It’s the morning after. All the days now will be the days after, yesterday morning permanently marking the place that neatly divides the time with him and the time after him.
I fumbled around in the kitchen, having overslept so everything was rushed and poorly done but at least there is coffee. When I sat down on the sofa to put off the next stage of tasks, the critical work of the morning behind me, I saw my mug from last night already sitting next to my place. Last night, I sat here waiting for one of my sons to drive back from a social thing. He drove over to a town a fairly good drive away and it was dark and snowing. I sipped my favorite herbal tea while I waited knowing it was just better to be honest with myself that I wouldn’t have slept if I had tried to go to bed. Once he was safely inside and the doors closed behind him, I did go to bed but I did not go to sleep. I left my cup here on the windowsill next to the place I like to sit, the tea bag resting in the bottom and the string and tag hanging over the lip.
Now I am sipping my coffee out of a favorite mug that was a gift from a dear friend. It has a rose on it and the words, “Hola, Bonita!” which means, “Hi, beautiful girl!” As I sit drinking this morning’s coffee among the remnant of last night’s tea I reflect on yesterday. I don’t want to think about it only I do, I want to dwell on it and obsess over it and think about it over and over and over again. When I was a kid, I used to like to wiggle my loose tooth, strangely reveling in the slight pain. As an adult, I think I do the same thing.
Yesterday, we got the news that Father Basil died from complications of Covid after a battle as fierce as it was brief. He was a monk at another monastery, the Byzantine Catholic one further up the Keweenaw Peninsula, even further from the farm than the Orthodox one my husband is attached to. We have always been close to those monks, ever since moving here, and they occupy a very warm place in my heart. Our visits over good dark roast coffee and the times my children have spent running along the rocky shore of their private Lake Superior beach remain some of my most beautiful memories.
Once they bought an enormous beach ball, truly enormous, like a dozen feet across. They invited our family and dear friends visiting from Denver and then surprised us with it. They rolled it out into an open area in their woods to the cheering of fourteen children. They were running and screaming in pure joy as they played with the largest ball any of them would ever see. Their bellies were filled with hot chocolate and homemade marshmallows and my heart was filled with gratitude. I didn’t have any family here and no friends really but we had two monasteries of monks and sunny days filled with woods and laughing children and cocoa and coffee. It was good and it was my constant, it was the place I can go back to in my mind when I think that the work God set before us isn’t working.
They say that the first stage of grief is disbelief. First things first, I don’t know who “they” are or if the seven stages are always totally accurate but the first one is. Disbelief. I think that is the hard one. My coffee is almost two-thirds drunk and I stare down into my cup I have realized that people are not as enthralled with change and excitement as any single person pretends to be. We don’t actually like change that much. We insist that some things stay the same so we can safely revolve around them, we are spinning like mercurial planets that pretend that we are not like the others. But we are. We can only spin and twirl if the center stays the same, unmovable, constant. That is why the first stage is disbelief. We have always counted on the people in our lives being there. We cannot easily come to terms with what comes after the break, with what is left when we have lost what was before.
For us fragile human people, life only begins, it never ends, or at least it should not. We never question that life has a definite start. We never ask if anyone is sure, really sure, that a baby was born but we surely ask that, again and again, when someone dies. We ask more than one person, just to corroborate their story because we have doubts, we have questions. Even when we think we have solidly accepted it, there are those moments we forget, or just try to forget, that someone is gone.
Going on nine years ago, I moved to the Keweenaw, away from all of my family and friends, and in the shadow of death. Yesterday, I was already dwelling on that. We have reached the time of year when my memories feature on my main social media app recalls my father’s rapid descent into death. It reminds me of posts from that date for all the years past and late 2012 was not a good time. I was pregnant and my father was having some confusing medical issues that in retrospect were obviously cancer but back then we didn’t know what we didn’t know. I had woken up yesterday, stupidly checking my app before my work was done, and reminded myself of those days when we didn’t know. It hit me squarely and I spent the day pretending to shake it off. My father is dead, he died in a rapid explosion of cancer that took him too quickly so that it felt like we didn’t have time to catch our breath. He did live long enough to see the child I was pregnant with but he did not live long after. She will never remember him.
By the time she was born, her grandfathers were spent, one dead and one dying. She has always been fiercely loved and I suppose she doesn’t miss what she never had because her life is full. What she has instead is the constant presence of monks in her life. It’s a funny life my children have. Their whole life is the church and The Church and monastic services and monks just generally. Monks come to dance recitals and animal showmanship competitions, they come to birthdays and Christmas dinners, they are emergency contacts on activity forms, and they are the central constant until they fall out of orbit and disappear.
In the last few years, the Ukrainians have lost two monastics who have fallen asleep in the Lord and one who just fell away. Our Russian monastery has lost three monks who fell away and some have left behind larger and more painful voids. I can hardly believe what we have lost, what is absent now that was there on the sunny summer day my children played with a ball that was more than a story tall.
Disbelief is a way of acknowledging what really stays the same, what is really constant, and that is Our God. Our goodbyes are strained because I think deep down, we know they are temporary because there is something that comes after that which comes after. People leave the monastery for different reasons and in different ways and to different ends but it is not forever and always. It is for now. We ask if someone is sure that someone has actually died because, on some level, we know they aren’t really gone forever. We are checking to see if they have already left for the place where we will see them again later. It is all a matter of time. The only real problem is that I am impatient.
My coffee is now gone and I know that today, I will need another cup. I also know that this great realization that God is the constant and death is temporary doesn’t ease the suffering. Cold comfort, they call it.
This is the morning after, the morning after Father Basil died. It reminds me of the early days after my father died. Since I heard, I am always on the verge of tears. They sit there behind my eyes and it takes just one fragile, unguarded moment and they spill out. Last night, I made a cup of herbal tea and started supper. I had set all my ingredients out on the island and I was moving like everything was normal and full and complete with no holes, no empty spaces. I picked up my knife to chop the onions and my daughter looked at me.
“Maybe no onions tonight. When you start chopping, then you will start to cry and then you will start to really cry.”
That was all it took. It felt like uncorking a bottle and then I was pouring out tears like wine. My cup overfloweth. Then she started to cry. I was and am drunk on my tears, my head aches, but I still indulge. For a moment, we stood soaking in our grief and the dinner ingredients lay abandoned on the island, waiting for me to float back to them, waiting for what comes next.
I have my second cup of coffee now and the tears have returned. They were just waiting for me. I hate grief. I hate the way the tears sit behind my eyes and the way sorrow chokes my throat and the way the pain settles behind my ribs.
Queen Elizabeth once summarized a quote of Colin Murray Parkes when she said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” When I think of it this way, I remember that these people are worth grieving, they deserve to be grieved. I sit sipping my coffee, my tears spilling like wine from my too-full cup, I remember those cups of coffee shared with Father Basil, ones that filled my aching heart with love. Those days were good. My cup overflows with grief now because it overflowed with love before and I think I can be at peace with that...tomorrow.