Rest in Peace
– Nonfiction by Nicole Busch –
In an old picture from my baby shower, my parents sit next to one another in my aunt’s living room. My mom wears an oversized, red sweater that hugs her protruding belly, where I grow inside her. My dad wears a grey polo shirt and stonewashed jeans. His hair is feathered, and his beard is trimmed; his eyes are alive and happy, and he smiles so big, he is almost laughing. He is twenty-six, and my mom is nineteen. He was a happy husband about to become a father.
In a baby picture, my dad gives me a bath when I am a few months old; he holds my head in his hands. A toothless smile is spread across my baby face, as I look at him with enormous blue eyes, and splash the water with tiny arms and legs in the dawn of discovering their power. He looks at me with sheer joy and tenderness, like I am the one thing in this world he has done right. I am his first born, his little girl. He was a loving father.
In another picture, he is fishing on a boat in the middle of open water. He wears a cobalt blue shirt and holds a fishing pole; his shoulders are slouched, as he grips the fishing pole with soft and relaxed hands, and looks onto the water like this is the place he feels safest to be sensitive and reflective, attributes I would like to think embody the essence of him. He was a man at peace in nature.
The face in these pictures is the same face I see when I think of my dad: calm, deep-set blue eyes; tan skin with red undertones; a strong jawline; wavy hair and a warm smile. The man in these pictures will remain the same age inside my heart, forever frozen to the reel of time when he was a happy husband, a loving father, and had moments of peace—even if it was short lived.
He died when I was almost four, and he was twenty-eight. My mom was twenty-one, and my brother Russell Jr. was almost three. When I think about his absence in my life, I feel devastated, confused and my little-girl-self feels desperate for connection with him. When I re-read “Alcohol and opiate overdose” on his death certificate I feel angry, and the adult takes over, wanting to be as far from any connection to him as possible. There is finality and damage in his death that will never be undone. Our family will always be severed. And for a long time, I judged him for it.
I reduced his death to recklessness, a wayward lifestyle, and the inevitable perils of addiction, because I couldn’t reconcile that the same man in the pictures was the same man that chose drugs over his family. I didn’t realize that maybe it wasn’t a choice. I didn’t realize that two opposing dichotomies could exist in the same person—that a kind person with an enormous capacity to love can make mistakes and can even be addicted to drugs. I was pointing the finger at him; all the while I was demonstrating the same unhealthy black-and-white thinking that is indicative of a dysfunctional family.
The roots of a dysfunctional family are deeper than unhealthy thinking; they are steel wire cords of intergenerational trauma, unhealthy roles, and convoluted boundaries. I was anxiously comfortable in my role as a caretaker. I would listen to my mom’s grief, the stories of my dad’s friends throwing him in a tub of cold water and slapping his face until he regained consciousness; his jealousy and accusations of cheating; her smashing his lover’s face on the sidewalk; his body being found face down on a mattress with his wallet empty in his back pocket.
These stories outlived him, and were told to me so often that I could see them in my mind; could hear the screaming; could taste the blood; could feel the cold water. The stories brought visceral anger and sadness. But in some sick way, I also felt a sense of loyalty to them, like I was betraying my mom if I didn’t listen to them in graphic detail; like I was abandoning her if I did not take on the same grief she carried with her. My mom’s grief swallowed my grief whole.
It was not until recently that I understood that a mother’s grief is very different from a daughter’s grief. My mom’s grief is very different from my grief. She lost her husband, and I lost my father. Neither loss should be held above the other, but they should both be held in mutual respect and recognition. The more I differentiate her grief from my own, the more I am able to honor my own grief instead of reject it, and this has been a powerful, nonlinear process.
I decided to visit my dad’s grave on my own; it was a cold but sunny February day at the cemetery. Wind quietly swirled around me, gnawing at my fingers and hands. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and blew warm air into my hands. My knuckles were red, and some of the skin was broken. I put my hands in my coat pockets to emolliate the sting and slowly kneeled in front of my dad’s grave. It was a flat headstone leveled with the ground. Dead leaves stuck to it in frost, but most of his name was still visible. I wiped the headstone, peeled off the remaining leaves, and ripped out grass that had grown over the edges. Now I could see how beautiful the headstone was.
