Geology of Grief

I watched children as they climbed the ancient bedrock above the castle playground in Central Park; they scrambled over the enormous rock, reaching, pulling with their bare hands, digging their sneakers into crevasses, and pushing, hurling themselves up, the way my almost-four-year-old son Radek did whenever I brought him here. In the vast playground below, children swung high into the air on flat plastic swings; they flew down steep metal slides, sending woodchips spitting out as they stopped their momentum, digging their heels into the ground.

I was on my way to attempt to process my father’s recent death from cancer, to try to surrender to the excruciating pain of his absence, to figure out how to get to a bearable place, in other words, on my way to therapy, when I looked away from the playground and noticed a woman reading a novel, curled up on her side on a picnic blanket on a grassy slope. 

When I first moved to New York City, I imagined that I’d be a lying-in-the-park novel reader, or at the very least a sitting-on-a-park bench journal writer, but I never was. Instead, I was always on my way somewhere; I was the never-stopping person. I rushed from motherhood, to teaching, to calling my dad in Colorado, to visiting him, to helping him, to taking care of things in my Astoria apartment, to emotionally supporting my husband Rene–a fellow adjunct, struggling writer, and reluctant super of the small building where we lived. I sighed and stared at the circular roadway of the park: joggers thudded by with their headphones on; cyclists sped past, their wheels whirling. 

The thing about death is that it has the power to make you stop.

 On a small hillside of grass, I spread out my thin sweater and sat down on it. It took great effort to lean back on one elbow, and I wondered all the while if I should get back up and keep walking. Instead, I surrendered backward, giving my full weight to the earth, feeling the bristles of grass alongside of my arms. Upward, the branches of a London Plane tree swayed slightly, the long leaves shifting against the pale sky. I watched the clouds drift. I’d been struggling to breathe. Grief curls you forward, and it pressed hard against the place where my ribs joined together, but lying there on the ground, I could feel my chest open slightly. 

I felt the stability of the earth beneath me. It was June, and I had this small space before I started teaching once again at Lehman College in the Bronx. That past December, I’d left my job in order to move back home to Colorado with my son Radek. Although one doctor said that my dad might have up to a year, but it had been a quick descent. He was dead in less than six weeks. He hadn’t slipped peacefully into a coma-like sleep and a smooth death, the way my mom had long ago; no, with my dad, it was like someone wrestled his heart down, and the shock of a young boy flashed across his long face as he shuttered and stopped breathing. It was raw and physical, and ripped any sense of God right out of me, at least for now. 

As I stood up and began walking north, weaving through the pathways of Central Park, I was acutely aware that grief can get frozen for a long, long time because that was what had happened to my Croatian mom, when her parents died of tuberculosis in the midst of WWII Zagreb, when she was between the ages of six and nine. I also knew this because it happened to me after my mom died of cancer when I was twenty-two. I had outrun grief for ten years until it tackled me, and I crumbled onto the neatly mown lawn of the Columbia University campus where I was in graduate school. I was hit with intense panic, a pounding heart, shaking hands, a cold creeping nausea, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t figure out how to stand. I couldn’t figure out how to get to the subway and bus, to make my way home, to climb up five flights of stairs to my apartment.   

Terror is a powerful force in the body and I had seen glimpses of it in my mom. We had lived in Lima, Peru for my father’s work when I was five years old. During the tremors of an earthquake one October morning in 1974, my mother ran into my room and scooped me onto her hip, then stumbled down our hallway and out the front door. I braced myself in the flat yard of our white ranch-style house, gripping my mother’s leg as the earth moved violently beneath us. At first, it seemed silly watching the grass rolling, and our empty car moving up and down the slope of our concrete driveway. I only understood the gravity of the situation when I heard my mom frantically screaming out my dad’s name, “DAVE!!” through the open front door. 

Books flew off shelves, furniture crashed and towering bookcases were flung downward. We could hear creaks and groans of the foundations of houses, but we couldn’t hear a response from my dad. He struggled to walk quickly and could no longer run; years before my birth he had contracted polio from the vaccine and it impacted his left leg. With his uneven gait, he lost his balance easily. At six foot-five, he had a long way to fall. As my mom shrieked his name, I heard something different. Terror. In life anything can happen, it can be violent; it can be cruel. I stood beside my mom, silent and wide-eyed until the unexpected movement of the earth stopped.

