“Okay, we’re here. Are you ready?” My two sons sit in their car seats, their gazes shifting between the floor and the car window. There’s no response, just the slow drawn out click of the seat belts coming undone, the sound mirroring their reluctance to leave the car. Their eyes squint in the bright California sunshine.
They are about to meet my father for the first time. Not at a family reunion or backyard barbecue. They’re meeting him at his gravesite.
My father was a neurosurgeon, one of the best in the area. Most days, he left the house before sunrise and returned late. The rare evenings I heard his footsteps on the stairs during dinnertime were the best days. He’d settle in at the table, the faint smell of cigarettes clinging to his shaggy salt and pepper hair, and merge into our conversation, asking about school while adding extra hot sauce to his rice.
One January night, he died from a heart attack while I was sleeping curled up with my blankie in my bedroom. I was 8 years old; he was 42.
In the morning, I peeked into my older brother’s room on my way to the bathroom. He sat on his bed, his face wet from tears. “Hey,” the word hesitated on his lips. “I have to tell you something.”
“Dad had a heart attack last night. He died.”
“What?” I didn’t understand. I just saw Dad. I just said goodnight to him. Then, I heard my mom’s desperate sobs echo up the stairs from the living room. I walked away, tucked myself back into bed with my blankie and cried.
After my father’s death, we mourned for 100 days, per Chinese custom. I stood beside my mom, brother and sister and received family and friends at our house. White barrettes pulled the hair off my face, leaving my emotions nowhere to hide.
In many ways, mourning was something I had to get through and the 100 days gave me a timeline. One hundred days to fall apart. One hundred days to get to the other side of my heartache. My aunt said there was no rush to feel better, but I didn’t want to linger in the pain that made my world spin under my feet.
After those 100 days, I packed away my sorrow. I figured that if I could tuck it away, my grief wouldn’t bleed into other areas of my life. If I could contain it, it wouldn’t become a part of me. Once I adjusted to the reality of life without a father, there was no reason to think about his death, except for one day a year. A visit to his grave, flowers and dim sum. But as the years go by, even this anniversary passes with less fanfare, especially since I moved to the East Coast.
Each year, have the same conversation with my husband. “Do you know what tomorrow is?”
In silence, we resume reading. It’s my way of explaining to him why I may be sad or moody.
It has been 30 years since Dad passed. The anniversary fell on a Sunday, a typical weekend day with my family – splitting up the kids for separate birthday parties and regrouping for dinner. After dropping off my younger son at his party, where 5-year-olds chased each other with light sabers and giddy laughter, I headed for the park. I needed the air on my face and the movement in my limbs.
On the way, I called my sister. Tufts of brown grass poked through the crust remaining from the last snowfall. While on speaker, my niece asked, “Ai-Yee, what are you going to do today to remember Grandfather?”
Her question made me stop. “I’m not sure. The boys are at birthday parties and I’m going for a walk.”
I spent the day mourning my father alone because I didn’t let my family into the grieving process with me. I’ve avoided speaking to my kids explicitly about my dad. They’ve seen his picture, but they don’t ask why their daddy has a father but I don’t. My older son doesn’t know how his grandfather, from whom he gets his middle name, would watch Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons with me on weekend mornings, his belly jiggling with laughter.
It feels easier to avoid the topic. I want to protect my kids from asking the hard questions I was forced to live through – the who, what, where, when, how and why of death. Especially the why. I don’t want to re-open the door to my heartache.
But grief is messy and spills over the edges, and it helps to have someone by your side when you need to clean up. My husband doesn’t know how alone I felt on this day and on every other anniversary because I didn’t tell him. By not sharing Dad with my family, I wasn’t letting them know him or me.
Here we are in California, a few months later, and I want my boys to visit my dad.
“Do we have to? Cemeteries are scary!” whines tumbling out of my sons’ mouths.
“He’s your grandfather and my daddy. It’s important for you to know him and to know I miss him.”
When we step out of the car, it takes a moment to find my bearings. The sapling that usually points me in the direction of my dad has been removed. We stop in front of a black granite rectangle etched with Dad’s English and Chinese name. When I remove the vase from the ground, my son peers into the hole. “Is he down there?”
Standing on top of the hill, we look out over the grass and dark blue ocean. “Mommy, you’re right. It’s not scary. It’s pretty.”
“Now, you know what we do? We bow three times.”
Grief doesn’t expire in 100 days. It doesn’t have a half-life but its potency diminishes over time and at a faster rate when you let someone help carry the grief. You may even find a lightness when your memories come alive in the minds of others.
My younger son clears off the dried grass around Dad’s name and pats it. “I like your father.” His voice squeaks in the way it does when he’s telling the truth but also feels shy about what he’s saying.
“I think he would like you too. He would like both of you a lot.”
Christine Yu is a freelance writer who writes about health, fitness, parenting and personal growth. She is the author of the blog Love, Life, Surf. Christine lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
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