Remembering Papa: A Glimpse Into Grief
My breath catches as I walk up the driveway to the front door. There's a knot in my stomach and a fluttery feeling in my chest. My limbs shake slightly. The sensation takes me instantly back to the first time I walked up these steps. Was it really 11 years ago?
Bryan and I had recently gotten engaged and were right in the midst of planning our wedding when a trip to California landed us on their door step for dinner. I had heard so much about Raffi and Ginger and now I was about to meet the legend. There was a knot in my stomach, a fluttering in my chest and a shakiness to my limbs then too. The sensation had been similar, but the reason entirely different.
I so deeply wanted them to like me, to approve of the girl their grandson had chosen to marry. If I could go back I would have told my younger self to stop being so self-conscious because the legendary family figure I was about to meet, was not only legendary, he was also kind and generous and deeply loving. Before I had even made it through the door they were telling me to call them Papa and Gram rather than Raffi and Ginger. I didn't need to earn their approval, I was already in, I was already welcomed, I was already part of the family. Bryan loved me and that was enough.
I don't think I will ever forget the smile on Papa's face or the twinkle in his eye that first time he greeted me and welcomed me into his house. He kissed my cheek as he spoke with the unique accent acquired through moving often and learning multiple languages from a young age, "Welcome! Welcome."
As I walk up the steps now the house looks exactly the same as the last time we were here. I keep expecting Papa to come out and greet me with a hug. The best hug. But, everything feels different. He isn't here.
The door is open already, perhaps anticipating our arrival, perhaps just left, forgotten by the last person who entered. Papa and Gram's dog, Jake, comes over to say hello and two little dogs I don't yet know run up to Sage as we walk through the front door. She bursts into a smile and I brush at my eyes with the back of my hand. I inhale sharply and push Sage through to the back yard, she wants to sit outside with grandpa. Once she's content I leave her with my father-in-law so I can get her food prepared.
That's when I see Gram. She comes towards me as I walk toward the kitchen. We hug. I want to hold her longer, to let her know how deeply I hurt for her. But, the hug is quick. I know if I linger long with her I won't be able to control the sobs. She is facing my own deepest fear.
I move quickly to the kitchen and fill a syringe with food for Sage. As I stand at the sink images of Papa standing in this very spot flash through my mind. My eyes are wet now, but I know I can't yet release myself to the tears. A single drop of water slides down my cheek and I brush it quickly away with the edge of my thumb.
By the time I make it back to Sage I've said hello to everyone. The group is intimate and full of red faces, and watery eyes - Papa's sisters and their spouses, a nephew of Papa's, a few close friends, and our group. We eat together and talk, share stories and memories, laugh and cry. The spread of meat and salad and fruit gets cleared from the dinning room table and pie and cakes get set out in the kitchen.
Before long it's time for the kids to go to bed. Thaddeus is running a high fever and falls asleep quickly on the couch. I set Sage up with a movie on the iPad while I prepare her medications. As I move back and forth between the kitchen and the couch I find my husband weeping on the living room floor with his parents and sister. I cannot think of any time in my life when I've witnessed a whole group of people weeping together in that way. It feels like sacred ground.
Everything within me wants to go to him, to be with him in his grief, to weep as well in my own grief over Papa, but I know instinctively that the best way I can care for my husband is to let him have this moment, this sacred moment of pure grief with his family. I know that the best way I can care for him is to care for our children and relieve him of having to deal with parental duties for a night. So I walk quietly past and get Sage ready for bed. But I can't stop the tears from coming now, I can only hold them at bay so they spill silently out of my eyes.
By the time Sage is ready for bed and happily engaged with a movie the group has gathered in the kitchen. They form a sort of semi-circle around the one counter that sticks out into the middle of the room. The wine has been put away now and replaced with vodka. Each person holds a shot glass of clear Russian liquid in one hand. They stand close, touching each other.
As I enter the room they all burst into laughter, the sort of laughter that is colored by both the grief and the joy of remembering.
"I'll sneak in close to Bryan," I think silently to myself, but then I see him. He is standing close to the counter, in the middle of the circle, his dad's arm is around his shoulders and a few people stand sort of behind him. I can get to him, but it would feel like interrupting and this too feels like a sacred moment, I don't want to break the spell. So I stand back a few paces behind him, watching.
