Grief, Guest Posts, healing, poetry

On The Anniversary Of My Father’s Death.

February 25, 2014

By Stacey Brown-Downham

This piece is written in honor of Stacey Brown-Downham’s father, Peter Brown–photographer, carpenter and jack-of-all-trades (with a special finesse for the art of cursing)– who passed away three years ago today at 60 years old, but maintained his sense of humor through years of illness (e.g. After one of his many heart attacks, a nurse says to his wife, “He’s had a very bad heart attack.” His response from the other room, “It must not have been that bad. I’m still here.”) 

BREAK HERE. AND HERE. AND HERE.

It should break us all–to feel so much, to love so hard, to hold on so so tightly only to let go willingly (or not).  Maybe it does break us all in different ways only to put us back together better, at least different.

As children and perhaps parents we are made of each other, of our nasty and glorious insides and outs. I had (and still have, in some ways) no idea the ways that I could be broken, and then healed–all the things nobody talks about. Scar tissue in unmentionable places. Scenes etched in cerebral sharpie.

Scene 1: I dropped my son down the stairs, and listened to him roll down all twelve wooden steps in his three-and-a-half-month old body. We drove ourselves to the hospital in a dream. I ran into the emergency room, pleading for someone to help us, not knowing if he was okay. Somehow he was–the hairline fractures in his tiny skull healed long before I could shudder the memory away. It held onto me or I it, or both. I can only write about it now, five years later, and almost not hear it or see it happen in front of me.

We have since carpeted the stairs, but they are still wooden underneath. We have not fallen again, so carefully now we tread.

Scene 2: When my father passed away two years later, after years of illness, at the young age of sixty, we drove through the night to Canada from New Jersey, to sit by his side as he went wherever it is we all must go. I sang in his ear, watched him stare intently up at the corner of the room, and nod in communion with some unseen friend, pull his gaze back down with all his might to search for my mother, then with her permission, allow his soul to slip out and to leave his body still and quiet at last. I sang again at his memorial, ate far too much maple coffee cake and promptly returned back to work, suggesting to all who asked that it would be an adjustment.  An adjustment? You could call that term a gross understatement and perhaps it was at the time, but what else can any of these earth-shaking moments require of us than wholesale adjustments of the body and soul?

Scene 3: I tried to be okay–I was strong, right?– but my body revolted. I became unbearable to be around. I liked no one and nothing. My husband braced himself when I opened my mouth to speak–what accusation, what complaint might issue forth?  So I had to adjust, alright, or risk breaking it all.

Scene 4: At exactly the right time and place (a Saturday afternoon, Spring 2011, at Dhyana Yoga in Haddonfield, New Jersey) I found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in Jennifer Pastiloff’s Manifestation yoga workshop and she told us to partner up and sit directly across from each other. I was odd woman out so I was paired with her. Our job was to stare into each others’ eyes for two minutes straight–into a stranger’s eyes for two minutes straight. I don’t think I’d looked into anyone’s eyes for that long, ever. My eyes welled up–no big deal. I can hold it together. But then she smiled, nodded and gave a little wink, just simple gestures of kindness. It was like she knew, knew that I had had no one to whom to bare this grief, no one whom I thought could bear it. But she smiled permission and so I gave it up, all that grief to a sister-like stranger and I did not break.

She set me on my way back. From there I talked, I breathed, I took strange supplements and new age tests, I stopped eating wheat, I moved my body and I wrote.  I was sick for months, maybe years, and then I was better.

These things should break us, and they seem to for a time, but they don’t. For here we are. We are here. And that’s the nasty and glorious truth of it all, at least for now.

Stacey and her father.

Stacey and her father.

But if you want it in other words:

“Resolution”

Each year at this time as
The earth revolves
Around the closest star
It slows just long enough
For us to stop and take
One last sweaty look at summer
Then reluctantly face forward
With immense resolve
To begin the year anew
(I keep a students’ calendar
If the sun does not)

In its recent circles
It has turned us askew
All the big things, you see,
It has let us see
The greatest of loves
Joined and divided and divided again
Two times made mother
Once the wife
And the grieving daughter
And the one who slipped
And watched him tumble down the stairs
Over and over and over
As the world spun too

It shone in their eyes
While we made humble promises
And donned rings
Outside it waited
While in those windowless rooms
We were first and then again made mother and father
It rose as we drove
Glinted off snowy banks in the
Hospital parking lot as we arrived
And was traveling westward too
As he took flight
And we walked out into the cold evening with and without him

No matter how far we go
We end up right back here
Parts the same but
Wholly different.

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Stacey Brown-Downham is these things (in no particular order):  Canadian ex-pat/recently baptized American citizen, the mother of two ceaselessly charming (charming and ceaseless?) boys, wife to an equally charming American gentle-man, high school English and Special Education teacher, singer-songwriter under the moniker of The Classic Brown, soul-student of Jennifer Pastiloff and when windows of time permit, an amateur writer of prose and poetry. 

Jennifer Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif and she and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up:  SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Tucson. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. Join a retreat by emailing barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com.

Next workshop is London July 6!


