The Last Thing You Think About

Journal Entry, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016: I approach the coming of autumn as a time of profound energy. The kind of energy that moves life: the end of summer and the beginning of the school year, the bright colors of the leaves of deciduous trees. The time of harvest. Apple season. The cycle of life and death reflected in creation.

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August has rarely been a good month for me. This month again has been no exception. I woke this morning determined not to have a normal day. I got up, got dressed, no shower. Drove to the Elmwood Cafe, ordered a coffee and a biscuit, settled in and started this entry.

Yesterday at my office my friend Wendy called and left a message. I retrieved it, calling her back. We’ve known each other over twenty years, so our calls are often filled with bouts of joyful, intense gossip: “Wendola!!! What’s happening girl?”

She answered, “Fe, Britt died.”

For a moment that seemed an hour I sat stunned, phone at my head, unable to speak. It felt as though my office was my own childhood bedroom, me staring at the empty presence of mundane life: four walls; a chair; a desk; a rug. Items without meaning existing to function. When my mind attempted to respond, every thought that made an attempt to scale the wall of my own shock failed, each thought sliding down and away into a swirling pool of emotion. I couldn’t even begin to name everything I felt.

Britt, Wendy’s step-daughter, was 39 years old. A mother of a six-year-old girl named Elsa. Wife to a chef. Teacher at Longfellow School in the Berkeley Unified School District. Only daughter of my beloved friend and mentor Bob. I helped organize her wedding. Every moment of all those facts helped me to begin speaking again, and yet in summoning the experience of her existence in my life I have still arrived at the unthinkable thought.

I finally asked Wendy about the how and why. Being a nurse, Wendy succinctly described the sequence of events: she got a call from her son-in-law Steve. Britt didn’t wake to her alarm. He couldn’t wake her. He called 911. The doctor at Alta Bates Hospital couldn’t revive her. One. Two. Three. That’s it. That’s all.

There was, on every level, no possible way to prepare for this. The closest thing was the last thing I wanted to think about: being witness to my father’s death. He was on the mend from a heart attack the year before. He lost 50 pounds, looked healthy and happy, relieved to be retired and free from the back-breaking work of being a cook. I didn’t know on that day — me being 18 and full of myself — how bad he felt the afternoon I went shopping for school with my aunt.

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We were at Ford’s Department Store and while aimlessly window shopping, I felt a strange sensation — a vibratory anguish that called me home. Acting completely out of line and disrespectful to my aunt, I ordered us both back to the car. The urgency of my feelings transcended respect for one’s elders.

We¬†arrived quickly home, pulling in to the driveway. We were fast followed by my Aunt Ethel’s car. Mom and dad in the back seat. They were coming back from the hospital. Mom and Ethel helped my dad up the stairs. It was three o’clock.

Dad looked furious. He told the doctor he wasn’t feeling right. Even though both EEG and EKG tests at the hospital were negative, he knew he was dying.

But the doctor sent him home. At 4:30 Mom was broiling lamb chops for dinner. I sat at the table with dad, talking about the meager things I bought at Ford’s. I noticed his eyes getting bigger, the blood pulsing through the veins of his head. He stopped looking at me and began to slide down his chair, collapsing onto the kitchen floor.

I remember Mom screaming. Me dialing emergency. Mom on the floor doing CPR. The siren. The gurney. Mom and Dad leaving to the hospital again, me staying behind, closing the front door, staring at the clock and praying to God. Forty-five minutes later the phone rang. It was Auntie Ethel.

“Fe, your father died.”

The world of place and things becomes meaningless when you’re faced with finite existence. Everything about your own breathing is the only reality. All your sensory perceptors become focused on your body, the shell, and the life essence — your soul, your symbiont — existing in it. At that moment I found myself in relationship with my soul, unprepared. I had no idea how to navigate it, discover it, allow it to express itself outside of the tsunami of grief coming over me. My world was cratered, and there was now a deep slippery hole that I would have to climb to get out.

It has taken years, decades to find and keep my soul intact from the grief of this sudden loss. My father’s death awakened me to the existence of soul, spirit, as I watched the dimming of his eyes while his own spirit passed from his body, lying on the kitchen floor. I’ve seen it again and again in the deaths of humans and animals. From that day, I had to grow up as my father’s daughter and my own. I had to finish the job of parenting my father couldn’t. Now I understand why I never had children.