Gram starts off the next toast, but it's not really about Papa, it's about Bryan. About how special he was to Papa and how much he loved him, how worried they had been about Bryan's cancer and how grateful everyone is that he's doing well. My breath feels heavy as my face wrinkles into tears. My arms ache and I wish even more deeply that we were standing next to each other, that his arm was around me.
"To Papa... and to Bryan."
I raise my water bottle as they raise their shots and we all drink. The liquid doesn't burn like alcohol, but it does feel grounding. Swallowing gives me something to focus on, something to keep the sobs from breaking out of my throat. I push the tears out of my eyes as I walk back to the couch to check on Sage.
The day had been full - visiting with family, shopping for things still needed for the funeral, dinner at Fashion Island. Tears fill both kids eyes as we carry them up to the hotel room. I lay down on the bed next to Sage trying to soothe her overtired body to sleep. Eventually she closes her eyes but I know she isn't fully asleep yet. If I move it will wake her. So I pull out my phone and take the opportunity of stillness to clear away the little red bubbles that had accumulated on the screen.
I check Timehop last, and as soon as I open it I am confronted with his face staring back at me with all the strength and all the softness that had always been there. I inhale sharp, and then slowly exhale. With controlled movements I slide away from Sage's now sleeping body and walk over to where Bryan stands near the pull out couch he just got Thad to sleep on.
"Are you ok?" He asked.
"No. I'm not," I snapped slightly, "I just need a break. I want to be on with the children so you don't have to be, but today was hard. Thad's feeling better and was all over the place. It's just a lot and I sort of want to scream right now. It's fine... I just can't go to sleep yet, I need a little time to recover and unwind." I can feel my shoulders tensing as I speak.
"Ok," he walks towards me. "That's fine. I know I wasn't very available today and I appreciate everything you do for me and the kids. I know it's hard traveling with them, especially Sage. Is there anything I can do now?"
"No, it's fine. I just need some time. Maybe I'll do some yoga."
I pause and look around the room, "Actually would you get my mat from the car? It's in the back."
"Sure. No problem." He says and heads out of the room.
I lay across the bed and take slow deep breaths.
The door opens and Bryan walks back in carrying my mat towards me. "I really do appreciate you so much. Thank you for taking care of things so I can just be with my family." He reaches his arms around me and I can feel myself melting.
He holds me for a minute and then I whisper, "Papa was in my timehop tonight." My voice cracks as I speak the words and my eyes begin to water. We pull slightly away and look at one another. "It was pictures from Geoff and Devon's wedding, seven years ago."
"Is today their anniversary?" Bryan asks with eyes wide and voice trembling.
"I don't know... I don't think so. It might have been a few days ago and this was just when I shared the pictures..." My voice trails off as tears flow more freely now, "They've had such a hard year."
"I really want to see Geoff." Bryan says and we both embrace again crying on behalf of Bryan's uncle. We glance at the kids and move into the hotel bathroom.
"I miss Papa," Bryan says.
"Me too," I reply, choking on the words.
There is now no attempt to hold back tears. We sit down on the edge of the bathtub and cry together.
Bryan talks and I listen.
I talk and Bryan listens.
I talked about things I saw in both him and his grandfather.
I sob and tell him my secret, quiet fear, "When Papa first got sick... I started praying, not only for his healing, but another prayer," I pause, the words feel stuck in my throat. "I prayed 'Not in the same year. Not in the same year, don't take Papa and Bryan in the same year.' And now..." I paused again to catch my breath between sobs. "I know it's irrational, but now I feel like a ticking clock is hanging over my head counting down one year." I barely managed to get the last words out between sobs.
Bryan touches my arm. "I'm not going anywhere," he says.
It's what he always tells me. We both know what a meaningless statement it is and how we have so little control over how much time either of us have on this earth, but somehow it still makes me feel better. I smile at him. We sit there for a long time more, talking and crying together.
"This is what I really needed," I say. "More than yoga, or a break from the kids. I needed to really cry, to feel it all, rather than trying to hold it in."