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10 Comments

  • Reply johncoyote February 25, 2014 at 8:27 am

    It is good to remember our father and missed people. I use to call my dad every week at 8 pm on Friday. He passed on in 1997 and I still stop and desire to hear his laughter and voice. Thank you for sharing the story.

  • Reply erinjcs February 25, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Beautiful writing. Thank you for sharing your stories and writing.

  • Reply angel joy February 25, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    thank you. I posted a blog of my own about grief, about beginning to grieve the buried losses…and reading about your process eased my heart, knowing we are all breaking and putting the parts back together.

  • Reply Stacey Brown-Downham February 25, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you for reading and commiserating. This idea that will will all face such deep losses as part of this thing we do here on earth is one of the things that prompted me to write this. None of us is immune to that kind of pain and ideally we all find a way to heal. Holding each other up is part of that process. I can’t thank Jen enough for giving us this place and space to share. Xx

  • Reply Elizabeth February 26, 2014 at 12:28 am

    I am grieving the loss of my dear, sweet mother who I was with as she passed away 5 months ago….despite living half a world away for many years, she was my anchor and my lifeline. Now I appear to be holding it all together pretty well most the time but it hits me like a ton of bricks now and then out of the blue…. or some little sign which I am sure is sent from her comes my way… and the last 2 days after a pretty long period of outward calm but unidentified inner unease, two nights ago I was sitting on the sofa before bedtime and out of the blue- no obvious trigger- after an actually really good day I was overcome with sad- and loneliness, missing her with such intensity, not sure where it came from but have been moving forward, cooking dinner, sitting numbly through yoga class and shuffling kids to school and lessons etc fighting back tears the whole time… reading this just released the flood gates for the first time in a while…. thanks for such an eloquent expression of my feelings….. while my immediate world around me doesn’t, can’t, won’t relate and won’t allow me to break down, I know that there are plenty out there like you who do and I am not alone and I will get through this time and the future — parts the same, but wholly different, as you put it….

  • Reply multidimensionalsuchness February 26, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    So poignant. So beautiful.

    “These things should break us, and they seem to for a time, but they don’t. For here we are. We are here. And that’s the nasty and glorious truth of it all, at least for now.”

    Reminds me of a line from “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

    Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.

    P.S. I tripped and dropped my son on a hardwood floor when he was 5 months old. I had just returned home from my grandma’s funeral and all I wanted to do was hold my baby. So I went and woke him from a deep sleep and carried him thru the house singing to him the lullaby my grandmother used to sing to me, and then, rounding a corner stubbed my toe and dropped him. He’s now 21 and I can feel that moment and hear that thud like it just happened an instant ago. I have forgiven myself. You will too if you have not already. Think of it this way: If you are a good mother, i.e. hold your baby a lot, the odds of you dropping him/her at some point are pretty high. Think of it as a Seal of Good Childkeeping 😉

  • Reply Stacey Brown-Downham February 26, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    As mothers, we rarely have time to stop and do what we need to take care of ourselves. I’m glad to have helped to give you some space and time to let go for a moment. I also went to a grief counselor and that was really helpful in tapping into the emotions in a supported place. It’s nice to know you can still feel her love guiding you through this xx

  • Reply Oh my ... Goddess! (@LEISUREGODDESS) February 26, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Thank you so much for this story. I write that with tears in my eyes. My father is still alive, thankfully, but I know loss. In other ways. Your words “I liked no one and nothing” could be me. I know that. This leaves me with something to think about tonight or to work on tomorrow.

  • Reply Stacey Brown-Downham March 2, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    @multidimensionalsuchness Thank you for the kind words. And that stanza from the Mary Oliver poem is lovely, the idea that the world goes on while we despair is powerful. I have forgiven myself for dropping him…that was relatively easy, thankfully, because I slipped and was just soo tired from having to go back to work when he was so young. But the trauma of that moment had a much stronger impact than I realized at the time. I feel for you as well, wanting to have the comfort of your son and then having the unimaginable happen–I’m so happy that he is okay. My mother-in-law, who is famous for her crass sense of humor, said, “We all drop our babies at least once; that’s why they make them so they bounce…” — Perhaps not funny in all situations or immediately so, but the silver lining is that babies are surprisingly resilient…
    I wrote another couple of poems as part of processing the anxiety of motherhood.

    “Still”
    While you dream
    I lay my hand on your cheek
    I feel your pulse steady and constant
    And almost immediately
    All the forces that might still that beat
    Flood in like locusts
    To raze my greatest work
    How do I
    those fears
    still, instead
    You feel it too
    You ask me how loud a gun shot is–loud, I reply
    “I don’t want to hear that”
    you despair
    Almost inaudibly
    So we resolve to not think about that
    For the thoughts alone could still my pulse
    Beat on in other directions
    Forge the best and strongest love

    ———————-
    My gentle boy
    You have
    A small but perfect heart
    Beating under tiny ribs
    I know this not because I’ve seen it
    But because I feel it pulse in that unfinished spot
    On the top of your head
    Hidden too
    By mounds of soft black curls
    How you can be so sturdy and delicate at once
    So new and wise
    So playfully serious
    And delightfully undone
    I will raise you up
    To be a gentle man

  • Reply Lisa February 12, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    This is beautiful. I found these words just weeks after passing the first anniversary of my own father’s death. Thank you.

    Lisa

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