Sunday evening found me sitting in the Detroit airport awaiting my fourth flight of the day to get me back to my starting point over 14 hours earlier. I’d flown to Omaha, Nebraska, from a conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, via Chicago, Illinois, for a seven hour layover to attend a memorial service for my father. The memorial we didn’t think was going to happen, and certainly not a full month after his passing. When he died, I spent a week in mourning, diving deep into hermit mode as I pulled away from everyone while trying to sort through what his death and our complicated relationship meant. With neither funeral nor memorial to help through the process, it was a struggle to put the pieces together to find some sort of closure. And yet I did what I could, defaulting to writing when I needed to process, and slowly began to fight my way back to rejoin the world. Well done you, I thought. How very healthy. How very zen. But just when you think things might be moving back towards some semblance of normal, you discover that people in grief don’t really process in a straight line. Given a little time and emotional distance, sometimes people change their minds about how they wish to remember a loved one. Which means that, somehow, odds are better than fair you may find yourself in Omaha on a riverboat full of kind, vaguely recognizable Midwestern faces from your childhood, waiting to watch an urn of ashes being dumped into the water.
I should have seen it coming.
I’d been unsettled about this trip ever since news of the resurrected memorial was happening and, each day it moved closer, I felt the level of dread rise slightly in my throat. Because at this point it’s really not about my father anymore. As for so many memorials, they aren’t for the dead, but for the living. This service has become more about fulfilling expectations of others and creating an appropriate tableau of grief, and less about being true to the memory of my father. As I haven’t been an active part of my parents’ lives in the last twenty years, I was worried about even attending, much less if I could get my conference responsibilities covered for the time away. But there comes a point you know, for better or worse, there are things you need to do — if not for others, then for you.
So it was that I found myself in Omaha, making my way toward family members reuniting in grief. I got to the dock and paused at the entrance, panic clawing at my throat, my fight or flight response urgently pushing me to run away rather than move forward. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. The self talk was in full disaster mode. Two hours. You can do this. Unable to put off the inevitable any longer, I cleared my head, girded my loins, and slowly stepped through the entrance into a collection of unfamiliar Midwestern faces. My mother was busy introducing my younger sister and her husband to some of her family from Iowa when I walked in. I was twenty feet away when she finally saw me and, to my amazement, made a beeline straight for me with a broad smile and open arms, apparently delighted to see me. (How the prodigal daughter returns.) To be clear, this is not the same welcome I’ve received the last four times we’ve been together; to say I was stunned is an understatement. But if warm and sentimental were the theme of the day, I would play my part. Gamely I murmured appropriate words at appropriate times and followed in her wake through the surreal tableau as she introduced her long lost daughter. T minus two hours.
Word spread rapidly that I had actually come for the service. Once my mother moved on to take care of details, the crowd started to move in and reconnect, as if they were not convinced it really was me. My older sister from my father’s first marriage. My aunt, who is probably as renegade in her own way as I am in mine. Her son, who used to follow my sister and me around our grandmother’s house when we were so very young. My cousin of some degree and her daughters, the ones I hung out with at those Iowa family get togethers. Cameras and phones appeared out of nowhere, and two generations of Bradford women stood together and smiled while cameras flashed and relatives jockeyed for better positioning. Smile. Hug. Smile. Click. Emboldened, the more extended family members started to come forward as well, reintroducing themselves and recalling old memories of when they last saw me as a child or, at best, a teen. I felt the memories of my grandmother painfully close in this company, for these were her people. I’d missed reconnecting with them at her funeral, and I regret to this day not being there to pay my respects. But this was not my grandmother’s funeral. This was my father’s memorial, and it gave me the opportunity to experience other people’s stories about him while providing me with a chance to reframe my own perspective by melding their memories with my own. Being able to sit and reconnect with people who were genuinely happy to see me and catch up and exchange photos of children and spouses was, oddly enough, an unexpected comfort. I was grateful I’d made the decision to come.