My mom rushed into the house, I followed. In the center, my dad was white faced, hanging onto a doorframe with both hands, where he’d stabilized himself by leaning his hips back. “I couldn’t make it out in time,” he told us, adding, “Whew! That, was a strong one.” He looked shaken as he put one arm around my mom, and she helped him find his balance once again. On the Richter scale, the earthquake had been 8.1. It killed 78 people and injured thousands. 

After my father’s death, I’d spent a long time contemplating what makes people resilient. I thought about my parents’ friend Katya, who had called me from Germany the day after my dad died; she had known my parents for over 40 years. On the phone, I explained to her what happened to my dad, the radiation for pain, the palliative care, the hospital stay, the fight to bring him home, the hospice nurses, the bumpy ambulance ride, my father’s feet hanging off the end of a stretcher, the metal rattling; his slender body bouncing, as he clenched his jaw, trying to bear the pain of his prostate cancer that had spread to his bones, his hip and spine. I told her about the continuous catheter that my husband Rene and I had kept changing every few hours the last few days, and how it turns out that losing blood through your urine is one fast way to die. 

I asked Katya, “Why does someone who is kind and generous, and worked hard all his life to take care of people, have to suffer so much at the end?” 

“Oh Catherine, life can be such shit sometimes,” she answered. 

I laughed because it was the truth, and it was a relief to have someone say it out loud.

After my dad’s funeral, Rene, my son Radek, our dog and I had stayed in Colorado for a few months in my dad’s condo, sorting what must be sorted out when you die, sending back all the medical equipment, deciding where each object should go, his long shoes, his 30-year old orthotics, his wooden cane, his stereo camera, his favorite leather armchair; it was emotional to tie up loose ends. Then Rene drove a small U-Haul truck with what was left of my father’s life, and I followed in my dad’s car turning away from the Rocky Mountains through the endless prairies of Kansas, across America back to our apartment beside the East River in Queens, New York. 

My father, Dave Kapphahn was a tall slender man who had grown up mostly in Washington State, where, during World War II as a teenager, he’d become a park ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park because most of the men, including his brother Jack, an army scout, were away fighting. When Jack returned from the island of Okinawa, he came home without his legs. On the G.I. Bill, Jack went to University of Washington and asked his little brother to come with him to help. “Jack never needed much help,” my dad admitted, “but I think he wanted to help methrough college.” 

My dad loved the mountains, so he majored in forestry until one of his friends convinced him to switch to geology because there were more job opportunities. Even though my dad was slated to work at Mt. Rainier, all the returning WWII veterans took the park service jobs, so my dad’s name went to the bottom of the list. When my dad finished college, unexpectedly he found a job for an oil company, learning geophysics as he went; mapping the layers of the earth. 

Once, while searching through some papers, I came across a photocopied booklet made in honor of his 50thhigh school reunion that he hadn’t travelled back for. Each former student (still living) had composed a little biography of what they’d been up to for the past 50 years. Beside his youthful, smiling high school photo, my dad wrote: 

“I graduated from the University of Washington in 1952 with a B.S. degree in Geology. Spent the next 40 years as a geophysicist exploring for oil while residing in the Rocky Mountains, California, Alaska, Peru, Singapore, Indonesia, Venezuela, Spain, Spanish Sahara and Egypt. Retired in January 1997. Along the way I met and married Marijana Kanjer (from Zagreb, Croatia) in Caracas, had one daughter, Catherine and learned to speak Spanish, French, Italian and Serbo-Croatian. My hobbies have been skiing, mountain climbing and photography. INSIGHT: A decision in 1955 to look for a job in geology while waiting for a permanent appointment as a Park Ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park changed the rest of my life. I have never regretted that decision.”

My dad taught me to stop and appreciate the natural world, even if it meant getting up in the middle of the night to see a meteor shower. In the grassy backyard, we’d sit on a blanket and look at meteorites darting across an enormous Colorado night sky that was speckled with endlessly bright stars.

