Empty spaces

I’ve been thinking about loss lately.

In November, my dad – Georgia’s “papa” – died.

It was, for the most part, unexpected. An ordinary set of moments on a Sunday afternoon turned upside down. One moment he was chuckling on the phone and the next moment on the floor, with the life simply gone out of him. He had played in his band in the morning, had lunch and was settling into an afternoon watching a football game. He came upstairs to get a snack and answered the phone while my mom peeled potatoes at the sink, for dinner.

Since that day just about seven weeks ago now, well, a lot has happened in the world just adjacent to me and in the world around all of us. I’ve had to begin a process to make serious decisions about my own career. Two colleagues’ parents died within days of my dad. Chris’ lovely grandmother – and the only great grandmother Georgia ever knew – died just a few days ago. A friend lost her daughter in a tragic highway accident. Another friend had surgery for breast cancer. A plane crashed in the Java Sea, twelve people were killed by gunmen in Paris, a ferry fire killed ten in the Adriatic Sea. Children in developing countries died of malaria, of meningitis, of diarrheal illnesses, of starvation. A species of owl was discovered to have gone extinct.

I think about any window of seven weeks in anyone’s life. I wonder about the losses just in these seven weeks and the toll that losses take on all of us. I recognize that, in this seven week window, many others have sustained much more difficult losses than I have – and I acknowledge that explicitly. For me, losing my dad has felt like an empty space was created – or was opened up – and these other things around me have compounded the feeling of loss, the feeling of empty spaces.

And spaces, well, they make us want to fill them up.

I’ve come to realize that we spend a lot of time in our lives filling up spaces, that it is a human drive to do so. We fill up silences with chatter. We fill days that are empty (I’m still waiting for one of these actually) with endless tasks and odd jobs to “keep ourselves busy”. We turn the radio up extra loud when we’re home alone to fill up the emptiness in a house. We seek to yang our yin at every turn. Our quietest walks are filled with earbud-delivered music. We fill up our time on a streetcar sending texts. An empty fridge or empty growling stomach must be filled with food. The end of a relationship finds many of us filling the time we used to spend as a couple with new hobbies (how many of us have those half knitted projects in a bottom drawer?), new plans, trips, hot yoga classes – we label as our “fantastic new routine!” or our “finally I can do this for ME with all this spare time!” activities. We end something and seek a new beginning to fill up the space created.

Life really is, among all its complexities, a series of losses, of spaces created and then filled. As we get older and inevitably accrue losses, we carry around those empty spaces. For empty things, they certainly weigh us down. Many people have said to me the memories of my dad will make up for the loss – and fill the emptiness. I have lots of memories of my dad. Not all are fabulous – and some are of us butting heads over decisions I’d made or over worries he had. But some of the best ones are those of him with Georgia. He was his absolute best with her.

georgia konked out

Georgia was “papa’s girl”. He – and my mom – were always the first to call after any even very minor event in Georgia’s life to ask me how it went. He never hesitated to take her somewhere by himself – and she loved going in papa’s car and listening to loud brass band music. She also loved hearing him play in the band – and to this day, if there is a band on television or in a movie – she always asks if it’s “Papa’s Band”.

She has played her brass band CDs until they are worn. We often listen to her puttering around in the basement only to then hear brass band music at a fairly generous volume accompanied by some impromptu marching wearing a uniform made up of a tea towel, a pair of pink Dollar Store mittens and a Blue Jays hat. The two of them often went to Timmy’s together for coffee and Timbits. They went for walks together, shared the love of a good baseball hat, sat on park benches and chatted, vacationed together and most recently, they loved sitting on the couch in the basement on a Sunday afternoon watching football (for Georgia, watching grown men fall down) and working hard to out-snack each other. Smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail and cashews were their competitive snack foods and I still am not sure who could eat the most, to this day. Suffice it to say that I never carried up any leftovers (or crumbs for that matter) on any of the plates I cleaned up in the basement. They hung out the wind chimes in the trees in my parents’ garden in the spring and put them away each winter, together. He teased her. He smiled at the same joke she said thousands of times over. Even up until he last time he saw her, if he asked her to “come see papa” she’d come over and sidle up to him.

