lost half her soul, my mother has been carrying her grief better than I have. My mother has shown how it’s like to grieve with grace. The way she talks about the last hours of Papa. The way she negotiated which vault we would be placing Papa’s urn. The way she waits for Papa to appear in her dreams. Grief is never pretty, it is hideous in its core, but my mom carries hers with the poise of a beauty queen.
As for me, I am the opposite of my mom. In our family, even when Papa was alive, I’ve always been that one chaotic child, whose extreme emotions can be disruptive, if not destructive. When I arrived at the funeral home and saw my father dead for the first time, I was hysterical. I screamed. I wailed and I wailed. In the middle of a novena prayer, days after we left the funeral home, I burst out into another loud howling, hyperventilating. In those instances when I just couldn’t shrink myself into a neat fold, my mom would rein me in. In one instance, she shushed me, If you’re suffering, what do you think I’m going through?
I learned long ago, and I am re-learning now: Others’ grief can be worse than mine. The least that I could do is disappear into the background, as if this sorrow doesn’t exist. My visible suffering will only remind them that things are worse than what they’ve led themselves to believe.
The ordinary instant
My father died in the first year of the pandemic. While it wasn’t COVID-19 that took his life, the overwhelmed health system made sure that he did. He could have lived longer; he could have spent Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and all those special days with us if emergency rooms weren’t crowded with coronavirus patients.
If the hospitals don’t want me, then I don’t want them either, he joked in the wee hours of August 20. When no hospital could accommodate him, they went back home. He assured everyone that he was fine, that he will be ok. Until he wasn’t. He died in his sleep.
Papa is just one of the millions who died in 2020, and I am just one of the millions more who were orphaned and widowed. The grief I carry has become as commonplace as the masks we all started wearing. In this mass mourning, seeking comfort from other people seemed either redundant or futile. How can you look for comfort, for a set of ears willing to listen to your grief, when the rest of humanity is broken? The worst that could happen is finding yet another person to invalidate your grief, and tell you There are millions out there going through the same, be grateful because some have it worse. As if telling us stories of someone else’s misery would make ours more bearable.
Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.
As I slip back into my bed, after exhausting the last of my energy writing this long rambling, I fold myself back into a fragile little rag inserted between the world of the living and the world of barely existing. A limbo of sleeping, of quietly crying, of finding solace in fictional universes, of sleeping again and wishing not to return to the waking world.
Outside, time shifts and moves forward. It waits on no one. It is indifferent to my pleas as it strays further away from the world my father has left behind.