I am 61 years old with a lifetime of friends, family and deeds. By the grace of this experience, I am grateful that I have lived this long and this hard and I still stand. I think about my friend Bob, a father, losing his daughter; and me, a daughter, losing my father. This terrible symmetry of loss binds us together, along with all parents who lose their children and all children who have lost parents. In my community, in the world.

Elsa is only six years old and without a mother, with her dad and family to support her. The only words, the only thoughts, the only feelings I could begin to muster to tell Wendy was this: “Everyone in your family needs to love that girl like no one else on earth could be loved.” In the firmness and determination of her nurse’s soul, Wendy said, “We’ve got to rise up and be as big as we can possibly be.”

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About Fe Bongolan

Planet Waves writer Fe Bongolan lives in Oakland, California. Her column, "Fe-911," has been featured on Planet Waves since 2008. As an actor and dramaturge, Fe is a core member of Cultural Odyssey's "The Medea Project -- Theater for Incarcerated Women," producing work that empowers the voices of all women in trouble, from ex-offenders, women with HIV-AIDS, to young girls and women at risk. A Planet Waves fan from almost the beginning of Eric's astrology career, Fe is a public sector employee who describes herself as a "mystical public servant." When it comes to art, culture and politics, she loves reading between the lines.

9 thoughts on “The Last Thing You Think About

  1. Glen Young

    Wow young Lady (I’m 61/ 62 on Sept 6), this is one of those Breathless moment that Mr. Len so brilliantly described in his latest post. Nothing can replace our first love, but Elsa will say one day you guys really came close. That my hope, its my prayer.
    Thanks, Ms Fe for sharing your soul, your courage, your clarity and strength.

    Dealing now in the support of the two young girls I wrote you about; in the unexpected death of a man who lived with them; their Mother’s fiancee.
    Shared with them the Serenity Prayer; now I’m thinking of a similar situation that happened to me in my late teens as well; both men had their Sun in Capricorn.

    1. Fe Bongolan Post author

      Glen!

      Good to see you here again!

      I hope those girls and their mother have a good community around them for support. It is the power of the community that really helps ameliorate loss. I see that in Britt’s family and community and I’ve seen it in mine.

      My uncles really pooled together to help us with expenses and support for my mother as she dealt with her shock and grief. After a deep depression, she climbed up, out and rejoined the world though her local Filipino community group. She socialized, went to dances, hung out with her buddies. She got married again, three years later.

      You are part of a good community. Virgo Sun male is an interesting tree to climb, and you are aware enough to reach the treetop, you’re in a perfect place/time in your life to be doing what you do. I think my doctor is a Virgo, because he seems to know exactly how to pinpoint and treat the root cause of things. Britt’s dad Bob is a Virgo – was going to celebrate his 75th birthday on the 15th of September, but as you can see, those plans have changed.

      Visited both Bob and Wendy yesterday, a sack of groceries in hand and set about to make them dinner. They seemed much clearer, less dissolved in grief and more resolute in the things that needed doing at this stage. They welcomed the idea when I called them early yesterday afternoon asking to come over and make them something fabulous. Roasted tri-tip, potatoes, walnut levain bread from La Farine, and gazpacho.

      My Jupiter conjunct Uranus in Cancer in the 5th seems to be the “Joanie-at-the-ready” with a healing meal. It did the trick. We remembered Britt, laughed, and enjoyed each other’s company. Life goes on in the shadow of profound loss.

      The great late poet Sekou Sundiata once said: “we absorb loss as a way of knowing”. I’m grateful for the lesson.

  2. beleclaire

    dear Fe, I am coming late to this achingly sad piece. I was deeply moved, it evoked memories of my dad’s early death and how my grief was reactivated decades later with seemingly unconnected triggers, to release some deeply buried pain
    I thank you for the grace with which you have shared this.
    Much love to you xx

    1. Fe Bongolan Post author

      Thank you beleclaire for your kind words.

      As I described in my reply to Glen’s comment, we’re coming to grips with loss, which is our life here. Sometimes the flood is so deep you cannot stop it once its opened, and you have to let it go, let it out. I guess to be fully human is to have a stab of pain in your heart in remembering.

      I have high regard for cultures that have rituals for death and remembering. The sugar skulls (calaveras) in the cemetery for Day of the Dead, the Bolivian family picnic at the grave site on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. The offering of food on a small plate from a Thanksgiving meal set by our deceased loved ones’ photos, lit by a candle. Remembering keeps us in touch with the continuum that is life in all realms.

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