I admired it with a quiet reverence, re-reading his name and the inscription that said: “Son and Father.” Immediately my caretaker role kicked in, and I thought of my mom, and remembered the hurt she described when seeing the words “Son and Father” but not husband. It is a hurt that happens when an integral piece of someone’s life you were part of is missing, almost like it did not exist. This pain was part of what kept her from coming here, and I had allowed her pain to be part of what kept me from coming here, too.
Sadness for my mom emerged into sad questions. Why did he have to die? What would life be like if he was still alive? Would my parents still be together? Would life have been easier? Would he have ever gotten help?Would my mom have struggle with her own addiction? My eyes honed in on the year he died, and this served as a sobering reminder that I could ask these questions for the rest of my life, but they would never be answered. He was gone.
I traced his name with my fingertips, and put my hand next to his name; the stone was cold and lifeless. The color was faded with speckles of dark and white. I listened to the wind, watched how the grass remained still, even as I trembled, and I sunk into the deepest guilt, because so much time had passed without seeing him. I left him cold and alone. I let his memory erode. I let the little girl’s longing to see him wither away because the adult in me was angry. I wished that instead of anger, I would have accepted that addiction is complex. That it is mental illness. That it is isolating and it is shameful. It is a passive dance with suicide. It is a departure from self, and it is self-preserving. It is painful. But instead I barricaded myself into own anger, because it was protective.
I kept my hand on the grave and reflected on the idea that my hand on the grave was the closest thing to putting my hand on my dad’s hand that I would ever have. It felt sad and unfair, but also beautiful. He was gone, but I was finally here.
I wanted to stay longer, but only had a few minutes before I needed to pick up my nephew, and there was a sense of urgency to say the right thing before I left. I closed my eyes and searched my heart for words that would have the power to set us free from the distance between us; words that would show him how much I loved him, even though I had no conscious memories of him; words that could absolve the guilt for seeing his grave only twice in nearly 30 years of life. Words that could fill the emptiness his death had left. But the only words I could think of feel compulsory and generic.
Nervously and frantically, I pulled any remaining grass I saw around the grave. Then I put my hand next to his name again, leaned forward, and kissed the grave. As I sat up, I whispered, “Please rest in peace. Please always rest in peace.”
I stood up and scanned the layout of the cemetery, taking mental snapshots of a brick church on a hill, a tree near the grave, the road between my dad’s grave and the grave that says BUDD. These markers would help me find him again, because somehow, I knew that I would be back. I wanted to come back.
I picked my nephew up from school, took him to Portillo’s, and we drove to his house, where I saw his room and watched him feed his bunny, Bun-Bun. I hugged and kissed him goodbye around five, hoping to beat rush hour traffic, and I drove as far south as I could before dark. The sun started to set around 5:00 and was completely down by 5:35. Now I was encased in the warmth darkness of the car, and in this darkness, I was comfortable, safe and free to cry, scream, sing, and mourn any way that I wanted. And I cried the entire way home.
It started with reflecting on the phrase rest in peace. These words encapsulated what I wanted for my father; I wanted him to live and breathe peace—forever. As I wished him peace, I remembered the opposite of peace, the stories mom had told me growing up. I brought them to mind quickly and then let them go, because I accepted that these stories were never mine to carry. They were pieces of intergenerational trauma that had infected me like a virus, making a home inside me, poisoning my perspective, preventing me from moving forward in my own grief and understanding of who my father was.
I cried for my little girl-self who did not have a voice to scream, “Stop telling me these stories. I’m too young. You lost your husband, but I lost my dad.”
The car picked up speed as I passed a car and then Fed-Ex truck. I kept replaying the same sad song, and after several minutes of crying so hard I was shaking, I felt the strongest sensation of letting go that I have ever felt. My body relaxed; my jaw softened; tears pacified; the emotional tether to the stories loosened and fell;and I kept reminding myself these stories are not yours to carry. The comfort of this mantra was enormous, because now my father and I could finally start over. Now we had a clean slate.
About the Author – Nicole Busch
Nicole Busch is an eating disorder therapist practicing and living in Central Illinois. She is also a hospital volunteer for a Heart Disease Support Group called Powerful Hearts, which is led by those with heart disease. Writing is a passion she continues to cultivate in her personal and professional life. She fell in love with creative nonfiction as an undergrad, and began writing pieces about familial and health trauma. Nicole received her first publication in The Truth About the Fact International Journal of Literary Nonfiction in 2013.
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