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What I Learned About My Heart When My Dad Died

When grief makes us slow down so our heart can catch up.

My dad had been sick for a long time before he died. He had valiantly, efficiently beaten lung cancer but he also suffered from a few different lung diseases that compromised his now diminished (one less lobe) lung capacity. Yet, he looked great when I last saw him in a Seattle hospital. He was in great spirits — all smiles — had great coloring and I really thought he was close to tackling pneumonia to the ground.

I had made plans to fly back for Thanksgiving. I promised I would cook up a storm, and make all his favorite things.

Even though his health was so very compromised, I was still shocked when he died only two days after I left his side. Smiling and chipper one day and gone less than 48 hours later.

I received the call around 5 a.m. The nurse said that when she had last checked in on him, he was smiling and making her laugh. Of course he was. He was a bright light until the very end.

Some hours after I received that call, in a hazy gray daze I backed out of my driveway and looked to the right for oncoming traffic. I don’t recall where I was going but I do vividly recall stopping the car. Not a single car in sight, I was just somehow shocked that my neighbor was mowing his lawn. I didn’t understand how mundane things could continue. “Doesn’t he know my father died?,” I wondered — not in the narcissistic weird way — just steeped in the query, “How do death and lawn mowing exist in the same moment?”

As I watched my neighbor, I thought that this death day should be a day of no chores for anyone.

Everyone should just relax today. My dad died.

My dad lived in Alaska most of my life and I would visit in the summers. The lawn grew incessantly there, of course, with more light than it could possibly know what to do with. I hated mowing it, but would often be tasked with that chore. My dad had a lifetime of mowing experience and did it expertly and quickly. He was always dripping with sweat when he finished, no matter what the weather, but damn he did a fine job of it. I did it awkwardly and ineptly because I tried to go as fast as he did. He was always coaching me to slow down.

It was kind of a part time job for my dad, this consistently coaching me to slow down. It extended to gentle suggestions to breathe, take a day off, take care of myself and my heart.

My dad died on a Saturday, which is far too casual a day for death, as far as I’m concerned. I now remember being grateful that I had two days to get used to my new normal before I had to be smart, alert and extricated from the gray haze of mourning.

A few days later I was in a downtown Los Angeles high rise elevator. I was miraculously alone, skyrocketing up the 50-something floors at what seemed like lightning speed. Just after leaving the ground, I burst into tears. I wasn’t ready to engage with normal. I definitely wasn’t ready to engage with traveling through life at high velocity.

I could feel my dad tell me that it was OK to cry, and that I couldn’t hurry my heart.

The earth always seems to turn more slowly around death, and that’s a good thing because our hearts need slow. My waves of grief came at a steady pace, big swells that I didn’t even realize I was in until I noticed I was no longer touching the sand.

I visited my 102 year old friend today. She is speaking, breathing and thinking more slowly these days. She took a break in our conversation to close her eyes at one point. Her breathing slowed and I thought she was falling asleep, so I just held her hand, assuming I would gently pull away at some point and leave. Then she woke up and picked up the conversation where she had left it. Then she closed her eyes again, and this pattern continued. Not missing a beat really, just with a lot of space in between her surprisingly sharply executed points. It was slow, peaceful, and it was very gentle on both of our hearts. It was like waves of a conversation. I just rested, floating on the surface when she took her sleepy dips.

When I left she told me that I brought her peace today. I’m sure my dad was smiling above: my wise friend was continuing my dad’s lessons:

Allow.

Allow the in-between moments.

Float between the waves.

Relax, it’s all good.

Slow down so your heart can catch up.

Slow down so your heart can catch up.

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