Monday, April 09, 2007

Confused alarms of struggle and flight

Just about a year go I found out that my father had late stage lung cancer. They had just heard the diagnosis themselves on April 8. I called on the evening of April 8 (the morning of April 9 in India), and Papa sounded strange, as if he had just woken up from sleep. He very hastily handed the phone to my mother, who said, "oh, he's just woken up." It was around 8:30 am in India, and I thought it strange. They're both normally up by 7:00 or so. [Later he told me that he just couldn't bear to talk to me that morning.]

In the morning, after I got out of Mass (it was Palm Sunday last year on April 9), I noticed six missed calls from my brother on my cell phone and my heart sank. I remember walking across campus for lunch, not being able to dial his number back. And just sitting in the office and crying and crying, after my fingers finally cooperated, and I had heard the news.

What a strange creature grief is. It comes out of nowhere, like a beast of prey, attacking swiftfly, going for the jugular, leaving one helpless and gasping, with a knife twisting in the stomach, a lump in the throat, and a heart made of lead.

I know it's Easter. "Christ has conquered, glory fills you, darkness vanishes forever," the Exsultet proclaims in amazement. I read the Holy Father's words below with joy, and draw strength from them, from so many other sources. Yet it is so obvious how imperfect a world we live in, and how much we don't want to belong to Christ, but just to ourselves and our hapless wills and divided hearts.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
(From Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach.")
April 9 is also Papa's birthday. He would have been 77. Last May, sitting in the oncologist's office, he told my mother and brother that he had celebrated his last birthday.

He was right.


Kraft said...

I lost my dad almost nine years ago now; grief is weird in that some years are worst than others. One anniversary or birthday passes with little less than a thought and prayer. Others are filled with nothing but grief.

My prayers are always with you.

Mike said...

Eternal rest to Papa, and peace to you.

Mac said...

I’m not good at Catholic pieties as you know, Gashwin. Not of the Latin and Mediterranean and Oriental kinds you may be familiar with, nor of the Celtic varieties that are rather closer to home, and not even the latterly fashionably tony Anglo-Saxon ones.

(An English friend, a junior fellow of Kings College Cambridge and the head of the operations of a multinational British corporation in the South Pacific, who became a rather ostentatiously Romish Roman Catholic — at Farm Street, indeed, just like Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Graham Green et al. — when the Anglican Church began ordaining women, has been down the past week and I am beginning to find unremitting Catholic piety a mite taxing.)

But I shared with you the various events and indeed rites as my Dad sickened and died some little while before your own not dissimilar experience. And I am deeply moved by your comments these past months on your father’s decline and death. (Gawd, please don’t say “passing.” Yuck.) And I am comforted anew by your contemplations on the subject. And grateful to you for so eloquently articulating your grief.

There was recently a comment in some highly literate forum — 3QuarksDaily, perhaps — about the current fad for jolly funerals: something to the effect of, “I don’t want funny stories at my funeral. I don’t want a ‘celebration of my life.’ I don’t want people saying, ‘Let’s not be morbid; let’s move on.’ I want to be properly mourned; I want my absence to be regretted; I want my friends to be sad that I am dead.”

Well, amen to that (pronounced Ah-men, please, not Eiy-men!. Scotch Presbyterians and Scotch Baptists and Scotch Catholics and Anglicans in our family, no Pentecostals!)

My Mum, as you may recall my telling you, was absolutely determined that her and Dad’s somewhat emotionally unhinged (at any opportunity) Scotch families must not be permitted to go haywire at Dad’s funeral, as they are wont to do. (My Grandma keened at my Grandpa’s funeral in a way that was right back to 200 years ago in the Outer Hebrides!) Much less that anyone be reminded of the hitherto unspoken-of Indian common law wives of two of my Grandpa’s seven brothers, whose funerary mourning made Scotch widows look downright phlegmatic.

So thank you again for a very helpful lot of musing. It was for you, of course. But it did me a lot of good.

assiniboine said...

PS Sometime read Neil Bissoondath's "A Casual Brutality," a novel about a Canadian-resident Trinidadian Hindu who must travel home to Trinidad to attend to his father's Hindu funeral. And tell me what your reaction is. Bissoondath is the nephew of V.S. Naipaul and he is just as uncompromising as his uncle, but considerable nicer a man. He has written extensively on the same subjects as his nasty uncle, but he comes across as someone it WOULD be nice to have living across the back fence.

Gashwin said...

Thanks y'all.

@ Mac: Thankfully the whole "celebration of life" (to the exclusion of mourning and grief) thing hasn't infected India yet. And I get rather riled up when some Christians say that since we are a resurrection people, we shouldn't grieve. (It's the reason why I am rather disappointed that the reformed funeral service in the Roman rite now omits the Dies Irae). Death is quite real, and trivializing it is not much better than giving in to despair and forgetting about the Resurrection.

The day my father died I heard often, "Look how peaceful he looks." I thought to myself, "bullsh*t. He doesn't look peaceful. He looks dead."

thomps said...

Grieve as you see fit and feel. To H??? with what people think. Both my parents were dying at the same time. My Dad had cancer and my Mom cancer and a whole host of other ailments she had been fighting her whole adult life which finally caught up with her. People thought I was cold about their deaths, but in fact I was numb. I experienced weird choking fits at the time. Later I read an English writer saying the same thing about choking when her son died in a car accident. It was the only way that I could handle it and still function. Months later in a fabric store I broke down crying and got all sorts of strange looks. In some ways grief over your loved ones never leaves you. There are times you feel the loss harder (quite often on anniversaries of some sort)and a lot of other times when you can think of them in passing and you rarely feel any kind of emotion. The big thing for me and some other people I talked to was getting over remembering their death and to get back to remembering their life! It's been over 8 years now and I rarely think of their deaths now but remember their lives and the memories of them both good and bad. Basically I'm saying people should grieve as they need to. There's no such thing as a timetable. In retrospect I can even see my parents dying so close together as a blessing. At the end of a married life of bickering and complaining they did truly love each other and found they couldn't live without each other.

Anonymous said...

May your dear Papa rest in peace and may the Lord continue to comfort you and your family in these sorrowful days.

In Christ,