Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a wet toothbrush on the bathroom counter.
Zoom. Within milliseconds, I was transported to two years ago.
My dad’s toothbrush was still wet. He was in hospice, failing. He was no longer in his own home. No longer surrounded by the flowers he’d planted over the years in our yard. He had no control any more over his surroundings, his routine—shit, his very breathing.
Nothing was as it should be.
At a time when I worried, each visit, that he would be gone before my next, that toothbrush was a reminder of his aliveness. It was wet. We’d helped him brush his teeth that morning. People close to death don’t have wet toothbrushes, I told myself. There’s nothing more mundane and signaling health than that simple morning ritual.
And yet, I was so very wrong. Many people die with wet toothbrushes. Some people brush their teeth and walk into the World Trade Center on the wrong day. Some brush their teeth before bed and wake up with a fatal aneurism, having only minutes to live, the way my father’s brother did.
Wet toothbrushes don’t mean a damn thing.
But, we cling to them. We also cling to the smell of a t-shirt or sweater. The hair on a brush. The worn sole of a shoe.
If you’re uninitiated in the survivors club, you won’t know these things. If you’ve loved and lost, you’re nodding your head right now.
These very real things keep our loved ones from becoming a concept rather than the living, breathing human being we knew.
After my father died, most of our family gathered down the hall from his room. In the common area, we ate some kind of sandwich. We were fed by someone. The details escape me. But I remember thinking it was not right to be so hungry. That I should be unable to eat. My body, so very alive and needing food after skipping breakfast, betrayed me. My father was dead and I wanted to eat. A sign I was still very much here in the flesh even though he was very much not.
We gathered, our tribe, and took over the place for a bit. People paid their private respects. We sat together, all a bit unsure. We’d now lost the matriarch and patriarch of this large brood. And the rules were unwritten. So we did what they had taught us to do—we gathered.
It was almost a defiant act. We, the very much alive offspring of my father, were proof of his—what? Ability to create? Presence in the world? We were proof he was not gone, but living on through us.
As my nephew scolded my son for being disrespectful to me, I saw my father in that action. As my sister nervously paced and talked about immediately cleaning out his room, my father was making himself known. As another could not stop the tears, again my dad came through.
I passed the nurse’s station and heard them saying something about having an opening later that evening in a room on the floor. With shock, I realized they were talking about my father’s room. I hated that. I felt he’d already become a concept. Two hours ago, they were tracking his med schedule. Now they were already focused on the next patient. I got it. But I didn’t like it.
I remember after my mother died thinking the strangest things. Treasuring the lip balm in her drawer because it was proof that not so very long ago she was a living, breathing person who didn’t want chapped lips. Wanting to lie down on her bed so I could be on the sheets she had laid on last.
I know I am not alone in these thoughts. This desperate clinging to the last bits of life. This is why people leave their loved ones’ bedrooms and closets untouched for months—sometimes even years. Because if you can just keep things the way they left them, it’s the closest thing to being able to have them here with you.
I don’t know why these bits of memory still come back to me. Perhaps they always will. And, as I was driving, feeling sad about my losses, Dad again made his presence known.
A song he used to sing to me to when I was a little girl came on the radio. “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight” came full throttle through my car stereo. It was on a station I never listen to—and I certainly was amazed any station played this song. I’ve never in my life heard it sung by anyone other than my dad.
You can say that this is just another balm for my soul—another defense mechanism, like believing that wet toothbrushes somehow stave off death. But, being my father’s daughter, I have learned to respect signs when they come along, if not to look for them. And this is not the first time he has sent me one.
Dad took the sting out of the wet toothbrush memory. And showed me that even now, two years after his death, he is very much alive. Just not necessarily in a form I can communicate with the way I’d like to do.
So ok, Dad. I’ll see your cheesy song and raise the ante. Tonight I wear your “Grateful Dad” shirt to bed. It no longer smells like you but still reminds me of you.
Sending those smoke signals right back at you. I hope you feel it.
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I love how carefully you notice and share details. Wet toothbrush. Brilliant, missy!
Thank you. I think in times of great happiness or great sorrow, our senses tend to be heightened.
Hi Kay-I love your perspective and the idea of sending smoke signals back. I used to worry about the energy he might use up, wherever my Dad was after he died, to send me those signals. I was grateful for them. They came through, without fail, whenever I needed them.
Oh, I love to hear that you were able to see or hear those signals. I like to think that they don’t take incredible amount of effort from our loved ones on the other side. I think it is far easier for them to send them than for us to be receptive :-). We are the ones with all this dense physical matter all around us.
