Little Women and A Season of Grief

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“It’s like the tide, Jo, when it turns it goes slowly–but it can’t be stopped.”

The End comes without welcome. It comes without warning for some. It comes without waiting for loved ones to give their goodbyes. It doesn’t wait for our goals and dreams to be achieved. Death is only and always a thief—rude enough to think of itself every time.

On November 26, 2019, death collected my father. He died almost thirty days after being diagnosed with Acute Myleoid Leukemia. Instantly, it seemed, the summer heat was booted by heavy torrential autumn downpour. Everything turned grey. The thirty days of pain only a precursor to what then felt like half of my soul being dragged to another somewhere I couldn’t go.

“The death of a parent, he wrote, ‘despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago…”

― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

There were days I was afraid to cry because I thought it’d kill me. Like, really turn my organs bad. I couldn’t afford to fall apart like that. I’m a mother, wife, sister, and daughter to the remaining parent I have. I’m a friend to my chosen family. I could not fall apart. But what I could embrace was the feeling of being so little. I was and am always my dad’s little girl, and nothing reminded me more of this than being with my little sisters. Suddenly, every time I saw them, I saw us at various phases of our lives growing up: arguing, playing, watching movies, fighting, crying, and then comforting each other like no one else could. It was always us, and even though it wasn’t perfect, it was home. “Your sister is your best friend,” my dad would always lecture us after a row. Then, he’d force us to hug each other for minutes that ticked like hours. We hated that usual punishment. But in the hours of his funeral as we entered the church hand in hand, and the days after it, we came to appreciate it. It was the most adverse time I’ve ever gone through in my life for more reasons than just my dad’s passing. I felt like a broken heap of cogs and wheels—full of anxiety and unpredictable triggers that led to crying fits and so much anger. My adult life didn’t have residence in any of that. Only little Tia did.

Storytelling through film and prose, like always, proved to be my therapy. My way to breathe. I had only seen one other movie during this time, Honey Boy—Shia Labeouf’s autobiographical film directed by Alma Har’el. While, unlike Shia, I had a very good life with my dad, Honey Boy still read the parts of me that were neglected by him in very dark times. It allowed me to reconcile that pain before he took his last breath. That, and his apologies. “I’m sorry,” he told me from his hospital bed—pumped with chemo and anxiety drugs. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better dad to you.”  I began to shake. Only my sisters could understand the magnitude of what those words meant. I cried right then and there, a little girl whose house was destroyed by divorce and ransacked by her father’s demons. I didn’t know I’d always wanted to hear him apologize to me in that way until he did. And in return, I had to let him know that despite his flaws, he was still the best dad for me.

Missing him, I weathered a hard and sad Thanksgiving with my family.

Then Christmas came. I wanted to do nothing except the thing that made me feel like me: go to the movies. I packed my daughter in the car and drove to the cinema. Our walk up to the ticket booth felt nothing short of homecoming. An unorthodox sanctuary. I purchased two tickets to Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women and took breaths that rejuvenated me.

I had read the reviews. Some sparkled and others lamented exhaustion of another Little Women remake. How many do we need? We’re at six now for Lord’s sake! How many people can relate to the March sisters and their narrative of being white during the Civil War? Well, in that moment, I could. At least I could digest the heart of Alcott’s story in its barest of bones.

“I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”

― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

“I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” A quote of Louisa May Alcott’s lit the screen, giving way to the back of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) as she preps to sell her writings to a publisher. Her document is edited to shreds, and she settles with selling it for twenty dollars. Then she takes off into the winter wet streets, a thrilled grin on her face for profiting from her passion. Me. Jo was me—or an old version somewhere still out there in the time continuum. She’s career-minded and insistent on making her own way into the world, independent of relying on marriage and even resistant to coming close to it. And then there are the March sisters. I see Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Elizabeth Scanlyn) in my own sisters. A little Meg (Emma Watson) sprinkled amongst us all.

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It all hit close to home. Gerwig’s ability to evoke emotion by contrasting the reality and complexity of adulthood against the golden age of childhood in a non-linear landscape. The colors she painted both in were exactly what I had in my heart—this memory of a full warm home of fast and loud talking, giggles, heaps of food on holidays, karaoke nights and theatrics. All of it gilded, darkening into colder hues of melancholia as time ticked. The cold was uncomfortable. I knew the sensation of it all too well. It covered my skin always outside the theater. It’s as if Gerwig knew the exact way to inject empathy into her audience by reminding us of age’s juxtaposition. Adulthood consisted of the realities of budgeting and desiring decadence on thin pockets, being fragile while indebted to charity, savage to our tempers, regretful of our wild heart’s choices, giving up our dreams for security, and finally, witnessing the death of a loved one. Jo’s naivete and need to control destiny posed her to be most affected by Beth’s death.

