The Cycle of Grief and Gratitude: Mourning and Celebrating the Art of Fatherhood

I started crying tonight, over model car paint.  You know, the craft kind, for painting miniature model cars and airplanes.  At first they were “happy tears.”  I saw the small paint jars there on the coffee table as my husband prepared to work on a project, and I had a flashback. 

I could see the same set of paints there on our kitchen table in our old house on “M” street, in Davis, where I grew up.  It’s strange saying that because I am far from grown up.

Daddy sits behind the table, a paintbrush in hand, holding something up to his face, his green eyes squinting behind his glasses as he carefully, with such patience and detail works on his projects.  He is an engineer by profession, but a historian and artist at heart.  Every project has a connection to history.  Airplanes, my favorite a bright blue and orange model, like a sunrise hanging on the wall in his bedroom.  Little animal figurines, painted a rainbow of colors, each chosen with care, gifts for his daughters. 

He painted our family Nativity Scene.  Each Wise Man’s cloak matching the animal’s on which he rode, purple, red or blue.  There’s a shepherd boy holding a lamb.  Mary in red.  Joseph in blue.  All with an additional antique glaze.  And of course, that little ceramic baby Jesus, lying in a manger, his hands outstretched and his eyes looking towards heaven.

We painted our California mission model together.  Science fair projects.  Civil War figurines.  My mind reels at how many little jars of paint he held and spread onto wood, ceramics and metal.  And now, those hands that so patiently created art…now they carefully, one key at a time, type two sentence emails to me.  And that is a great accomplishment.

But then those happy tears turn into tears of sadness- what a crude understatement. 

They flow freely since the children are in bed and my tear’s true natures make a pit in my stomach too hollow to fill.  They are tears of pain, anger, longing.

I miss that Father.  I miss that Dad that stayed up late working on projects, who was excited to have me work alongside him.  I stare at tha box of paints and I miss hearing his jokes and seeing him stand.  And all the while I feel guilty, so shamefully guilty for missing those things.  He’s still alive isn’t he?  I should be grateful.  I shouldn’t want more than that.  And yet, there are moments I do.

I don’t want him to just be a picture to my children, like my great-grandmother was to me.  Whenever we turned to that page in our family album, the one with a picture of me sitting beside her on a cream couch wearing corduroy overalls holding a book who’s name I can’t remember…whenever we turned to that page Daddy would ask me if I remembered her.  And I would say I would, a little, creating a memory in my mind from the picture, willing it to be real.  But it wasn’t. 

I don’t want him to become a forced memory to my children.  Then again, maybe he already has to me.

The hardest part (again I feel guilty just thinking this) is mourning again and again and again.  I mourn each loss of him during this deteriorating illness.  I’ve probably written this before, yet I must again.  Each time a part of him is gone, an ability disappears, it’s another death of him.  But there’s no funeral yet.  Not that I want there to be!  Again the guilt for thinking that!  Still there are moments like these where I just feel like a lot of open wounds with nothing but more time for more pain.

I find myself forgetting how he used to be, how he used to smile, speak, stand and run.  I remember moments- him riding his bike down a hill with a sister riding on back in the UC Davis arbouretum- but is that a created memory too?  A moving version of pictures I’ve seen in albums?  I don’t think so, but who knows?  It feels like someone else’s life…a younger, more free version of myself, without the cares of a mother and adult daughter with aging parents.

Then I mourn the things I can’t remember too, whatever they are, I miss them.  I miss what might have been because of course everything would have been different if he just hadn’t got sick.

Everything.

I take a deep breath.  I wipe the tears from my eyes, my cheeks, my chin.  There’s no eyeliner or mascara streaks to clean-up because I never got around to getting made-up today.  The moment of weakness has passed. 

I look closer at the little paint jars.  They aren’t exactly the same a Daddy’s.  These are a different brand.  Somehow, that makes things better too.

Another deep breath and I’m able to feel grateful again.  I’m grateful for every ceramic we have that was painted by his patient hands.  I’m thankful for every picture I have of him with me, my mother and sisters and my children.  I’m glad for every single letter and punctuation mark he delicately types.  They are more valuable to me than any of the editing he did on textbooks, notes he took on graduate courses or hundred page engineer reports he wrote.  They are the art he, with the determination of a caring father, continues to create.

Then I remeber I haven’t emailed him yet today.  I send him a funny picture via Facebook.  And I’m grateful, even for those little jars of paint.  They reminded me of him today and that is a wonderful thing.  So I smile freely as I watch my husband, the father of our children, create something new…and paint.