*This post was written for my children, F. and A., to hold in their hands and carry in their hearts when someday I am gone. But it is dedicated to my father, Frank Spinale, who will always be my tallest memory.
After my father died at home of a shockingly short terminal illness, I spent months searching the house for a message he might possibly have left behind. In vain I rifled through all his books and papers, checked between the mattress and box spring of the bed he died in, and ripped apart the satin panels of his jewelry box. When his pants pockets and underwear drawer yielded no results I even pulled the fiberglass insulation down from the basement ceiling to blindly grope above my head for a hidden note.
I wanted some tangible nugget of wisdom , or perhaps it was love, to hold in my hand and carry with me throughout the remainder of my life. It bothered me that though we’d had many intimate moments together in the weeks before his impending death, he’d ultimately slipped into a coma and I therefore did not know, when I heard them, that I’d heard his final words.
For years I rehearsed what my own final words would be to my children should I be fortunate enough to have such a dramatic opportunity for closure when my time comes. But what I have come to understand since I lost my father is that final words don’t really matter all that much. Because now I know that what matters the most later, when you view the panorama of your life, are the memories that stand out like steeples in the clouds.
And since only certain memories stand out it figures they do so for a reason, which is why bad memories as well as good ones are taller than the rest. Bad memories are inevitably associated with loss, which is why we prefer not to think about them.
My own worst memories: Being told of my young father’s terminal cancer. (He was younger than I am now.) That terrible, brave look in his eyes when I rushed to his side upon hearing the news. The day my first marriage truly dissolved, when we sold our first home and handed the keys over to the happy younger couple who bought it. The day I was served with papers in the ensuing custody suit and read that I must show “just cause” why my children should not be taken from me. The day my little boy was taken from his sister and me to live with his father. I falter even now as I try to list them. It hurts too much to think of my losses. A self protective blankness arises. But I know that loss, like fear, must be faced in order to be conquered and transformed.
We cannot live without loss, but most of us don’t see that when we’re young. Maybe we’re not supposed to. We have the future with all its possibilities before us. Might not the magnitude of such awareness stall us in our tracks?
With the passing years, as we lose youth, strength, loved ones, health, and outward beauty, the protective veil is lifted and the awesome paradox is gradually revealed: that we are most human when we love most deeply, that it is our innately human desire to hold on to what we love forever, but that the human condition requires that we must lose everything we love in order to grow.
The first thing we lose is our symbiotic closeness with mother. We must leave the warm, safe womb in order to be born. We must leave our mother’s arms in order to explore the world. We must lose the innocence of childhood in order to survive the world. And then it begins again. We become parents ourselves. We love our infants but they grow into children. We love our children but they turn into young adults. We love our young adults but they separate from us and leave us to start their own lives. We find romantic love that cannot last. We love our parents and others in the generation before us, but they must die.
Each and every path through life is paved with losses, and sometimes we use poor judgement on our journey. This makes the losses even harder to bear, knowing in our hearts that the pain is self inflicted. It has taken me twenty five years to understand this about my own personal history. Now that I am owning it to myself and my God, the pain is lifting and I’m beginning to grow wings.
Our biological and psychological mission on this earth means we must keep moving forward, continually leaving something behind. Because to grow means to change, and we cannot change without losing some part of ourselves. We must suffer the pain and loss of every person, state of being, or part of ourselves that we love in order to be fully human. Yet the more deeply we love, the more deeply we experience our humanity and the brilliance of our souls.
The only way to avoid the pain of loss is to be dead. But there is an alternative. If we are brave enough to allow ourselves to feel the pain and mourning, to hold tight to the memories until we’ve squeezed every drop of blood from the experience, we are transformed. Our souls radiate previously unimaginable, dazzling colors.
This, of course, is the hardest part of all. The natural tendency is to want to put the pain behind us, to forget about it, avoid it and get on with our lives. When we do that without the lifework of suffering and introspection, we are depriving ourselves of the learning that experience is meant to provide.
In other words, our loss is meaningless.
And so, my darling children, this post, these words, are my final words to you. Please forgive me for the pain I’ve caused you, and rejoice in the joy we’ve shared. Always, always remember the inexpressibly deep love I had for you. Hold on to it. You keep some and I will too. And when you arrive Home I’ll be waiting for you there, arms wide open, in the place where there is no more sorrow and no more tears.