Tuesday at the Cathedral:
I push Sage's wheel chair up to the outer edge of the pew and instruct Thaddeus to sit down near me. Bryan moves past the kids and works his way to the other end of the pew to sit next to his mom and sister. Next to them in the middle of the isle is the coffin. There are flowers on top of it and a small ornate bowl. Smoke rises in little curls out of the bowl. Frankincense, I assume. I watch the spirals rise, mesmerized for a moment, and think of how many others have watched this smoke hover over their loved one.
The kids sit quietly as I take in the surroundings. I know they won't stay this quiet for long, but I'm grateful while it lasts. The cathedral is covered in golds and deep reds. There seems to be icons and paintings and stained glass in every direction I look. In the front big bundles of flowers rest on stands and a large portrait of Papa smiles out over the Cathedral, tears rush to my eyes as I look from the picture, which is so full of life and gentle love, to the coffin.
"Is that a bible?" Thaddeus asks pointing to a book resting in the little shelf on the back of the pew in front of us. The cover of the book has large Armenian letters sprawled across it.
"I think so," I reply. "But we need to be quiet now, remember." I whisper the words in his ear and he wiggles and nods his head in reply.
Two men in robes are speaking in Armenian now, they move from the front of the cathedral to stand in the isle directly in front of the coffin. I watch as they walk the length of the coffin until they are standing almost in the middle of church. They motion for us to stand. I take Sage's hand in my right hand and Thaddeus' in my left as I stand to my feet. We watch the men in robes.
Their words are foreign, I don't understand their meaning, but the sound is beautiful. They chant the words in what is almost a song and I close my eyes to listen. Thaddeus lays down on the seat next to me and my eyes lift open again.
"We need to stand," I whisper. But just then the priest motions for us to sit and everyone quietly does.
The men in robes move back to the front of the cathedral and in a heavy accent one of them precedes to read verses from the bible in English. There were no microphones or sound systems, his voice is soft and though it carries well to the second row I wonder if those in the back can hear at all. I still only catch a few words here and there, just enough to know they changed languages and that they are reading the bible.
I take one arm around Thaddeus and gently draw him close into my side, an effort to keep him from moving all over the bench. Sage points to the book with the Armenian title and makes a slight squeak indicating she wants it. I take the book and open it at random, holding it out in front of her with one hand while my other hand holds Thad close. She flips pages and I attempt to listen.
The priests are moving back down the isle and to the front of the coffin again now, directing us to again take to our feet. I stand and instruct Thad to stand. He doesn't want to, I hesitate for a moment trying to determine if it's somethings worth fighting or not. It isn't. I let him sit. At least he's being quiet.
I look towards the coffin, but my eyes fall on Gram instead. She has one arm wrapped around Geoff, who in turn has one arm wrapped around her. My mother-in-law sits in the pew directly behind Gram, and the two women grasp hands over the back of the pew. Tears cling to my eye lids and threaten to turn into full fledged sobs when I see them, these two heartbroken women holding hands and hearts as they grief a man they both loved.
Thaddeus yawns loudly and I look at him as I bring a single finger to my lips reminding him to be quiet. "What?" He whispers, "I needed to yawn."
My heart breaks a little looking at him, knowing how little he understands the significance of this day, this moment. I wish he was older, more able to remember Papa. Sage pulls at my shirt, wanting to again look at the book which I had set down when I stood. Thankfully the priest is directing us to sit again now and I open it back up in front of her as I sit.
Soon the priest is directing Geoff to come up for the eulogy. He wears a robe as well, and stands at the front as he shares about his fathers incredible life. Thaddeus listens now. His head whips around to me with wide eyes when Geoff says that Papa killed a bear and made his own bear jerky, was held at gun point, saved an ally fighter pilot whose plane crashed, went sky diving, and caught a lobster as big as himself. "Really?" Thaddeus asks. "Yeah, really. Listen." I instruct. He doesn't know the half of it. This man, we grief, this man who's name we gave to Thad as his middle name, was one of the bravest, most interesting men I've ever met.
