Hangin' In There: A Word on Grief
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
By Teresa Schumacher
"How's your father doing?"
For seven years it was always the same question.
And for seven years my answer never changed.
"Oh, he's hangin' in there."
The truth always sealed up somewhere behind a safe, tight smile.
Some days were better than others.
Some days we'd laugh until our bellies hurt. Well, his belly always hurt in the end. But this was a good kind of ache. The kind that made him forget, just for a moment, the real pain.
Some days we'd write songs, so consumed with the music that we'd let go of the passing of time and let our hearts be swept away by the sound of a perfect harmony.
Some days he had a good appetite, and I'd take him out to dinner. Mexican or sushi, his favorites. Root beer floats and hotdogs in the summertime. Secretly hoping that a big pile of food would make him gain a pound or two.
Other days I just wanted it all to stop, silently wishing for an end to all this pain, whatever that might mean.
On those days he'd double over from the evil that was eating him from the inside out, and I could only look on, helpless.
On those days I'd take off running and fall in a broken heap, crying to a god I never quite convinced myself to belief in, begging for relief from this hell we never asked for.
You see, my father and I, we were broken.
Torn up by an illness that crept up slowly and consumed us so quietly that we didn't even see the tiny changes it made to our daily lives until suddenly we looked up and it's all we had left. This poison, creeping through his bone marrow until it left him weak and short of breath and me on the sidelines, feeling powerless and hollow inside.
"How's your father doing?" you ask.
"Oh, he's hangin' in there."
He taught me to laugh. Instead of getting angry, instead of crying, he showed me that you can stamp out the darkness with a good sense of humor.
On Halloween one year he lay in a hospital bed, hanging on by a thread. I watched him shrinking before my eyes and prayed skeptically to my ever silent god.
His doctor walked in then and introduced himself as Mike Myers, Hospitalist.
My dad and I shared a look. Mike Meyers? Halloween!? You gotta be shitting me. We laughed until tears trickled down our cheeks.
Sometimes the line between laughter and sorrow is a fine one.
He grew old.
Quickly, in a matter of months. His face became lined and gaunt. His movements slow, deliberate.
He turned to me gravely one day and said, "Tess, I'm beginning to look a bit like a pencil."
We laughed unabashedly and I started calling him Pencil Head. Once again taking that sadness and making it our own. Embracing what we could not fight in the face of All That Fucking Pain.
We took walks.
In the beginning they were long hikes through the forest and down by the river. Time spent talking about life, death, and everything in between.
Toward the end we were satisfied with short journeys down the street and back, with frequent pauses for him to catch his ever shortening breath.
On our last walk we sat for a long time at our favorite bench. It was a particularly windy autumn day, and all the leaves seemed to fall at once, leaving the ground temporarily coated with a sleek golden carpet. An odd but welcoming contrast against the stolid gray Ohio sky.
He told me then that when he died, at least he wouldn't be in pain anymore.
"Hey, haven't seen your dad in awhile, how's he holding up?"
"Oh, you know. He's hangin' in there."
He stopped leaving his home.
It was too much work-getting dressed, walking to the car, talking to people. Even chairs were impossible-they never seemed to have enough cushions.
He found solace in old comforts. A morning cup of coffee, sitting on the front deck and watching the squirrels, listening to a song we had written together. He discovered a newfound appreciation for Oreos.
His house became his sanctuary in a world that became more precarious every day.
The day he died my world shattered, the pieces falling to the ground around me and quickly rearranging themselves into something cold and unfamiliar. I looked to the sky and thanked the heavens for ending his pain, then curled inward with my grief and felt everything else slip away.
I wrapped his winter coat around my shoulders and closed my eyes, trying to breath him in, while in the fading distance I felt a gentle hand placed on my back. Someone spoke a soft, kind word I couldn't quite hear, then handed me a roll of toilet paper to wipe away my tears, apologizing that there weren't any tissues.
Little attempts at comfort that seemed so strange and out of place because I was already somewhere very far away.
That night I sat with my newfound loneliness and a cup of hot tea, looking at old photographs from another time and place.
There he was, leaning gently over a keyboard, Panama hat tipped over his blue eyes. His sideways smile a telltale sign that what he heard was sounding oh so sweet.
The injustice of time hit me so suddenly it left me crying out and grasping at the air around me for something concrete, anything that I could hold onto to steady myself against a world turned upside down.
"How are you doing?" was all I heard for weeks.
"I'm hangin' in there, thanks".
My world had became divided into Before and After. For the past seven years I had been afraid of the day I'd have to say goodbye. Now I realized that it was the moving on that should be feared the most.
"Time will heal the pain" they said.
But I didn't want to heal, because all I had left was the hurt.
I began to move through the world differently, my grief now my constant companion. Anything could trigger it- A sweet song, the smell of coffee, the taste of spring in the air. I found myself looking around and thinking-who else feels what I feel, knows what I know? We all look so normal, going about our lives. Our secret sorrows tucked neatly away in a pocket next to our hearts.
The flowers wilted and the phone calls stopped. The world righted itself on its axis and marched forward as it always does.
And I began a life with a gaping hole in the middle where my father used to be.
"How are you doing?"
The question isn't as frequent as it used to be, the passing of time meant to heal all wounds and allow us to forge ahead.
Still, it might be a bad day. A day where I feel like I've just been baptized in an ice cold lake and I can't quite seem to catch my breath. It might be one of those in-between-days, where the grief is contained like a walled off abscess, only slightly weighing down my steps as I move through the world. Or it might be a day where I'm laughing, and things seem normal, and suddenly I realize I'm laughing and for a moment I feel happy and how could that be?
How could that possibly be?
Whatever the day, I suppose I'm just like anyone else battling my way through a world torn apart by grief, and my answer will always be the same.
I'm hangin' in there.
Written by Teresa Schumacher