Courtesy of The New York Times.com | By Andy Kopsa | Illustration by Fien Jorissen | Originally Published 02.28.2019 | Posted 04.06.2019
I got a text message from my father.
My first thought: impossible — that old man doesn’t know how to text.
My second thought: impossible — my father is dead.
My dad died on Sept. 4 — a Tuesday — just a month shy of his 82nd birthday. He was a farmer, just like my grandfather, and was the hardest working man I knew.
There are four of us kids; my brother and I just over a year apart, then a five-year gap and two sisters back to back. My father took a subtle approach to parenting. This resulted in my mother screaming on various occasions, “Leo, get those kids off the top of that barn/tree/tractor/wagon!”
He lived long enough to grudgingly retire, my brother taking over the farm where we were all raised, as was always understood. Dad couldn’t stay away from the farm, puttering around in the huge back garden; planting various squash (or as he pronounced it, “skwarsh”), potatoes and tomatoes; wrangling grandkids to till, plant or pull weeds.
I always figured dad would die on a tractor or performing some other farming-related task. I looked back down at my phone, afraid to read the message because for one moment so bright and terrifying I allowed myself to think: What if?
I opened it. It was from my nephew letting me know he took over my father’s telephone number; he couldn’t bear the thought of it going to someone else. I let myself cry fully then, relieved it wasn’t my father texting from beyond and shattered because he wasn’t.
As an investigative reporter, it is my job to get to the bottom of things, to make sense out of stacks of police reports, pages of legislation, histories and patterns to produce articles — a distillation of findings and interviews arranged in neat articles hopefully interesting and easy to understand.
I started researching grief. I wanted desperately to know the timing on this thing. When would I stop dropping to my knees (out of the blue) and crying so hard for so long that my ribs hurt?
My research turned up the five — or seven, depending on the source — stages of grief. It revealed ways of grieving and ceremonies that were supposed to ease this time in my life. I was to be reassured, according to one theory, that everyone dies, that life is death, therefore grief will come to us all.
There is nothing less profound than pointing out the inevitability of dying to tie us all together in suffering.
I found out my father was dying in late April. It was still a bit chilly as I walked around my Upper West Side neighborhood that day. My phone buzzed and it was my mother, calling with results from the decisive test, though I can’t remember which one. Blood work? CT scan? Or was it an ultrasound?
I answered, and my mother asked: “Are you home?” No, I wasn’t home, and no, I wouldn’t wait until I get home to call her back.
I sat on a bike rack at a familiar location down the block. I can still feel heat climbing the back of my neck to the tips of my ears, the way my gut plunged. We didn’t have the official diagnosis yet, but I knew it was the worst news. My mother told me they found something on his pancreas.
Nearly 75 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer die in the first year. Dad died within five months.
I started grieving before my father died. I learned there is a name for this: anticipatory grief. The worst thing about anticipatory grief is that no one gets it unless they have been through it.
Friends tried to understand as I raged on the phone, bawling. I got startlingly angry with people I love very much, loudly telling one friend to stop trying to relate to what I was going through and just listen, for Chrissakes. Every time my phone buzzed, my heart seized: This was the call, I just knew it. I asked to be taken off mass text chains. My nerves couldn’t take many more reply-alls.
My requests — please take me off mass texts; please, no phone calls, I don’t want to talk because I don’t have it in me; please, no cards, just please — offended some people. That reaction confused me and enraged me.
I told all this to my friend, a woman also named Andy. It made sense, she told me, because this death of a parent thing is bad and people don’t know how to respond. She said I am finding my tribe — the ones of us who watched our parents dying. This friend who knows, she said: “I laid in bed when my mother was down to 68 pounds with breath smelling like death.”
When I told my good friend Kristy about my father, she said: “Girl, let me tell you, watching your dad die ain’t nothing pretty.” Kristy knows. She watched her father waste away, dying three years ago from Parkinson’s disease.
