Thursday, April 22, 2010

Grieving Daddy's Death

Tatiana, my eight-year-old daughter, begins to cry. “Mom-my! I’m not talking to you. You are making me so sad.”

Her curly blonde hair flies everywhere, as if being blown by a fan. She stomps into the bathroom, slams the door, and locks herself in.

All morning, Tatiana has not been listening, and I’m fed up with having to repeat my words six times just to be heard.

Deep breath, I tell myself.

I call through the bathroom door, “Honey, come out here.”

To my surprise, she twists the knob right away, but her sobs continue rising like a helicopter.

“Come sit here.”

Tatiana curls in my lap, making her lanky body compact. She blows her nose on her orange sunflower dress.

“I know we’ve all had colds and that you’ve been worried about Daddy being sick, and Mommy being sick, and I know it’s been a big change for you having another baby and Mommy working more.”

Tatiana inhales deeply, trying to talk. “That would be, um, three things, but there are really four, and not really four, cause the fourth thing is like one million things—Daddy Erik dying—that is like one million things, so it’s like there are one million and three things to be sad about.”

“You’re right, Daddy Erik dying is like one million things all in one.”

She cries even more.

I feel awful. My irritation over her not listening completely disappears.

It’s been almost seven years since Erik’s death, and Tatiana’s grief over her deceased father catches me completely off guard.

“It’s good to cry about it,” I say. “It’s good to let out all of the sad so it doesn’t stay in you forever.”

I just want to hold her, protect her, to ward off anything bad from ever happening.

“But, uh, Mommy? When will I see Daddy Erik again?”

“Not until we die, sweetheart. But we can look at him in pictures, and you can dream about him.”

“But it’s not good when I dream about him, cause it feels like he is there, in my dream, and then I wake up even more sad, cause he’s not there.”

“I know that is hard. I know. Do you want me to put up some bigger pictures of him so we can look at them more?”

“No, I want to take all of the other pictures down. They just remind me that he died.”

“I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better, honey. I really do.”

But the truth is that I am not really sure what to say. I’ve been so busy writing my memoir, running my photography business, trying to successfully raise four children, and be a good wife that I don’t even know how to make myself feel better about Erik’s death most of the time.

“I know what to do,” Tatiana says. She jumps up from my lap and runs into the dining room, grabbing a piece of paper and a red marker out of the art drawer.

I follow behind her and sit next to her at our round marble table.

She writes in thick red with her most focused intention: "I MISS YOU SO . . ."

“How do you spell ‘much’, Mommy?”

I say, “M.U.C.H.”

What I notice while I watch her form her letters is that my stare is blank. I am there, but not really there. I am back at that Easter Sunday dinner, seven months pregnant and watching my 29-year-old husband, Erik, his back against the kitchen cabinets, sliding down to the white, tiled floor. He lets out a choking sound. Tatiana, only 17-months-old, cries, "Uh, uh," pointing at her motionless daddy, next to her high chair.

Thirty-five minutes later, Erik is proclaimed dead. Sudden death. Suddenly widowed. A widow with two babies. I have no idea how I will tell Tatiana that her daddy will never hold her again.

And now, that same Tatiana is in second grade and writing a note to her dead father.

She squeezes the last few letters into the right lower corner of the paper. It reads: "DADDY ERIK, I MISS YOU SO MUCH. PLEASE CAN I SEE YOU AGAIN?"

“There,” she declares. “I’m all done. Now I want to make sure he gets this.”

She pushes her chair in and walks toward the sliding glass door. She yanks on the handle, but the door is jammed.

I help her unlock it. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to let this letter blow off of the balcony and fly up to Daddy Erik in heaven.”

I think about not wanting to litter, but then figure it’s much more important, in this case, to let Tatiana feel she is sending a message to Erik, so I open the sliding glass door.

She lets the white paper slip from her hands, over the gray wooden railing. Tatiana’s letter lands, beneath us, on the shingles of the lower level of our house.

Her big brown eyes connect with mine. Will she be disappointed when the paper doesn’t magically lift to the sky?

Tatiana shrugs her shoulders, “You know, mommy, it might just fall in our backyard.”

I reassure her. “Oh, no, look! It’s blowing again.” I imagine a celestial hand parting the clouds, its long fingers reaching down to bring her words to Erik.

The paper sails down the side of our house, out of our sight.

Tatiana smiles a little. “It still might just end up in the backyard, but it doesn’t matter. As long as Daddy Erik sees it, so, you know, he can write me back.”

I give her a big hug, wishing, more than anything, that he could write her back.

This is our life now. It is wonderfully rich and full of love with my new husband and our baby’s slobbery, open-mouthed kisses, and then, wham, there are these reminders that, yes, Erik really did die, and yes, it is something that will keep affecting our lives during unexpected moments—hopefully shaping us into better people.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter's Death Springs Renewal

My dad is Lutheran, my mom is Jewish. My childhood exposed me to traditions from both denominations, but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as religious.

Spiritual, yes.

Religious, no.

In fact, if there is a god, I’m still pretty pissed off at him.

Today, though, I can’t help but contemplate the religious meaning in both Easter and Passover.

Seven years ago, on Easter Sunday, my husband, Erik, and I admired our 17-month-old daughter, Tatiana, as she carefully grasped purple and pink polka-dotted eggs in the grass.

“Do you think about how lucky we are,” I said to Erik.

He rubbed my ripe, pregnant belly. “Yeah, I think about it at least five times a day.”

Erik was a rising-star manager for Lucas Digital and I had photographed over two-thousand Northern California families through my children’s photography business. We were both 29, both excited to be only two months away from the birth of our second daughter, Keira.

Fortunately, our marriage had reached the point in which laughter, or the playful flick of a middle finger, could end most conflicts.

That Easter Sunday, right after our casual family dinner, Erik kissed all over Tatiana's round, olive cheeks. "Who's my itty bitty ditty bug?"

She kicked her legs, in her lime-green high-chair, squealing with delight, “Da-Da!”

And then the delight vanished. Laughter silenced itself, as we watched Erik slide down the kitchen counter. 

Are you kidding me?

He lay motionless on the cold, white-tiled kitchen floor.

“Erik, get up.”

Then I noticed the blood. A line of blood trickling down his mouth.

This can’t be happening.

“Don’t worry, Tatiana. Da-da’s going to be okay.”

But he wasn’t okay.

No, Erik did not rise like the stories of Jesus. Nor did Erik’s blood mark him to be passed over.

Erik was dead.

Just like that.

So, here it is, seven years later, and this scene has hammered my mind like an incessant woodpecker. Again and again, I have let grief’s beak rip open my forehead, in order to make sense of things.

But this Easter morning is different.

This Easter, Tatiana and Keira, now 8 and 6, have an older brother and a new baby brother. This year, we are all blessed by Evan, my new husband, who adopted the girls two years ago.

And this year, Easter just so happens to be April 4th, the day before Evan's April 5th birthday. 

What does this mean?

I used to think that Erik’s death on Easter Sunday simply packed my anger with more ammunition, but now I have deeper understanding.

Like these two dates, death and life sleep side by side.

Because of my sadness, my joy is now amplified. Because I have witnessed death, I know to celebrate life.

Now, as Evan and I help our four children decorate their Easter eggs, I feel the renewal in Spring.