'Be Green Also': Life and Death and Life

American flag sits on gravestone topped by angel figure at Wisconsin cemetery. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

My sister calls it the trifecta, although without the happy connotation of that word: the window of time every year from Father’s Day in June to our dad’s birthday in July. In between is Independence Day, the date of our dad’s death. The trifecta covers about a month. It is our yearly time of intensified grief, when we are reminded that we are fatherless, and we relive the days leading up to his death, and we regret that there are no more of his birthdays to celebrate. I’m always glad when the trifecta is over. It’s not that I miss my dad any less during the rest of the year; it’s just that the loss doesn’t seem as in-your-face once the trifecta passes.

This year is the fifth trifecta, and I have learned that time does not really soften the ache. But then I think of my dad’s simple, sunny outlook on life, and I know that he would want us to focus less on the bitter and more on the sweet. Our extended family has had some bad blood among its members since my dad died, but we’ve also had weddings and anniversaries and graduations. We’ve had new babies born. My dad was a fantastic grandpa, and he would have doted on these miraculous additions as much as he adored my daughters. He taught me to appreciate the whole “circle of life” concept, just by the way he’d sit back at family gatherings and marvel at the little ones running around the pool, at the noise and laughter of people enjoying time together, at the palpable life in our midst. “This is what it’s all about,” he’d say, smiling fondly and taking in the progress of his progeny.


My dad was right: life blazes on and holds us in thrall with its bounty and blessings. Our family has journeyed on without his physical presence, and we even feel completely happy at times. And who would have imagined that my mother, in her eighties and in frail health, would find a boyfriend? But she has, and she seems content in this new chapter of her life. Sometimes I want to resent her boyfriend, as though it’s his fault that my dad is gone, as though he could ever replace my dad, but I know my dad would tell me to let it go. One of my sisters has speculated that maybe our dad somehow arranged from the afterlife for this new guy to take care of his wife, since he was no longer around to do it. Maybe so: it would be like him to have picked a fellow Navy man.

I feel pensive during the trifecta. I suppose we learn at an early age that whenever love is involved, there will be loss. We lose our pets. We lose our oldest relatives. We lose our innocence. We lose our illusions. Sometimes we lose the very youngest among us, which is an even deeper sort of pain. But we continue to love, and risk the consequences, because life is hollow without love. Our loved ones expand our hearts, elicit our loyalty, engage our selflessness, enlarge our life experience. We can’t ignore death, especially a death that pains us so, but we can accept it as a stage of the life that stubbornly burgeons and blooms.

My siblings and I visit our dear departed dad’s grave under the reliably shady oak tree every Fourth of July. We bring flowers, breathe a prayer, maybe read a poem or play a song. We aren’t much in the mood for corn-on-the-cob and parades and fireworks, but our dad really loved all that jazz, all that patriotic zeal, so we try. When night comes and the fireworks are finished, the trifecta is two-thirds over for another year. Life will continue to delight us and inspire us and challenge us and occasionally break our hearts, and we will try to handle it all with the grace we were taught, and that we must now pass on to our children.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no, writes the poet Mary Oliver, in “Flare”, the poem that I brought this year graveside. Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also / like the diligent leaves.

Life really is a circle, a vine twirling and twining onto itself, and we all flower along the way, from life to death to life. We may never quite stop grieving when we lose someone we love, but with each day, we feel ourselves turning toward the light. Living fully, being “green also,” is how we honor those who have gone before us, how we keep the arc of the circle climbing.

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