My first day back

Martha Serpas has a poem I love called “As If There Were Only One.” It takes its title from a line in Augustine’s Confessions, where he writes, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” The poem is narrated by someone going through a difficult time, and it describes the moment when God lifts her up out of her grief, not to rescue her from it completely, but to remind her that there is still life to be had, that there is hope. The poem concludes, “And God put me down on the steps with my coffee / and my cigarettes. And, although I still // could not eat nor sleep, that evening / and that morning were my first day back.”

Ever since my father died, I’ve been waiting for that moment—not the moment when I feel better, just the moment when I start to believe that, one day, I might. He’s been gone for seven months now, and I have watched the passing of every calendar page both expecting to feel different and realizing that I’m probably not going to. I used to pin great significance on the passing of time. I clung to anniversaries as if they held a special power. But with every new loss I’ve experienced, I’ve watched these supposed markers break loose from their foundation and blow across the landscape like sand in a storm. Grief keeps a timeline all its own.

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes, “It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. But really this is like hoisting a harness onto an invisible horse.” In my twenty-eighth year, these are the things I was forced to give up: my freelance career, most of my reading time, running, high-heeled shoes, my safety net, my father, my fear of public speaking. I memorized the eulogy I gave at his memorial service, and sometimes, I recite it to myself while I’m making coffee or brushing my teeth. I remember the way the whole church held its breath when the pastor called me up on the stage. You have to be half out of your mind to get up and speak at your own father’s funeral, and I was. We all were.

“I thought grief would be dignified and monumental like a black tower shrouded in mist or quiet days spent weeping in a dim room,” James A. Reeves writes in “The Last Year of My Father.” “Instead I discovered that grief is a relentless feedback loop, a noisy wash of static riddled with fractured images, creepshow dreams, and broken questions that can never be answered. How could this. Why didn’t she. If only I. This wasn’t supposed.” I can’t say what grief does to anyone else, but mine has made me take a lot of long, hard looks at who I am, what I run from, and what I allow. But this came later. For months, all I could do was get up and pantomime the motions of existence, no more capable of saying “no” to something than I was of saying “yes.”

I’ve been seeing an acupuncturist for about a month now, in the hopes of healing a chronic running injury that I’ve recovered and relapsed from more times than I can count. Facedown on the table, I don’t keep track of the number of needles he taps into my back and legs, but I think it’s somewhere close to a dozen. Ten minutes alone in a warm, dark room seems nowhere near enough time to correct what’s been wrong for three decades, and yet, I keep returning, telling myself that piece by piece, he’s shifting things. Sometimes, while I’m lying there, I think of what my father would say about me doing this. It’s been 234 days since I last heard his voice. I used to go weeks without speaking to him, and now, there are times when I think I might cut off a hand just to hear him call me Jessie Lynne.

This is how grief gets to you: by making you believe it’ll last forever, though the truth is, nothing does. During the roughest periods of my life, what made them so unbearable was not the circumstances, but the belief that they would go on like this ad infinitum. That I would always be heartbroken and alone, have a terrible job or no job at all, remain unable to write or run, stay caught in the grips of the psychological issues that had plagued me for most of my life. I have long been a pattern finder. I dressed and worked and created in them from a very young age, and while it impressed my parents and teachers, it also became something of a curse. If you are a pattern finder, it is highly difficult—if not damn near impossible—to believe that they won’t keep repeating.

After seeing numerous doctors who could find no physical reason for why my injury kept flaring up, I realized I could point to a significant emotional trauma occurring at the start of every relapse. That meant, while my medical team could help me along, I was largely responsible for my healing. I couldn’t do anything to stop grieving for my father, but I could do a better job of managing the stress that was within my control. After three months of increased hours at work, I asked to cut back. I turned off the sound on my email and resolved not to peek at my inbox after hours. I started making protein bars and forcing myself to go to bed at a decent hour, and you know what? Last week was the first time, after a month of treatment, when both of my doctors looked at my injury and said, “All right, we’re starting to get somewhere.”

It’s easy to believe that things will never change, to accept your lot in life, and resign yourself to the limitations of frail humanity. When grief has pinned you down, the thought of getting out from under it seems impossible. But what my father taught me—both by what he fought for and what he didn’t—is that we always have a choice. It may not be a good one, and in the grand scheme of things, it may seem like nothing at all. But it’s there. It’s the decision to say, “I only get one life, and I have to stop treating it like it doesn’t matter.” It’s choosing to sleep more and trying to worry less and hoping that it will heal you, even if part of you still doesn’t believe it will work. It’s realizing that, when you can’t bring yourself to pray for the end of something, you can start by praying for the belief that God is more powerful than your patterns.

For my dad’s memorial service, we put together a slideshow of photographs and set it to some of his old favorite songs. Last week, while I was washing dishes on a Friday night, OneRepublic’s “I Lived” came up on my iPod. I dried my hands, hit pause, and went to my laptop. I hadn’t seen the slideshow since his funeral, but that night, I watched it again while I listened to that song. I saw my smiling father, my mother, my brother, myself, our relatives and friends float by, and I cried, not out of grief, but out of small flash of hope cracking open in my heart. “With every broken bone,” they sing. “I swear I lived.” I watched my father’s life, and I listened to those lyrics, and it changed things. It didn’t make them better. It just made me believe that, one day, they might be.