“Please come back.”
I’m sitting on the (closed) toilet seat in our bathroom, staring through the window at a slice of sky.
Please come back, I utter over and over. My voice sounds like a little girl. Tears trickle down my cheekbones, dribble down my neck.
I sound crazy, even to myself.
He’s dead, my rational mind whispers. Your dad is dead. He can’t come back.
And yet here I sit, pleading for the impossible.
Another day: I’m driving home. Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds” sneaks into my Pandora station.
Without my own permission, I’m bawling my eyes out, howling like a wounded dog along with the song.
Clearly, I think, this 80s love ballad is actually a song about a dad dying, leaving his daughter behind.
How did I never notice that? I ask Phil Collins’s brooding visage on my phone. Phil stares back.
Or: I’m standing at my parents’ entryway closet, sniffing my dad’s flannel shirts.
They’re lined up, as if waiting for him to return, to slip back into them.
They will, I realize, wait forever.
The soft fabric still smells like him, like a fresh, gentle soap. I hear the sounds of my own wailing.
When the wave of grief has finally settled like an exhausted, post-tantrum toddler, I laugh at the ridiculousness of the scene. What no one tells us about grief: how much time we spend huffing at shirts, at pillows.
I take the dog for long walks in the woods and ask for signs. I whisper to butterflies: Are you my father? I press my palm against tall, thick trees. I lean my shoulder into the trunk of one, let it brace me for a moment. The dog looks back at me, cocks her head, as if wondering, What’s this strange human ritual?
I’m just trying to be fathered, I think. I press my palm to the sturdy tree as if to thank it for holding me, then continue walking.
I’ve written so much about grief, about being brotherless. But until my dad’s recent, unexpected death, I’d forgotten the texture of new loss, how fierce and gnashing it is. How physical and muscular. How it brings us, literally and figuratively, to our knees. How it exposes the naked animal of us—the raw, hairless part that is all heart and hurt.
The part that sniffs shirts. That asks trees to father us. That sits on the toilet, begging our loved one to become undead.
The part that feels like, maybe, we’re losing our minds.
Fresh grief is a lot like new love. It’s as wild and obsessive and primal. Early in a relationship, we feel stunned by our new person’s existence—how could they have been in the world all this time without us knowing? In that same way, new loss leaves us staggered by our person’s blunt absence—how can they have been here, alive, and then not?
In early love, everything reminds us of our beloved. They flood our minds and our mouths. Our friends tire of hearing the mundane details that to us are bright gems. When we lose someone, too, our lost love soaks our mind. My husband lugs our sleeping daughter up to bed, and my eyes fill with tears: I am seven again, drowsy and held by my dad. Safe.
Memories clatter through, a stream of jagged jewels. We rush to greedily grab them, to protect them from the blur of time.
Early grief is just new love, turned inside out.
Because the true story of love is that we find and lose each other. And that love doesn’t dissipate; it just changes shape. It twists and pools.
And like new love, with time, this grief will morph. It will soften into something that feels less like insanity. Into something we live with—aching, potent, enduring.