My dad, always dressed in trousers and button-down collared shirts, made me breakfast each morning as I was growing up. Creamy oatmeal and sliced bananas. At night, he sat on the edge of my bed and read to me My Side of the Mountain. When I grew up, after my mom’s death, he took me to see his beloved Mt. Rainier, which he had summited in his youth. When we visited Mt. St Helens, he spoke nostalgically about Spirit Lake. We explored the blast area, photographing the mountain he’d once climbed, looking at the flattened splintered trees. My dad pointed out the fuchsia fireweed, bursting from the volcanic moonscape, “Look Katie, isn’t it amazing how life comes back?” 

It was my dad who helped me plan my wedding, a small ceremony in a green valley dotted with wildflowers; there were mountains everywhere I looked. At my wedding, he sat in a fold-out chair in the front row, alone, crying as I said my vows. When I began to write about my mom’s history in Croatia, he patiently answered years of questions and helped me with the research. When I got pregnant, he looked up the weekly fetal development online and updated me. When he finally sat on my couch and held newborn Radek in his arms, his face melted into tearful joy.

 A few years after Radek’s birth, I miscarried a pregnancy. And as I was lying in bed, recovering from a D&C, my dad broke the news to me over the phone: his cancer had spread to the bone and it turned out that was why he’d been having intense back pain and having kidney infections. He’d already done radiation and was on hormone treatment the last couple years, but now the cancer was terminal. There was nothing left to do. “Katie,” he said softly, “I’m just sorry that I won’t be here to see the baby that you’ll have one day.” 

Back in the city, after his death, I felt stunned. Every time I walked somewhere, I had the impulse to reach for my cell phone to call my dad. I wasn’t ready for our conversation to be over; I wanted to celebrate his grandson with him. My dad had filled so many of my journeys throughout this city with a sense of home and stability. Even though he was rarely here in New York; I took him on all my explorations, through our conversations. 

From the time I was little, he wanted to know how I saw the world, even if it was different from his way of seeing it. He made it possible for me to learn things that felt insurmountable, and that was a great gift, particularly since I had grown up an undiagnosed dyslexic, and as a child, I struggled to become a reader, and as an adult, I struggled to become a writer. He was proud of me even when I battled my way through remedial English at one college and remedial math at two colleges.  

As I embarked on grief, I turned to the only things that I knew would help me: movement and yoga. On my mat, I moved quietly through space, finding clear shapes, angles, drawing lines of energy through my body, or sitting in stillness with my ragged breath. I listened intently to the grief wandering through my body. 

I walked through the Astoria Park, staring at the East River, watching tug boats, passing barges, the distant flames of a water-treatment plant. I returned to see my therapist Jeanne, who had helped me survive many upheavals; I told her my stories, so they wouldn’t stay trapped in my body forever. 

Jeanne had called me one day while I was in a Denver hospital, caring for my father in those final days. I clutched the cellphone against my ear in an empty corridor around the corner from my dad’s room. Out of the window, I could see other hospital buildings and the nearby high-rises of downtown Denver. I tried to explain to Jeanne what was happening, the hospital intensity was mounting, I couldn’t figure a way to get my dad out of the hospital and he was in extreme physical pain. “He’s got MRSA now, a resistant staph infection. They won’t let me take him home. He doesn’t want to die here…” my voice caught on an edge. Unable to speak, I turned and leaned against the window, against the bright Colorado sun, tears streaming down my face. 

Someone pushed a wheelchair toward me. I looked up. In it there was a familiar woman; we always said hello, or smiled as we passed each other in the corridors. Somehow those brief moments of connection were meaningful to me. She’d seen my dad, when we went for radiation treatments to reduce his pain. The woman’s face was round, probably swollen from chemo treatments; her hair was gone; she wore a green scarf. Her bare legs emerged from the hospital gown, her feet in slippers, rested on the metal footrests. She met my eyes with kindness and concern. 

She mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” 

I whispered back to her, “Thank you.” 

And I turned back toward the window, and leaned my forehead against the cool glass. Fear had been paralyzing me, but hearing Jeanne’s familiar voice and feeling a sudden sense of safety gave me strength. And when the woman in her wheelchair passed by, I could feel courage in her compassion. We both understood different sides of pain: Would she live? Could I get my dad home before he died? Could I fight the doctors and prove that I could take care of him by myself? Could I give him the death he wanted?

I could. 

I did.

In the aftermath, as I tried to live inside my New-York-City life, I told myself, maybe you can write your way through the layers of grief, so you don’t get stuck here forever. And I wrote with desperation as if the words could help me learn to walk again. I missed being a daughter. I had lost not only my dad, but my Colorado home and identity. 

