After my father died, there was a year of pure incomprehension—a novocained horror that no word or thought possessed enough truth to penetrate. Through the spiraling cord of the dun-colored dorm room telephone I heard my mother say: He’s gone, and my childhood, which was everything I had known up until that moment, simply disappeared over a cliff. I had no idea I would never see it again.
When grief finally descended, its enormity enveloped me entirely. I was 19. To try to speak of what I felt was beyond imagining. To speak of it would be to open my throat to the emptiness I now knew to be swinging beneath all things at all times. To speak of it would be to acknowledge my father’s unbeing. It would be like throwing dirt into his grave, on top of him, tossing dirt into his face. To speak of it was to give my permission that he no longer be. This was the thing that was unthinkable.
Those long years of my twenties, when I lived in a young adult’s body with the mind of a teenager and the gravid heart of a bitter old woman, there were exactly two occasions on which words comforted me. The first happened about a year after my father’s death. I was visiting his church, the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a new year service, in which the joys and sorrows of the past year were invited to be shared and acknowledged. In this room there were faces I had known almost all my life. I wanted to stand and witness. I hadn’t known about the annual ritual and had nothing prepared. I stood and my voice shattered out in a crazed jangle. My deep, involuntary sobs rang against the walls like a fire alarm. One of my father’s dearest friends ran over and threw her arms around me from behind my chair, rocking me until I could become quiet. It took awhile.
Moments after the service ended, a woman I had never seen before came right up to me, took me by the shoulders, and looked straight into my eyes. “After my father died,” she said, “It took me ten years to speak of him without crying.” She enfolded me in a warm, tight hug. I struggled for the breath to thank her. I don’t know who she was and I never saw her again.
Several years later, I was working for The Sun Magazine in Chapel Hill. Sometimes, when I came to pick up manuscripts, I would sit in the back of the office and read back issues. Once I happened upon an essay written by my friend and boss, editor Sy Safransky. He spoke movingly about both his fragmented and troubled relationship with his forbidding, traditional Jewish father, and the utter shock and desperate sorrow he felt when the old man died. The essay ended with an old saying that my memory says came from the Persians: “You have to dig deep to bury your daddy.” Even the ancient ones had known my sadness.
This week—twenty-four years after my dad’s death—I have been in Bali, at a hoopdance retreat I help facilitate each year. And though every hoop gathering is special, something different is possible here. I feel it now.
The container, the metaphysical phenomenon of energetic space, that spirals out of our gathering here is strong and gentle enough to allow the long-buried water table of my grief to move and flow again, tasting as pure as it did the day it first poured through me. There is no real logic or sensible explanation in this. It somehow comes from the land, from the gods in this land, from the deeply gentle people who live in this enchanted place, and from the dreams and love my fellow hoopers bring and surround me with here.
Looking at it from a practical standpoint, there is no good reason to travel to Bali—or, really, anywhere. In many ways our world is imploding. There are many more things in life that would seem, from many or even most perspectives, to be much more pressingly important to attend to. You won’t find me arguing on that front.
But when it comes to the art of healing, there is mystery, unpredictability, strangeness, and the containment of radically divergent truths. I don’t even fully understand what is happening to me here, or how. I do know that for a long time I have felt that the terrible, sickening shadow left by my father’s disappearance from this world, which felt wrong on all imaginable levels, has hung too heavily over the light of his being, which lit the world for fifty wonderful years.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt an obscure but overpowering sadness when I see a man dining alone at a restaurant. Especially, somehow, if it’s a man who seems to find pleasure in his meal, in his single glass of wine. As a waitress I had to hold back tears a few times over the years, serving men like this in my section.
Tonight, as I received a reflexology treatment on my danced-out feet, I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye an intersection in my old hometown, and the shiny black exterior of a bar and grill my dad was particularly fond of. It was one of the places we’d hit for dinner when my brother and I spent the night with him, a couple of times a week for some ten years. And suddenly it struck me…the other five nights a week. My dad was the man eating alone in the restaurant. Enjoying his meal, certainly, enjoying his one glass of white wine. But alone.
As I lay on the table, my tears falling into the bowl of flowers beneath my face, I decided that tonight I would roll up to the heavy door of First Street Bar and Grill, and pull it open. I would see a handsome, blue-eyed man, about fifty years old maybe, sitting alone at the bar with a salad and a basket of bread, the top button of his white starched dress shirt undone, his blue striped tie slightly loosened. His light brown hair going a little gray at the temples. His bright, intelligent, open expression. And I decided I would walk in, sit down next to him, order myself a large ginger ale—with lime—and turn to him, and start a conversation.