Tuesday at the Grave Sight:
The back of my high heeled shoe catches slightly in the soft grass on the steep hill and I fumble to find my balance as I walk towards the grave site. There's a tent set up with chairs under it but no one is sitting there. Gram and Geoff and a few other close family members stand a bit in front of the tent. The rest of the group spreads out on the grass behind it. I notice Tamara and Raúl standing on the other side of the red covering with baby Raffi in the stroller and I push Sage's wheel chair over to them.
"Can I run down the hill?" Thaddeus asks at a volume that feels a little too loud.
"Not yet," I whisper to him as I notice that the priest is already speaking, or rather chanting, again in Armenian.
The two robed figures who had made their way back and forth around the coffin at the cathedral now do the same here. Eventually they pour dirt, or something resembling ashes, out of a vile onto the top of the coffin. It was a stark picture, that quickly brought to mind the oft quoted phase, "ashes to ashes and dust to dust."
The priest then invites the family to receive a blessing and family members move then into the shade of the awning to stand and wait their blessing. He priest moves from one to the other resting a gold cross momentarily on each forehead. It felt too quick and rushed. I wanted him to linger. I wanted time to pray blessings over each of them. As it was I glanced away for but a moment and he was finished.
A pastor friend of Geoff's gets up and speaks now. He calls us to hope, reminding us of the hope we have in Christ. "We do not grieve as the world grieves." I believe every word, I hold fast to the hope of the resurrection of the dead, but it falls a little flat on my ears.
I don't want hope, I want to cry.
I want to feel the extent of the loss and separation and it feels right to do so in this moment. There will be time for hope, now feels like the time for lament. I don't want to rush too quickly to victory. I know it's coming, but we aren't there yet. And right now I feel so deeply the need to sit in the not yet, the distance, the grief.
Perhaps it is not one or the other though, perhaps it is exactly right to hold hope, and hear hope, and be called to hope, even when our victory feels far off, even when we don't want the testimony, we want the lamentation, even in the midst of gravesite grief.
I ponder the balance in my mind as I stare out over the coffin. The grave sits near the top of a hill looking out over a picturesque landscape of rolling hills scattered with graves. More graves than I can count. I begin to feel a little dizzy and shift my weight from one foot to the other. Thaddeus hangs on my legs and I struggle to keep my balance on the steep slope. By this point Bryan and Tamara have also moved to the shade of the awning and I find myself standing in a small cluster with Blake and Raúl, the three of us forming a group of our own - family, but not blood.
Soon white roses are being handed out to the family members in the awning, a symbol by which they can honor Raffi. I watch as one by one they lay their flowers on top of the coffin. My sight blurs with tears as I notice Stella, Papa's sister, walking away from the coffin. Her face is wrinkled with sobs and she trips slightly before being caught by her son. The two awkwardly hold each other and cry as they catch their balance. My chest feels tight watching them. It feels as if we should all be sobbing, tripping, and breaking down, but at this point the group is largely controlled, quiet, somber.
The family finishes placing their flowers and the rest of the group is invited to take a flower and pay their respects as well.
"Would you like to go up?" Bryan comes over and asks in soft tones.
"Yes. I'll take Thad with me." I reply.
Thaddeus and I make our way over to the flowers and each take a red rose in our fingers. We walk slowly over to the coffin and lay the flowers across the top. Then I go back to get Sage. With some difficulty I take her out of her wheel chair and hold her in my arms, removing my high heels and walking barefoot now to be certain I don't trip. The grass feels soft and cool on my feet. I struggle to hold Sage's weight as she twists and wiggles, but we manage to get her a flower and get in line behind the other mourners. As we draw near the coffin I set her down on her feet and, supporting her under her arms, ask her to walk. She takes a few steps forward walking up to the side of the coffin. I smile thinking of how Papa had called once and told us that he'd had a dream about Sage walking and talking. I took a deep breath, brushed a tear away with the back of my hand, and lifted Sage up so she could place a flower on the coffin of a man who loved her and believed in her.
Tuesday at the house:
By the time we get there the house is full. Cars line the street on both sides. Traffic had made us late and a little bit cranky. I rush the kids inside, eager to find a place for them while I get Sage's food prepared.