When it came back to teaching at Lehman College that summer, I felt dread. My life shifted. I was struggling in my marriage; my husband felt distant, and we seemed too emotionally exhausted to communicate. I awoke each day wondering: How will I get through it? My soul felt heavy. We had run out of money and I needed to go back to work as soon as I could; the bills were piling up. When I moved home to care for my dad, I’d lost my health insurance. When I returned to adjuncting, eventually I’d get it back. Then, maybe, I could try to get pregnant again. It seemed crazy to think this way, but I did anyway.   

In a small rundown classroom with dusty and dented black window blinds, I stood before twenty students, 17 to 18 year olds. I was thin, vulnerable and pale, and I didn’t reveal what I had just been through with my dad. Instead, I asked my students: “What is beauty? How do you experience it?” Over the next few weeks, I sent them out on artist dates to historic places, museums and performances because I had learned that, other than going on a school field trip, most of my college students stayed in the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn, or Queens. I wanted them to reclaim NYC culture for themselves. I couldn’t afford to travel and neither could they, but I thought, there’s got to be a way we can travel in our own city and capture that feeling of being transported to elsewhere. I needed to travel somewhere beyond grief.  

Once I came home to my apartment in Astoria, I found it hard to drag myself outside, but I did because I had an energetic son. Rene, Radek and I walked through the parks of the city. Radek was drawn to any water sprinkler that he could find in the playgrounds of Central Park, and alongside the Hudson River. I watched him charge through springs of water, hop over mini urban creeks, cup his hand underneath urban waterfalls, and stand below geysers that gushed up from the cement, splashing him, sometimes hard. I wasn’t able to run and play with him as I once did, grief had stolen all my energy, but I watched the pure delight on Radek’s face as the freezing water rushed over his bare chest. He laughed from his belly; he retreated out of the gushing water, and then charged again, and again, running, hopping, leaping fearlessly into life. His blond, curly hair was matted against his head. He filled his red bucket and tossed the water outward, and it was suspended in the air, until inevitably gravity took the line of water down, splat on the concrete. 

A few weeks later, when my summer intensive course was coming to a close, the students astonished me with their final presentations on their New York City travels. A young Latino man described his journey with a group of his fellow students (all boys) to Governor’s Island, where they climbed on cannons and rode bikes. He described his first ever ferry ride, the view of Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, and behind him, the skyscrapers of southern Manhattan. His voice got softer, when he told us how on the ferry, the sun felt warm against his skin, how the breeze blew against his face, “It’s like I forgot about all my troubles.” He looked straight at me and said, “I’m not sure, but I think feeling that wind against my face,” he reached up and put his hand on his cheek for a moment, then smiled, “I think, maybe, that was like experiencing beauty.” 

I nodded, quietly.

In the final minutes of the class, one young woman said to us, “I guess in the beginning, I never really considered what beauty is. I never thought about it. And since we’ve been talking, it made me realize, you have to feel it and know it, to really understand, right? I mean, beauty is like being aware of the cycle of life. It’s like when you look at things, and feel mortality.” 

We sat in silence for a moment. 

I held onto those words.

A week later, at the American Museum of History I watched Radek touch the Willamette Meteorite, the largest ever discovered in America. I ran my fingers beside his small hand. For the first time, I touched the ancient iron, letting my fingertips sink into the cavities and basins where centuries of rainwater had once collected. This meteorite had first crashed in the Oregon forest, and the Clackamas people called it Tomonowos, heavenly visitor; the rain caught in its basins was considered powerful and used for healing.

 My hand rested on it; I touched its invisible waters and history. The voices around me faded, and I felt timelessness for a moment. Aloneness. And then I felt the speed of time, the twenty-two years I’d spent with my mom, memories hurtled past me, and the forty years I’d spent with my dad. Brief. I could feel exactly how quickly it had gone. Beneath my hand was something that had experienced billions of years in space, and thousands here on earth, beneath a changing sky, beneath the high ceiling of a New York City museum. It had been touched by generations, by grandparents and children, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. Some may have moved on quickly, their hands not lingering, and some may have stopped like I did that day, and felt how this meteorite connected us to each other, to time, and the cosmos.  

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