Permanent, intolerable uncertainty

Whenever I’ve broken up with someone, I’ve spent a good deal of time in mourning, in part for the life we had together, but mostly for the future we’d now never live. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and can’t help but follow plotlines far down the road, but being with a guy, for me, always meant projecting “us” far into the future. So when he left, I didn’t just lose someone I’d known a few months—I forfeited an entire life with him.

It’s been three and a half months since my father died. It’s not exactly getting easier. The emotions are just shifting, and a couple of weeks ago, I was hit by a wave of deep and sudden sadness. Twice, I spilled into tears on my morning run and had to heave myself back to my apartment, then off the bathroom floor to go to work. There was no logical reason I should’ve been hit afresh with this weight. Then I realized I’d been doing with my father what I’ve always done with men I’ve loved and lost: grieving for the life together we will now never live.

Whatever happens next will never be how it could’ve been. I have no idea where my life will take me, but certain things, I considered a given: That when I published my first book, he would tell any and everyone who would listen, peddling copies like he did the Girl Scout cookies I was too shy to sell. That if I ever had a husband, he would know him. That if I ever had children, they would know him, too. That I’d go straight to the Games & Puzzles aisle at Powell’s when shopping every Christmas, to buy him another book of Sudoku, upping the challenge level with each passing year.

All of that’s gone now, like someone snapped their fingers, and away my father went. But with him went the life my family and I had all been expecting to lead. Three and a half months later, I’m beginning to understand: a part of us died with him. People have told me to focus on the life I did have with my father, rather than what I won’t have now. I’m sure that’s good advice. I’m just not particularly interested in perspective at present. I want to see the world from the kicked-in-the-face view I got thrown into when my center of gravity fell out of the sky. I need to look at this from every terrifying angle, to come to terms with what I’ve lost.

I am not the same person who listened to that brake-slamming voicemail my mother left me at seven o’clock that Tuesday morning, detailing what had happened, what was happening now, and what would likely happen soon. In the time it took my father to draw his last ventilator-induced breaths, I aged forty years. I can see it in my eyes, the way I saw it in the gaze of the airport security guard who checked my ID, looking from me now to twenty-three-year-old me on my license and back again. It’s me, all right? I wanted to shout at him. It’s me. And it is, but it very much isn’t.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had two things in mind: the way I hoped my life would go and the way I was afraid it would go. In neither case did I consider the possibility of my father dying. It never entered my brain space for more than a passing moment. Then, there’s the way my life is actually going, which is simultaneously what I hoped for and what I feared and something else entirely, but even it did not include a clause in which my father was simply gone, his part in the story now over. The future may be yet unwritten, and yet, the years stretch out before me in one endless act of revision.

Sometimes, I ask myself if I’m happy. That might seem like a ridiculous question to ask yourself when you’ve just lost your father, but I ask it. Tremendous trauma aside, am I happy? No, but I’m not unhappy either. I can’t remember a time when I was happy as the world defines it, except in brief, isolated instances. But I don’t think happiness is really the point. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes, “What we would here and now call our ‘happiness’ is not the end God chiefly has in view: but when we are such as He can love without impediment, we shall in fact be happy.”

I said it in my euology, and I’ll say it again: my father was good at finding joy. He was good at perspective. Sometimes, it was a misguided perspective, one that shut out more emotion than it should’ve and didn’t always allow room for being honest about pain, but I have never met anyone so willing to “keep on keepin’ on,” as he said and as he did. If what God is after is to burn away the things that hinder Him from loving us, then we have no choice but to submit to whatever comes our way. Not by pretending it doesn’t hurt, or that it sometimes doesn’t feel like the earth ripped open its throat and swallowed you whole, but by saying, even in this, we are pressing on for something bigger and more important than mere happiness.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” I have no idea why I am where I am. There was a time when that would’ve driven me crazy, and it’s not that it doesn’t bother me now. It’s that my trust in God is greater than my need for control, albeit only slightly. So if I trust Him, however haltingly, to guide me down a path that seems nowhere near anything I ever wanted, I have no choice but to believe that, no matter how upsetting or unfair, He will walk me through this “permanent, intolerable uncertainty” and teach me how to live without my father.

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