Jo :You will get better. Father will get better. And we’ll all be together soon.

BethWe can’t stop God’s will.

JoGod hasn’t met my will yet. What Jo wills shall be done.

 I had a slice of that same green ignorance. With endless trips to the hospital, nights where I studied leukemia and the centers that ranked highest in healing stem cell procedures, trips to the store for care kits of alkaline water, fuzzy socks, beanies, comics for my dad to read and coloring books to keep his mind clear. I scoured books for inspiring quotes to tape around his hospital room and swore a cure could be found in foods and ancient herbs. The problem was western medicine at that point. Was it listening? Damn it. All I was seeing was sick care, not healing nor understanding of why my dad’s body was producing cancer cells in the first place. I would figure it out. I could do it, I thought incessantly…but ignorantly. Or was I hopeful? I can’t tell. All I know is, I learned what God wills shall be done—and none of it is simple enough for my being to understand. And with that, just as Jo did, even after begging Beth to fight to the end, I saw the end of my childhood. The last of my remaining innocence gone.    

I looked on the joyful parts of the film in the same way Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) awed the March women. That was medicine. The first of my ability to detach my grief and dissect it till it made sense to me—it proved to be my only way of continuing. By the end of the film, grieving felt good. Real good.  It became this token used to remind me of how loved I am and how much I could love someone. The power in that is phenomenal, how love is an energy that never dies even though our bodies do. It spans realms and evolves into elements like air, water, soil, and light.

My dad once wrote in a poem that when he’d be gone, he’d spread his love in the wind. Every time a breeze blows strands of my hair across my face gently, his presence reminds me he’s never left. He’s still my dad. He’s still taking care of me, just from another place until the right time. He even tells me this in my dreams. It is only me in pain then while he smiles with freedom, and what I believe is finally true fulfillment and happiness. He reassures me he’s okay, and that I’ll be okay. He just had to get out of there—that defected failing body and endless day to day mess. In death, he’d become victorious, and I needed to realize that.

After a few of these gracious visits, I finally did. Even though I had a deep resistance to acknowledging I had lived a full year without feeling my dad palm me by my head and pull me in for a hug. I feared forgetting all of him: his mischievous laugh that hoarsened as he ate chips or pistachios, his proud guffaws that rumbled in his throat, those long winded voice messages he’d leave during his commutes and tell me exactly what time it is and where he is, all his vocal impressions, his ability to master new things on the first try, his most comical yet chivalrous crankiness, the grio qualities he possessed, every generous impulse he had, the torch he carried to care for his race, the shape of his nail beds and strong nose, his kindness and understanding, and mostly, the protection he draped over me for thirty-three years. The pain, I noticed, didn’t visit as much–be it due to time or the mind’s ability to take short cuts around those blocks of triggers. This scared me. It was exactly why I stayed in my dad’s hospital room for as long as I did after he passed. No one else wanted to see him like that, or could bear being near his remains that long, yet I had this desperate, morbid need to stay with him so I could remember every inch of him. The reality of a full year sparked a whole new round of grief stages. Sometimes, out of order and sometimes stuck in one stage for much too long. Depression became a city I had to travel through. There were no ways around it. There were days I did not need to pass it and its neighboring cities bargaining and anger, however. Eventually, other roads were built and I could manage to forget the terrain of such lands and breathe. After all, the world had moved on while mine ended–as it always does. I had to make new routes.

Now, every winter, like an arthritic ailing bone, I’m reminded of those deep bruises. I don’t know if they’ll ever go away for good. However, as they arrive, I’m kinder to myself—more knowledgeable of how heart and brain work in synch. Cognizant of my need to mull over what I could’ve done to change the cards still, the playback of all vivid memories, and my body’s ability to blind me with tears. The rain comes as a helpful friend now, encouraging me to slow down, close the door and rest so I can hear myself out: Listen, because your soul is telling you it needs it. I heed its suggestions welcomely now—with a cup of hot cider, warmth, soups my dad would make, and Little Women till the wave calms and purges.

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