The most intense stage of labour, transition, marks the body’s transition from cervical dilation to descent of the baby into the birth canal. Essentially, it means the cervix has thinned out and its opening has expanded to 10 cm, the mother’s body has prepared her to begin pushing. During transition you will hear mums express fear and doubt their ability to endure and give birth. It’s a time when touch and other forms of sensory stimuli will feel triggering and distracting. Its a time that fills her with an oppressive forboding – get this thing out of me. As a child raised in Catholic indoctrination, I imagined that purgatory would feel like this – an oppressive forboding, waiting, an aching and painful lingering in which each breath feels like partial suffocation. After all, what is purgatory, but a transitory place between life and the afterlife? And don’t most transitions feel uncomfortable and oppressive and doesn’t fear of the unknown cast a forboding feeling on everything, from the inside, out?
My dad died nine months ago. I have spent these past months since his death gestating. It has felt exhausting, fraught with pain: real physical pain that seems to have no mechanical source; enormous mental pain that plays every note on the scale from wretched melancholy to capricious rage to frightening delirium. Also, fear, the type C.S. Lewis wrote about in A Grief Observed. Along the way, insightful discoveries have marked my path – about myself, the world around me. John Green was right when he wrote about grief as revelatory. Death marks those who encounter it, it’s like the ability to see thestrals in Harry Potter, it’s like kintsugi. It’s like its very own Field Guide to Getting Lost, in which loss will inevitably lead you to some kind of discovery, whether you like it or not, whether you realise it or not.
The early days of intense anxiety that kept me from sleeping, or even from lying down without feeling like my heart would explode, implode, or stop altogether, that left me feeling too panic-stricken to shut off the lights or the TV at night, that rendered me incapable of doing anything but cloistering myself in my bedroom for weeks on end — these days have given way to days characterized by a grief that seems better behaved, yet still prone to occasional outbursts. A song, a musical score, a scene on TV, a picture, a kind word from someone: these can and have served as triggers. Time does not heal grief. How could it? How could time heal something so infinite and alive? Grief does not end. The scars remain, like roadmaps to our loves and losses, our treasures and regrets.
The death of my father has presented a moment of disruption unlike any other death I’ve faced. There isn’t anyone else in existence to whom I can relate this grief – my father had only one child, a daughter, me. Experiencing his loss has been the single loneliest life task I have had to endure. There’s no roadmap, guideposts or affirmations to marker the journey. No, because I’m making these by living through this. There’s saudade, there’s despair over what the disease process took from him, there’s a displaced rage, directed towards all those with a living father. There’s an itch, it feels more like a thirst, really: a desire to fill the empty wells of my grief with stories, history, the narrative of his life, of which I know very little. I want to write a field guide, to my dad. I wish I would have thought to write this while he lived, however, only in the wake of his death do I find I finally have the grasp to actually undertake and complete the task.
I’m on the cusp, waiting. I feel like Tantalus, Sisyphus and Atlas, all rolled into one.