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No compass for navigating loss

No compass for navigating loss

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With Dad at Alyeska Resort after a tram ride, during my first trip to Alaska to visit him in 2000. He worked and lived in Alaska between 2000-2013.

I haven’t posted anything since January. How can it now be May?

Perhaps because the worsening health and subsequent death of my father, John Jesse Carey, on March 2 has consumed, distracted and devastated me during these past months. Navigating through the emotions associated with my dad’s death, followed by dealing with logistics, followed by more emotions has consumed most of my energy outside of work, and continues to affect me in ways I can’t predict.

I feel unmoored  — as if the floor has gone out from beneath me, as if I’m floating in space and time. I’m forgetting things I thought I knew; I’m exhausted when I come home from work and much of the rest of the time as well. On weekends, I’m getting a little exercise, but nowhere near as much as I should be.

This is normal, people say. I don’t know what’s normal, but I can say that writing has helped me keep going, whether I’m working on poems, journaling or writing letters to people who knew Dad, through which I’ve found myself reliving certain periods of time. This contact has been meaningful, as it’s let me renew or create fresh connections with people who, at one time or for many years, had been in Dad’s life and mattered to him.

I’m also reading, and reading differently than I otherwise would be. In addition to poets my dad was drawn to (Jane Kenyon particularly, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson and even Garrison Keillor, to name a few) I’ve been reading works by or about scholars he followed in his academic career as a theologian.

In the first weeks after Dad died, I had a feverish need to learn more about the thinkers whose philosophies and ethics motivated and inspired him as a professor of religion, an ordained (and very forward-thinking) Presbyterian minister, and above all, as a person, whose robust and adventurous life was a gift not just to his family, but to all who knew him. Most everyone who knew my dad at all admired his many professional accomplishments and his purpose-driven life. But my sisters and I knew him as “Dad” and loved him for many other reasons, not the least of which was because we knew how very much he loved us. He showed us this in far more ways than I can mention here.

Both knowledgeable and wise, Dad understood that life, belief and faith are full of nuance. Despite being a brilliant scholar with a huge intellectual grasp of many world religions, as well as of Christianity, above all he believed the first two Commandments should override all else among theological systems grown convoluted and overly embellished. Unfailingly caring, empathetic and kind, Dad was a former All-American Duke linebacker who tutored other athletes while in school and was the first in his family to go to college. He cared deeply about social justice and embodied commitment to diversity and inclusion before those concepts became buzzwords. He had a huge laugh and a gregarious presence but was the most soft-hearted person I have ever met. From when I was a young girl until his very last days, he always encouraged my writing and told me to never give up.

When Finishing Line Press published my chapbook of poems, The Heart Contracts last year, I’ll never forget my dad calling me, excitedly, to report that the package had arrived and he had just read my book “cover to cover.” He then went on to comment on specific poems in the collection, with real interest, particularly those relating to our family (of which there were several) and to my dogs, (knowing them well, as he did, and being a huge dog lover himself.) He knew how thrilled I was to have finally published my first book (at the age of 58, no less), and understood this was a dream come true for me. I will forever be grateful that Dad lived long enough to see my book happen and to celebrate that milestone with me.

Grief may be a journey with an unpredictable itinerary, but it’s a journey I don’t fear. I feel Dad’s presence, am strengthened by it and have faith as well as in a higher power I can surrender to that will carry me through the tough days. As each new day without him passes, I feel sadness, but also even greater gratitude to have had him in my life as long as I did.

I’m heartened and so touched by the support I’ve been shown in the past two months through the words, actions and thoughtful gestures of friends and colleagues who have generously shared their own stories of loss with me, inviting me in an intimate way to participate in their own journeys so I’d feel less alone, and for their cards, phone calls, flowers and drop-by visits at home or at work, just to say they cared.

I’ve been reading a lot of bereavement poems. After I came across Kevin Young’s poem, Bereavement, in the New Yorker (2009) I ordered his book, The Art of Losing, a collection of grief-oriented poems by some 150 poets that he curated and published in 2010. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking comfort in the aftermath of acute personal loss.

My father had a remarkable life. His obituary is here.

Another wonderful article about him appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat and focused on his contributions at Florida State University, where he worked for many years, during a turbulent time in FSU’s history. That article, by the wonderful writer Gerald Ensley, is here.

I love talking about my dad, and will miss him always. I hope I can take at least some part of all he gave me in the way of love, tolerance and understanding, and pay it forward.