The Mittens I Never Made

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Facebook reminded me of this photo that I posted exactly three years ago today.  I stared at it for a long time, and couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I was making and whatever happened to this project. I could remember buying the yarn (the nicest yarn I’d ever bought up until that point), and I vaguely recalled that I was making mittens, but I had no clue if I ever finished them or what happened…

Then I remembered.

These mittens never came to be. When I took this photo, I was completely unaware that I was days away from experiencing startlingly intense feelings of both deep love and heart wrenching pain. I was completely oblivious in that dreamy state of existence where most of us live 99% of the time – under the spell of the misguided belief that we are somehow in control.

In the days following this photo, I’d receive a phone call at work to come to NJ because it appeared as if my dad’s battle with early onset dementia was coming to an end in the only possible way that particular disease can end. As I rushed back to my house to gather up things for an indefinite stay in my hometown, I distinctly remember wondering if I should bring clothes for a funeral. I decided that would be a bad omen.

But I don’t go anywhere without a knitting project, so the barely-started mittens pictured above came with me. When I got home, Dad had apparently rallied and it seemed like it could have been a false alarm. Mom felt bad that it looked as if I drove all the way home for nothing, and a part of me wondered if this is how it would be for the next however long – would I be rushing home at every little cough just in case? The familiar guilt once again niggled at me for moving away to the Catskills in NY.

Fortunately, I got the call on a Thursday, so I could stay through Sunday and only miss a day and a half of work. We spent a lot of time at the nursing home, and I always brought this knitting project with me, making a little progress here and there. I worked on it to pass the time between meetings with hospice as we figured out what was going on and whether or not it was safe for him to eat, always being reminded that a period of “rallying” does tend to happen before someone passes.

Then, after a few of us went to the movies to clear our heads, we visited him despite that it was a little late in the evening – just to check on him. The staff were glad we’d come. They were just about to call us. He was back in bed. We could hear his breath rattling before we even entered his room. It was clear now that he really had just experienced that bittersweet phenomenon the hospice people told us about, a final display of strength and even a glimmer of lucidity, which I can only describe as a smack in the face that I’ll somehow cherish forever.

On this last day of his life, after so many years of apparent absence, I saw a small part of him – the real him – was still there. I saw an unmistakable flicker of recognition when I said, “Heyyyy, Dad.” I said it in the same sing-song tone I always did even though the reply these days was often a deadpan stare or on good days it might be a Pavlovian, “Hi.” But this time, he clearly knew me, and he actually leaned in for a hug in a way that he had not done in years.

I wondered: had he been here all along? Throughout all those long nights of confusion and turmoil, was he somehow trapped inside? That was the smack in the face – because now each breath he took seemed an immense chore and clearly, he was leaving us! If he was in there all this time, well then I wanted him to stay!

But his status drastically changed at some unknown point during our movie. And I realized this was going to be a long night. One member of the nursing home staff, who had always called my dad her favorite, was convinced he’d just come down with a cold, and when she left at the end of her shift she said that he’d be feeling better tomorrow. But I could see how the special moment I had with him, with the real him, just hours prior would be a moment I would cherish forever.

My most precious gift in life will always be the simple act of looking my dad in the eye and knowing that he saw me one last time and that he so clearly wanted a hug, just like we had shared so many countless times during better years. The look he gave me said so much: I’m happy to see you again. I’m proud of you. I love you.

Alas, the “rally” was, however, over and he was struggling to breathe even with oxygen. He was no longer the man he was before dementia, but he was also no longer the man he had become with dementia. He had become what I imagine we all become in those last moments – entirely focused on each breath. No confusion or delirium but no cognition or emotion either, simply two lungs and a heart trying as they might to do their respective jobs, despite nature working hard against them.

Sensing this would be my last chance to do so and hoping that maybe – if some flicker of light was still burning in his subconscious – maybe it would bring him some peace, I shared with him every single happy memory I could possibly think of from our time together: parasailing over the Atlantic, building igloos in the snow, digging to China in our backyard, kayaking through the rain forest in Costa Rica, drawing on paper plates in our little camper, sailing in Baltimore, the time his “power boat” ran out of gas as a giant ocean liner headed straight for us and he somehow managed to get us to safety (as we knew he would), riding the High Speed Line to Philly when family dinners went too long for both of us to keep occupied, and on and on each memory getting more vivid, at least for me, as we traveled back through time.

Later that night, he passed away peacefully and without much ado – so typical of him to leave us without any fanfare or even a whimper of complaint. He simply was there one second and not the next.