I recognize many of the faces, but most of them are unknown to me. We hand Thad a plate of food and direct him to sit on the couch to eat, while we prepare our own plates. I felt awkward and uncomfortable, not knowing who to talk with, not knowing what to say, not really wanting to talk at all, mostly just wanting to cry. I feel torn between my children, trying to keep Sage occupied and stay on top of her 15 minute feedings, but also wanting to keep an eye on Thad and make sure he doesn't interject himself in ways that would interfere with the grieving of my husband or anyone else.
We stay mostly in the living room while the bulk of the guests gather outside. But often as I move around the house I catch glimpses of Geoff. Every time I see him he is talking with someone different. Every time I overhear him he is talking about Papa, and telling who ever he is talking to how much Papa loved them. His eyes are red and his cheeks are stained with tears. His grief is tangible but he isn't letting it distance himself from others. He is fully present. Watching him, even from afar, feels like watching a work of grace in action.
Eventually I take Thaddeus upstairs to play a game of pool. The room is quiet and I can picture Papa standing in it with a cue in his hand. When we first told Thaddeus that Papa had died he asked a simple question, "Is he the one who taught me how to play pool." In his young mind that is the memory that stands out to him and it seems fitting that we now play a round of pool at Papa's wake.
I help Thad pick out a cue and show him how to hold it. Then I watch as he struggles to hit the white ball with enough force and precision to force another ball into motion. It feels like a quiet moment of oasis in the middle of a crowded emotional day.
Eventually I go back down stairs to give Sage another dose of food. I find Bryan outside standing by his mom and venture over for a quick hug before finding Sage. He's standing directly under a shade awning used to block the sun from the patio and as I walk up it breaks crashing onto Bryan's head. He stands for a moment, "I'm fine. I'm fine." And for just a moment I really think he is, and then he begins to sink, almost as if he was melting in slow motion down towards the ground.
The whole group turns and watches. A doctor in the crowd rushes over. Someone runs and gets him some ice.
"I'm ok," he says, "I think I just need to sit down."
I follow him to the couch and we sit there for awhile mostly in silence. His parents come to check on him and sit with us. I watch the people moving about the house - from the patio to the family room, from the family room to the patio. They talk, sharing stories, and I again notice Geoff. His body language is open, a hand on someone's shoulder, a leaning in, towards people. He cries readily, but he also smiles easily and laughs quickly too. He grieves with grace. He is concerned not just with his own grief, but also the grief of the other.
"I think I could use some fresh air," Bryan says from beside me and we decide to go for a short walk around the block. We hold hands as we push the wheelchair down the drive way. Sage smiles, excited to be outside and moving.
The air is growing cool now as the sun sinks low. I notice the star jasmine growing in a neighbors yard and think of the star jasmine the kids had picked and rubbed between their fingers in front of the cathedral before the funeral. I wonder if jasmine will always remind me of Papa's funeral now?
When we draw near the house again we can hear the voices carrying from the back yard out into the street. We don't bother going through the house, but go straight around to the back. Bryan's cousin stands in the middle of the crowd with a glass raised.
Toasting to papa.
Toasting to Papa's mom.
Toasting to the rich family history and Armenian tradition of which they are a part.
We have nothing to toast with but our hearts drink in the words and toast for us. I squeeze Bryan's hand and go to find Thad. When I come back outside I find Sage with flowers in her hair... jasmine flowers.
As the evening fades into night I find myself outside with Sage, waiting as the others say their goodbyes, so they can take longer without feeling rushed by the children. Geoff comes over and sits next me, thanking me for being there.
"I really loved your dad, Geoff." I choke on the words but manage to get them out without completely breaking into sobs. I look away at Sage not sure if I could handle looking him directly in the eye.
"He really loved you too." Geoff replies and I know he means it.
Papa may not have been my grandpa, I didn't grow up with him, but I felt loved by him, every time I was with him, from the very first time I walked shakily up his front steps to the last time I saw him, weak, but still with the same caring smile and big hug ready for me. I brushed a few tears off my cheek. Sage honks the horn on the little toy car she is playing with and smiles up at us. Geoff and I sit and look at Sage as the night grows darker.
Grace and peace, Bethany Stedman