I walked my Dad’s property in my mind this morning. I am currently unable to visit it in person partially out of unwelcomeness and partially unwillingness.
A few months before I was born Dad purchased the property, which is in Virginia, sight unseen from Germany. He and my mom were living there because he worked as a mechanic for an aircraft company that was contracted with the US military. My Dad loved that land before he ever set foot there the way a father loves his unborn baby. Even though he hadn’t met it yet, he was bonded to it. His best friend (who he bought it with) took pictures and sent them overseas and my Dad lined them up just-so and pinned them to a cork board so he could see the landscape. It was nothing back then, 80-some acres of hills and fields in a very remote part of Virginia. He loved that place with his whole soul, so much it nearly consumed him. He dreamed of living there, which was impossible (or seemed to be–he later made it happen). There was no running water or electricity in the area and with nearly a mile long rocky mountain driveway only a 4 wheel drive could make it in. Sometimes even those couldn’t get in. I remember going there as a kid. It was one of my favorite things. We’d wake up early on a Saturday and drive up with coolers packed for the weekend. We would stop along the way for fried chicken from Bojangles and I’d always get queasy winding the mountain roads to get there. It was so worth it when we did get there, though. It was miles away from the bustle of a city. It was crisp and fresh and in a sweet way, terrifying. I learned a lot of things there; real, raw, experiential things. I remember believing I’d struck gold when the glimmer of mica caught my eye while playing on a dirt hill and the way my heart fell when Dad told me it wasn’t. I learned other things that made my heart fall there too. I learned by experience what it feels like to say goodbye to your hero. It’s the realest, rawest truth I think I’ve ever learned, with some close seconds to follow.
Dad had his wife call me on a Thursday. It was his eighteenth month since a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. A mole on his scalp had gone and turned our worlds upside down. His health took a sharp decline that day and he asked her to call me. I went to see him that very hour. It was raining as I drove the mountains and valleys to get there and for the better part of the almost two hour drive I cried out to God aloud. I didn’t beg Him for my Dad to magically not have cancer, I didn’t beg Him to make the whole thing a bad dream. What I did beg for and plead for was for Him to be ever present in the experience and that my Dad would know Peace, Comfort and Love. And I begged Him to help me survive losing my Dad. That sounds trite when I read it, but with my history of manic depressive illness (I know there’s a new name–bipolar disorder– but I always felt like the old label describes me best) I knew my survival could legitimately be an issue.
I did survive. I’m still surviving. I’m almost 9 months in to my life on the planet without my Dad. It’s the heaviest weight my heart has ever had to bear. So heavy it sort of shut me down for a while. I had to move through that to be able to do life. It felt like wading through jello, but with an added disorientation. In the midst of navigating that, for a variety of factors, it was made clear to me that I was no longer welcome in that place and that none of my father’s personal belongings would be made available to me either. I’m not someone that cares a thing about money, but I do love sentimental items. I would have loved to have the Christmas ornaments I made for him when my brother and I were kids, or a pocket knife or a shirt. I want to be a bigger person than to need a physical thing to remember my Dad, but if I’m giving myself grace I think that’s just a way we all grieve. Either way, I have no choice other than to accept the way it is and the fact that for now, the only option is to walk the land in my mind.
I close my eyes and call on memory to drive me there. I know just the way it feels to start up the driveway from the dirt road. I know just the way the car would move when we turned this way or that. I can nearly hear the scratches of a thin, stray branch against the car window. It’s a feeling of 37 years worth of drives into the hollow that stir in my soul, better than any video I could take. And once the car stops and I go to “get out” my feet feel many different ages at once. The six year old me is queasy and stretches and pulls in the fresh air as teenager me hauls board games into the little cabin Dad built. Simultaneously the twenty-something me laughs with my Dad on the porch and the thirty-something me unloads a car full of kids, eager to spend time riding on the all terrain golf cart with “Bear” exploring the same land I grew up on, the land where my Dad’s body was buried; far from my reach.
My son is five, he says we should take flowers and hold hands at his grave and pray. The mere idea makes my breath catch and my heart drop. It physically hurts when it happens, and folds me up in sorrow. I don’t know what would happen if we went without permission. I’m not sure I’m willing to find out right now. I haven’t been there since his funeral, but even then I had begun to detach from the place, from the tangible parts of who he was and what belonged to him. Sitting in the classic wobbly chair on a fake grass mat under a tent I processed a lot of things. I stared right into the eyes of the old preacher (a friend of my Dad’s) and he into mine as he spoke of the promise God made when He sent Jesus. I knew when I walked away from his casket that sweltering afternoon it would be a long time before I might be near him again. That has proven both true and false. He is near my heart each day; in my memory of his voice encouraging me to persevere, in my voice as I pronounce words the way he did and in the way my hands and feet look like his. He is as near to me as ever. I often wonder if heaven is much closer to us than we think and that because of our limitations as people we just won’t understand until we are there.