When you show up at a holiday party on your due date, people make a big deal of it. A few, who have been there, acknowledge the logic – if baby isn’t ready, there’s not much else to do, really. But your impressive belly serves as the starting point for each and every conversation you have. On this night, I was particularly thankful to be walking around in this body, which gave me a way to exchange pleasantries on autopilot, to once again practice the art of dissociation.
The truth was I would see the majority of the people at this party in a week in drastically different circumstances. They would come to my father’s services, bringing hugs and condolences with simultaneous congratulations, I’m so sorry for your loss, but wow, congratulations, a strange hybrid sentence I would hear again and again. But on this night we were separated by more than my big belly. Once again, I was realizing how life seemed to demand your presence more than your authenticity.
Because what were the alternatives? Stay home and sob? Well, that can’t be good for the baby. And while it might seem tempting in theory to corner the friend you’ve known since you were eight and pour your heart out, this seemed self-serving and messy. Extremely pregnant women make people uncomfortable enough already. An extremely pregnant woman who is bawling hysterically about having just sat vigil beside her father’s comatose body seemed like way too much of an imposition for even the best of friend. Not to mention a way to single-handedly suck the festive air out of the room.
Death. Loss. Grief. It’s so hard to find a place for these things in our modern world. So many of us race around in a state of constant distraction, coming dangerously close to truly forgetting that we too one day will be no more. Perhaps the knowledge creeps up on us late at night, or in the middle of a rare moment of true idleness. Mortality salience, psychologists call it. The sudden, unmistakeable awareness that your existence is temporary, that the foundation you build your very life upon is transient and ephemeral.
For years, I felt like speaking with anyone candidly was akin to bursting the bubble we all work hard to create. So largely, I didn’t. A few times, I gave in and gave it a shot. Most of these conversations ended with me feeling self-conscious, apologizing, throwing out awkward segues into safer territory that always felt so shallow in comparison.
So it is that these two parties will forever be linked for me. One, on the day I woke up to the possibility that my impenetrable father wasn’t actually superhuman. The second, on the day that I saw his frail body heave with breath for the last time. I attended both these parties because what else was there to do? but in retrospect I wonder if perhaps I should have found a way to honor my authentic self a bit more.
The thing about putting on a brave face is that as you become more and more adept at it, you get closer and closer to losing your true sense of self. There was nothing to gain from raining on another’s parade, but I wish I hadn’t been so afraid of a quiet night at home, tears and all.
In a few short weeks, my life would become a constant stream of not-so-quiet (cue colicky baby) days and nights at home, and then all the tears I suppressed would fall with force. The walls I put up between me and other people out of consideration would feel insurmountable. Visitors would be quick to focus on the celebratory – look, a baby – and only the bravest would mention my father in any capacity.
As time passes, I come to realize that my life will be forever marked by this duality. The night before Penny turned one, we gathered, graveside, to mark a year since my father’s passing. My mom remembers every time Penny turns one month older, because it is inevitably one day after she mourns the same number of months since she lost her husband.
Happy year and a half to Penny the latest text said. And in some ways, I feel the closest to that first word that I have in years. Her first birthday party felt like the truest celebration I’ve participated in for a while. But even then, I’m now fully aware that for the guests at any party, there are some who are there in body but not in spirit. I’m sure that mother will never buy a birthday present for Penny without feeling some sense of sorrow. I’m sure that there were others at that party, at any party, in the middle of their own personal life transitions, preoccupied by anxieties of things recently loss or currently slipping away.
And I just wish there was a way I could wear a sign that says “feel free to rain on my parade.” I wish there was some way that I could let everyone know that I’m okay with shedding some tears on what is supposed to be a joyful day. The same way that a story shared at a wake can make you laugh until your belly aches and this can be not just okay, but completely necessary, I would like to live in a world where there was a more open invitation for people to show up, imperfectly, and not feel like they have to hide the battles they are fighting. Where “How are you?” could be answered in a more honest way than “I’m good. Great even. So busy.”
So if you are reading this, and I know you in real life, please know the next time I ask, I really want to know. I don’t care what the premise is for our gathering, if we are together, and you have something your soul wants to say, please say it. As I mentioned above, our time is tragically limited and I’m a little tired with wasting it staying safely in the shallow end of the conversational pool.