I need these women and these women specifically. I don’t have to say a word and they understand. It saves me because I don’t have the patience or strength to try and explain, I don’t even have the right language.
In July, an EF-3 tornado ripped through Marshalltown, Iowa. I grew up in Beaman, about 18 miles northeast. Now living in New York, I watched the video footage pouring in: the clock tower sucked off the top of the county courthouse, roofs peeled back, hunks of metal turned into missiles.
As I watched shaky cellphone videos, I started to cry. What would happen to the Orpheum theater, where my father took me and my brother to movies, or grandma’s house, where we would stop after church on Sundays?
The day after my father died, my husband and I made a trip to Marshalltown for groceries. We decided to take a drive around and survey the tornado damage. It was incredible. I threw myself into our disaster tour, enjoying the destruction of other people’s things, greedily searching out the worst-hit blocks, the most destroyed buildings — I needed it all.
We turned onto Main Street to head back home, and I was talking fast to my husband in the passenger seat. I got louder; I was yelling now, driving, crying. I abruptly pulled over to the side of the road, alongside the destroyed courthouse, and I screamed and I screamed and I screamed. And then I stopped. Heaving, I accepted the Kleenex my husband silently handed me, I blew my nose, and we drove in contented silence the 18 miles home.
My father’s last day on earth was a rough one. I am convinced he overheard us talking about possibly taking him into the hospice. We couldn’t keep up the relentless pace his care required, even though we knew he wanted to stay home. I hated the idea, but we had to consider it. My mother thought so, too.
Then, my father spiraled quickly. One sister feverishly moved her flight up from London — she would be home the next day, she told my father on the phone, his face lighting up listening to her voice. My other sister, from Minneapolis, was on her way but was trapped sheltering under an overpass as tornado warnings swirled around Interstate 35.
I started a journal after my father was diagnosed. I wrote: “I just want him to feel good with the time he has left, I want him to find peace and acceptance. All I want is for him to not be scared.”
And, he wasn’t. My brother called the priest, and he was there within the hour. As he walked in, I heard my father say clearly and happily, “Well, hi Father, I was wondering when I would see you!” My brother and I knelt by his bedside as the priest gave my father last rites: three last sacraments culminating in final Holy Communion.
I lay in bed with him off and on that day. Gave him watered-down coffee through a straw — he winked, told me my coffee was better than Mom’s. I lay there, my father still warm beside me, and I looked out the window at the big tree in the backyard and told him I would remember to fill the bird feeders.
My research suggests there will be a period of adjustment as I try to find a new normal. So far my new normal has involved a variety of public and private acts of mourning. Some days my pain is like accidentally brushing fingertips across a hot iron, burning yet mercifully brief.
Other days I start crying over a bag of frozen shrimp at Trader Joe’s. Or like today, I stare out the back door at my wintry rooftop garden and think of summer tomatoes, the smell of dirt, of my father, and sob.
My phone buzzed. Another text from “Dad.” This time it was a picture of a squirrel teetering on the lip of a rusted old watering can. I laughed this time. I haven’t switched the contact name to my nephew’s yet, and I don’t know when or if I will. People may be tempted to file this under the denial phase of my grief. But they would be wrong. I know my father is dead, I was there.
But I get it. As Americans, we have been trained up to believe that grief is a process, something linear we are capable of understanding. But I am comfortable with my broken heart now after my dad’s death, comfortable even when my sadness reaches a maddening crescendo because that is when I get the gift of giving up.
There is relief for me now — not from sadness and pain — but from my own expectations of how I am supposed to feel. There is no timeline. There isn’t even a straight line, for that matter. And for the first time in my life, I am O.K. with that.
Andy Kopsa is a New York-based freelance reporter who has written for Time, Al Jazeera, PRI, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic and Foreign Policy. She is at work on a collection of essays about her native Iowa, on topsoil, caucus season and other topics.