PS I do get signs from my Dad, my heart is open to receive them and I don’t care if my family smirks, I know that they are from him. There’s no doubt in my mind. I went to a person who channels as well. If you believe, it is quite comforting.
My father died many years ago yet there are days that I write about in my blog where the pain feels absolutely raw. I’ve accepted this but for some reason they still come as a huge shock.Every single Father’s Day, I still go to the card section or the gift section as if I am programmed and in a way I am. I see him in my son which is a nice reminder but there are days when the loss of my dad feels as if my heart was breaking all over again. TIme heals, sure, but you can’t repair something that has already been crushed.
Grief comes in waves, doesn’t it? And years later, when you think you’ve weathered it all, one tiny little thing can bring a wave crashing in on you. I get it. It’s nice that your son has some of your dad in him. Nice to see the love live on in a way we can comprehend.
I was in floods of tears last weekend, twelve years after my dad’s death because I came across his toolbox when clearing out our shed. The thought crossed my mind that maybe I should get rid of it and that was enough to set me off (I didn’t get rid of it)! I still have boxes of my mother’s things in the loft until I’m ready to let go of them.
The time so soon after the death of a parent, well, who knows what goes down, Kay? The Survivors Club. You have coined a worthy term there, but there are no guidelines for us members. After my mom died, on the morning before her funeral services, my brother-in-law and I decided to go off on our own and play nine holes of golf. My mom’s husband had decided she should have three days of calling hours, and we needed that stress reliever on that middle day. My youngest sister totally agreed that mom would have wanted my bro-in-law and I to golf on that lovely middle day morning before her calling hours even started, but our middle sister said we were disrespectful and was angry with us. We all got over it by the next day.
This was a post that brought tears to my eyes. Yes, I am one of those in the survivor’s club and I know these things that you speak of. The day after my father died (but before the funeral) our house was full of people- neighbors, friends, aunts and uncles. The family stories started to flow and we all started reminiscing and smiling and laughing about the good times. I suddenly realized my mother was not in the room and I went looking for her. She had tucked herself away in her bedroom. She was sitting on the bed. She had a pen in her hand and she was paying some bills. As I looked at her dumbfounded she said to me ‘You see, I just wanted to do something that felt normal. All the laughter and the people here, that didn’t feel normal. I just wanted to feel normal.’ It was my first experience of deep grief and I was young. As the years have gone by and I have experienced other losses, her words come back to me each time and I now understand what she meant. In losing a loved one, it is that loss of our ‘normal’ that becomes the greatest loss of all.
This is to touching, Elizabeth. I know what your mom meant–absolutely. The mind-blowing part of it all is the person you ate breakfast with yesterday and talked about mundane things with hours ago–is suddenly not here. And living with that realization is too much for a lot of us, I think. I hope peace came to all of you in time. Thank you for sharing that story.
I thank you for this message. I lost my mother last year and my husband 15 years ago. My children were small when he died. They and I still have visits from him and we are reminded daily of both these very loved people who are still in our lives.
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I love that he visits:). So many people aren’t aware enough to get those. Beautiful. I’m sorry he’s gone–but glad not totally out of touch. Thank you for sharing that.
I remember cleaning out the garage and going through my son’s clothes shortly after he died. I came across a black ski jacket that he always wore and stuck my hands in the pockets. I felt something oddly shaped and a little sharp. I pulled out broken corn chips and a packet of Taco Bell hot sauce. I could imagine what he was doing the night he died, and after I sat with my thoughts for a while, I put those chips right back in there…as if that would preserve the memory somehow.
Oh. Feeling this one like a punch to the gut. How do we go from eating corn chips to the ether? I completely understand you putting them back. And am so sorry you lost him.
wow, I could write a book in response to this post. I think that after having gone through the experience of losing a beloved, there is just so much to say – As writers, especially, we yearn to chronicle how it all felt, how it happened, how we grieved, and how we felt the communications and presence of our loved ones afterwards….Thank you so much for so eloquently sharing bits of your story. I actually did a two year course in death and bereavement after my mom died, earning a certificate in ‘thanatology’, so great was my need to understand grief and process my own. I believe that all need to feel safe to tell the stories of our losses. This is how we heal.
Brings me back to the day of my father’s funeral, many years ago now. After all was done and dusted me and my three younger brothers marched down to the pub where he used to drink. We commandeered the corner of the bar where he used to sit and spent the evening shooting the breeze with his old mates. It was slightly odd but it just seemed the most appropriate way to remember him.
Seems an appropriate farewell, Roy:). I’m sure he was there with you in spirit. I’ve found, celebrating life in the rawest, earthiest ways seems to satisfy my urge to thumb my nose at death. So it makes total sense to me . . .