On a personal level, one of the toughest after-effects of losing my father has been this deep-seated need for control. I'm sure the explanatory psychobabble goes something like: I couldn't help my father then and I can't lessen my mother's pain now, but maybe if I cling to everything I hold dear with all of my might, I can prevent further loss.
But none of us has that kind of control.
My father fell ill the year he officially retired. After working for almost 50 years, he'd finally felt comfortable reducing his hours as an accountant to spend more time doing the things he loved - fishing in Martha's Vineyard and traveling and spending time with my mom. And then wham! The universe has a cruel sense of humor.
The thing is, I don't think he would have done a damn thing differently. He loved his family and spending time with us had always been important to him. He knew what his priorities were. And he took the time to do the things he loved to do. He'd spent a month in Martha's Vineyard with my mom and friends every year since he'd discovered the fishing nirvana in the 80s. He drank beer with the neighbors, relished eating with friends and family, celebrated milestones with class and enthusiasm and retired each night with the love of his life. He'd lived the way he wanted to live.
The period right before my dad's death was brutal. Pain medication and system failure kept him out of it and he had been unresponsive for several days. My mom and brother and I sat vigil by his hospital bed, taking turns holding his hands. He was never alone. At the very moment of his death, my mom had one hand and I had the other. Suddenly, we each felt a gentle squeeze -- and then he was gone.
I know the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I am finally coming out of stage four and entering stage five, but it's been a painful process. This need for control, this desire to hold on tightly and suffocatingly to everyone I hold dear lest I lose them, too, in one way or another has finally become too much. It's a Hurculean task anyway. Perhaps that final stage of grief - acceptance - is really the understanding that nothing we do, say or feel will change the very fact of our loss just like it won't change the position of the sun or what tomorrow brings. As we tell children, you can't control what happens, only how you react to what happens.
I've recently had the good fortune to spend some time in eastern France. What a heart-wrenchingly beautiful country. Nevertheless, the Europeans seem much less concerned with the illusion of safety - of control - than we are in the U.S. Along every great mountain pass in France and Switzerland, narrow, winding roads hug the sheer, majestic cliffs with barely a nod to conventional guard rails. An invitation to disaster . . . or an acknowledgment that ultiimately we can't prevent every tragedy? After driving over enough of these passes with my ever-patient husband at the wheel, I eventually learned to open my eyes - and then to even enjoy the view.
Control is often an illusion. I can no more control the actions and decisions of others than I could have controlled the course of my father's illness. Devastation lurks. But as with Kubler-Ross's stages of grief, out of devastation can come acceptance. And hope. And maybe even a new beginning, an understanding that what will be, will be and despite the lack of guarantees, the ride is still worth taking.
Last night while I sat contemplating all of this and nursing a hurt born of yet something else I can't control, I thought about my dad. I thought about his love for us, his ultimate brave acceptance of his own lot (and his never-failing sense of humor), of how much I miss him. A funny thing happened while I sat thinking about him - a shutter that I have never seen move began to swing back and forth gently, despite a lack of breeze. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I'm going to accept it as a sign. It's time to let go.