I have a stack of unopened sympathy cards sitting on my kitchen counter. They've been there for almost a month now. Some have arrived in my mailbox and found their way onto the pile, and my mother has delivered a few more.
I can't bring myself to open a single one of them.
Grieving isn't new for me, and it's been a long, long road -- this journey of saying goodbye to my father. Ronald Reagan called his Alzheimers the "long goodbye", and he was right. Since the day my mom called to tell me the news six years ago, it's been an incredibly difficult, painful but often beautiful experience.
I remember the first time I met my parents for breakfast -- something that had become a weekly tradition -- and my dad couldn't say my name. He knew me and enjoyed our conversation, but he just couldn't form words the way he used to. He was restless, so we left the table and found a seat on the bench in the front of the restaurant while waiting for my mom to finish up. We sat there holding hands, much like we had when I was a little girl. No words needed, just love flowing between us. It was a sad but lovely day, because I understood that even if my father couldn't say my name, he could still love me.
I recall the family dinner where the noise and chaos got the best of my father. He sat on the couch, rocking back and forth, a few stray tears wending their way down his cheeks. My mom squatted in front of him, put her forehead against him, and spoke softly while she stroked his head until his distress was gone. It made me cry, but it was also the manifestation of true love. I gained a deep respect for my mother that day, because I witnessed her vows of "for better or worse" lived out with tenderness and kindness. I understood that while Alzheimers might changed the dynamics of relationships, it couldn't change the foundation of relationships.
And then there were the field trips that Dad and I took while my mom ran errands or went to appointments. When something we did sparked a memory, he got excited and -- using sweeping gestures, pointing, and single telegraphed words -- struggled to share that memory with me. I loved those times together, because they gave me back a tiny piece of my father who was leaving just a little bit more every day.
And I remember my last real visit with my dad. I'd flown in late the night before from a business trip to New York City, and I hurried to my parents' home before a busy day of meetings began. I sat and just held his hand as he lay in the hospital bed that had been moved into the guest room. I told him how much I loved having him as a father, and that as a child I completely took him for granted. I told him that I thought it was the best compliment anyone could pay their father, because it meant that he was my rock, that I never worried if he'd come home. It never occurred to me that it was possible for fathers not to be consistent and reliable. I never doubted that there would be food on the table or clothes or vacations. And when I messed up, he forgave me and helped me solve my problems. Tears flowed freely for both of us as I talked, and he mouthed a simple thank you to me. It broke my heart that I was losing my father, but I felt so very blessed to have the privilege of telling him what he meant to me.
And so a month after his funeral, the sympathy cards sit unopened. Maybe some day I'll have the fortitude to read them, but not today.
Today I'm just not quite ready for the long goodbye to be completely over.