My dad wasn’t always one to wear rose-coloured glasses – he often focused on the negative or worried about all the awful possibilities rather then focus on enjoying the positives. But not when it came to Georgia. He always found something positive in her progress, even in the things that I framed negatively. When I’d tell him how frustrated I was with her acting out on a particular day, he’d focus on how great it was that she was becoming more independent and developing her own opinions and views. When I’d tell her that she had refused to take part in an activity at school, he’d say that at least she knew her own mind. I’d sigh and roll my eyes, but it stuck with me.

Do these memories fill up the empty space I’m feeling? Not quite. It’s kind of a square peg/round hole problem. The memories I have of him fill a space, for sure, but it’s a more abstract, ethereal “blue sky” kind of space. What the memories of him don’t fill is the day-to-day empty space that I feel when there are no voice messages on my phone from him “for Georgia’s ears only” or ones telling me about an article he read in the Consumer’s Report about cars, or the hundreds of other little things you get used to someone doing when you’ve known them for your entire lifetime. I suspect that for my mom, who was married to my dad for almost 60 years, this day-to-day space is probably the most challenging to fill. I wonder about this for Georgia, whose life, as she knows it, has always involved her “papa”. I imagine she feels the empty space that has been created by his loss as I do. When she’s at my mom’s house now, she has taken to going down to my dad’s office, finding his cane, keeping it with her for the visit and then quietly returning it to its place when she leaves. If her papa can’t be in the place he should, well, his cane will be.

On the day my dad died, after the coroner left, we waited for the funeral home attendants to come and take my dad off of the kitchen floor where he had been for many hours. When they arrived, my brothers and I watched from the hallway as they gently and carefully tended to the tasks they had to do before moving him. One of the attendants tried to take off his watch while I watched. She fiddled with the clasp, gently, silently, almost beseechingly, moving his wrist about softly and with tiny movements. There were two IV lines still in his arm, which had been cut and tied carefully, with no further need for fluids or medications. She tried to work around them and not disturb anything. In the stillness and the earnestness of the quiet task, I resisted the urge to bend down and reach across him to help her. Finally the clasp gave way and she cautiously moved the watch over his hand and then closed her hand around it. Looking up at me, she reached out gently with the watch and I leaned down to take it from her. It felt like the most natural thing – on a day of nothing feeling natural – to fasten that watch on my wrist with a simple movement. I slipped it on, clasped it firmly in place beside my own and put my hand in my pocket. It filled a weighty gnawing space at that moment, the space that had made me want to lean down next to him and touch his arm, and hold his hand.

I’m still wearing my dad’s watch today. It’s heavy. I took my own watch off – it’s now resting on my bedside table, perhaps for a long time – while I wear his. I often find myself playing with it during my day, taking it off, putting it back on. Polishing the face with my fingers absentmindedly. Thinking about him. Laying it on my desk while I type. It’s too big, and hangs loosely on my wrist. I like the feel of it when I walk and it falls down to rest on my wrist as my arm sways, reminding me with its weight and size, that it’s there. It slides down my arm when I’m cooking and slides back up my arm towards my elbow when I rest my chin on my palm. It moves with a purposeful kind of rhythm, up and down my arm, working to fill up that space of thinking about him. Like Georgia with his cane, his watch helps me to normalize, even just a little, the world without him.

A few people have suggested I get his watch sized to fit. A very sensible idea, that! I would love if we could fill up every empty space created in our lives – and truly change how things have made us feel – with a simple adjustment, a visit to a watchmaker, a resizing.

But I won’t get the watch sized to fit – not because it won’t change anything but because it will in fact change something. To do that would mean filling up that empty space. That very space between the watchband that fit my father’s wrist perfectly and my own smaller arm is exactly what I have left of him right now. That empty space, held close to me, reminds me in a palpable way of what, in fact, is missing.

I’ve asked my mom to not give my dad’s cane away to a charity but to keep it, resting against the wall in his office. Like the too-big watch on my arm at my side, I think that – for Georgia – having that cane on his chair with her helps, in a tiny but tangible way, to fill the empty space where he is no longer beside her.

Georgia happy grandpa

2 thoughts on “Empty spaces

  1. That was beautiful, Nancy. You express and explain your feelings so well. Your Dad will always be with you, in your heart. Linda xo

  2. I’m sorry for your family’s losses. You’ve written a beautiful tribute! I’m excited to have discovered your blog (your partner, Chris, posted it on Twitter)

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