And now I remember what happened to this knitting project. The next day, I tried to work on the mitten a little to distract myself from feelings I didn’t recognize. It was the first time I’d felt this strange type of bottomless grief, which is probably why I made a critical error in the pattern and had to frog the whole thing entirely. I was so angry about screwing up that I became completely hysterical looking at the ruined project, which was beyond salvaging. There was no coming back. All hope I had for the future of these mittens was shattered and I couldn’t go back and fix anything. They were done.

That was the thing I didn’t understand three years ago and the thing that kept me in a long, seemingly endless night of paralyzing grief that lasted a year, possibly more. It’s the thing that still knocks the wind right out of my sails from time to time, even three years later. The thought that my dad’s death is final – no coming back.

This was the first time I had really experienced  wanting something to be different so badly while also knowing that there was absolutely zero possibility of it changing. I’d experienced the death of a loved one before, and I wanted it to be not so, but acceptance came quickly.

And unlike the many breakups I’ve experienced, or the job I didn’t get that I thought I wanted more than anything, or even minor frustrations with more shallow matters, I had no hope of a different outcome. He wasn’t coming back. Breakups turn out to be “breaks” or someone new and better comes along. Losing the teaching job allowed me to take a career path I’m much more cut out for. Bad haircuts grow out, weight can be lost, wrinkles concealed, and so on. But this – losing dad – my brain couldn’t comprehend something so final.

I thought of all those times, seeing him in so much mental anguish, when I prayed for this very thing. “Relief” we called it. Relief for who!? Now all I could think was: I take it back. I take it back. I take it back. I wanted him here, and I selfishly didn’t care about his experience of being here. I didn’t even care that it was selfish to wish for his prolonged pain. As I would eventually write in his eulogy, “My dad had a spirit that transcended even such a terrible disease as dementia.” And I could no longer feel his spirit near me.

This is why in the days immediately following his passing, I dreaded the funeral. I felt that as long as we could keep him above ground, then it wasn’t real, after all, I could still hold is hand. Since I didn’t bring home the right clothes, I kept saying I’d run out to buy something, but I just couldn’t stomach the idea of going to the mall, with its thin veil of mindless, shallow living. How would I pick out something to wear to my father’s funeral? I ended up digging through my old closet and settling on a really ridiculous getup that could pass as funeral attire.

After the funeral I dreaded the one month mark, then holidays, and then the one year mark. To me, one year had to really be the end. That had to mean that I was supposed to just “move on.” After all, every well meaning person kept telling me “it gets easier.”

“It” getting easier was precisely what I was ultimately dreading. I wrongly equated diminished grief with diminished love. I thought that if “it” ever did get “easier,” that meant I’d forgotten him. It also meant that on those nights that I couldn’t control my crying and on those mornings I couldn’t get out of bed, I just had to suck it up and move on because it was supposed to be getting “easier.”

But no one told me, or at least I never realized, “easier” doesn’t mean “over.” I still have the yarn from the ruined project, and I can still make something new with it. Similarly, my dad is still a part of my life and always will be. I don’t put a lot of stock in an afterlife and frankly I am not likely to believe that he is “watching over me,” but that has nothing to do with the ever present role he still plays in my life today. I draw on lessons I learned from him. I pull from the deep well of courage and confidence that he instilled in me as I progress in my career and take on new challenges, despite the tears that still come when I think about how I can’t just pick up the phone and tell him all about it.

Yes, it eventually got easier but I take a strange refuge in the knowledge that his absence in my life will never be “easy.” On days when grief hits me like a tidal wave, I’ve learned to get lost in the waves a little because I never feel so close to him as when I’m stuck in those bittersweet memories of our time together.

The thing I dreaded – that he would be gone from my life forever – simply never happened. Every single day, I feel his quiet wisdom and gentle humor, and I do my best to embody those subtle qualities. No one ever told me about this part. And if they did tell me I wouldn’t have believed it – that no length of time could ever erase our relationship and the way he still shows up in my life every day.

So now I just need to figure out what to make with the yarn I still have.

UPDATE: Some sad news. After writing this post I pulled out the yarn to see if I was inspired to make something new in honor of my dad. I was heartbroken to find that it had been moth eaten and needed to be thrown away to preserve the livelihood of the rest of my yarn babies. I suppose high quality yarn like that is pretty tasty for moths, since not much of my other wool was affected. Nonetheless, I decided to make a pair of convertible mittens with new alpaca yarn that is just as, if not more, sumptuous than the original:

skinny starbuck mitts

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