I won’t tell you that there was miraculous healing or that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. There were definitely awkward moments: The minister who started speaking on my father’s behalf and told some strange, eccentric stories which made him hardly recognizable. The push for people to embrace God and heaven as my father did (he didn’t), or the delightful moment where the minister described my father being reunited with his loved ones gone before him — mother, father, brother, sister, and first wife. I couldn’t trust myself to look around for people’s reactions, but a stolen glance found surprise on more than a few faces. There was the table of family photos documenting my father’s life, with images of my father in various countries with his dogs and various family members. There was not a single image of me among the photographs.
A month ago, I promised you kinder words and memories of my father. I haven’t forgotten; it’s just that, without closure, it’s easy to get stuck in a space where you can’t move on to see the bigger picture; a space that traps you in despair and missed moments; a world of whys and what might have beens. In retrospect, I think the best description of a man is the one that consists of many stories and memories from those who knew them best. Memories of a man from a single reference point paints a flat, one dimensional image, sometimes distorted and colored by trigger events. But we are never just that. It is only when we incorporate the many memories from many people that we can hope to portray a more realistic picture of a man with great humor, depth, strengths, and flaws. How appropriate that the words that broke me were actually my sister’s. She will undoubtedly have other words for me when she discovers I’ve posted it, but this is that other side of the coin that you need to hear. Her words touched so many many memories of the small things, the daily things, the things you can remember only after someone offers you their glasses through which you can see another view. These are the words that broke me because they are also true; they were the truest thing that I heard Sunday and, more importantly, they were remembered with love.
My Dad was old when I met him. Tall, straight backed, grey hair, crystal blue eyes. He was stubborn, had a great sense of humor and knew how everything worked. He loved long road trips, regardless of the country. He told me I could do anything I set my mind to. And I believed it because he believed it. He had been around the world so many times even he had to stop and think about how many it had really been. He spoke English, Portuguese, and Arabic fluently. He spoke Russian and Spanish enough to carry his end of a conversation. He would always stop to translate for foreigners any where he found them if he thought he could help. I missed four different airplanes with him because he wasn’t finished translating a conversation for people he didn’t know.He believed in trying to do something right the first time, and in having the right tool for the job. He was full of fun phrases like, “You betcha Red Rider!” and “Discretion is the better part of valor.” When we would leave on long road trips in the pitch dark of 4am so he could get a good driving day in, he never failed to sing, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.” And in the middle of nowhere when we couldn’t get a radio signal and there weren’t any truckers talking on the CB, he could always be counted on to sing with me for at least half an hour of, “We all live in a yellow submarine” before mom shut us down.
I know he had a very full life before I ever came into it. I like to think I got the better half of him, after he was already past young and impetuous, and was well into stubborn and planning everything out. He taught me it is better to be kind than to be right. And very often two people will remember the same event in conflicting ways and it is okay to let that be. He unabashedly loved Christmas and New Years, the Sunday comics, helping me build Legos from the directions, baking Thanksgiving pie from his own recipe and angle food cake with freshly sliced strawberries he had picked himself. He helped everyone in my house with math at the kitchen table for hours, including my next door friend, I love both math and science because of him.
They call his generation The Greatest Generation for a reason. They don’t make men like Guy Bradford, Jr., anymore. My favorite of his qualities were his stubbornness, his belief in never giving up once you set your mind to something, and his outstanding advice. He would help me with anything I asked him about. Because of those attributes I can walk, I could support my kids while they grew up and I know how to build all kinds of things myself. I saw him months before the end and his mind was so sharp that he was filled with consternation over his body not keeping up with him. I’m thankful he had the sensibility to not suffer long and to be as efficient at his last task as he was at most everything else. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a great man, and I am lucky and thankful he was my father.
I need you to know this facet of my father; I need him to be redeemed in your eyes from my own judgmental memories colored by conflict. Being eight years apart, my sister and I have significantly different memories of him; but it doesn’t mean either set of memories are less true. They are just two different ways of remembering the same person, and that’s okay. Together, they make the make the memory of the man clearer and more aligned with who he really was — a family man of a different generation, trying to make it through his life and care for his family as best he could.
This is the first parent I’ve lost, and I’m discovering that people in grief don’t really process in a straight line. Given a little time and emotional distance, sometimes people change their minds about how they wish to remember a loved one. The bottom line is that we are all, in one way or another, seeking closure.
I think I’m starting to get there.