Elizabeth Jaeger

I am trying desperately to pretend that today is not Ash Wednesday, but I have not been very successful. There was a time I looked forward to Lent. True, it’s been years since I went to service to get ashes—at best, I’m a lapsed Christian. When my son was younger, I made an effort to bring him to church. For several years, I was good about it. But then after one summer, it was too hard to go back. Being active in church required me to be social, and I’m not very good at that. My social anxiety defeated me. But still, even minus the religious aspect, I looked forward to Ash Wednesday. It was the first day of Lent. A time to be serious and reflective in the Christian faith for me meant the anticipation of spring—warming temperatures, more outdoor activities, and longer hours of daylight. A time to be happy and hopeful.

But last year forever changed my feelings about Lent. At that time, there seemed to be nothing special about Ash Wednesday, but in retrospect, it’s the day that changed everything. The start of Lent fell on February 26, which coincidentally was the same day my parents flew down to Chile. The excitement emanating from my parents, especially from Dad, in the days leading up to that trip was palpable. When the departure date arrived, he was ecstatic. He messaged my son a picture of himself and my mother sitting in the airport waiting to board the plane. It had the caption, “And we’re off.”

Two weeks later, as COVID cases started to spiral out of control, I grew frantic. I prayed my parents would get home safe, that the plague would not reach them. When they landed back in New York, I was cautiously optimistic. They were home, but they weren’t safe. Mom stepped off the plane with what she swore was a cold. I felt I knew better. And I did.

Lent ended last year with Dad dying in a hospital. During Holy Week, a friend told me, “This is the week of miracles.” I prayed fervently that he was right, that if God indeed were handing out miracles in honor of his son, that he would send Dad back home. He didn’t. Other people may have gotten their miracles. We did not. My son and I were crushed. Heartbroken.

Ash Wednesday traditionally ushers in a season of sacrifice. Forty days of fasting. Once when I was a kid, I gave up ice cream. It was the longest, toughest forty days of my childhood. Last year during Lent, I learned the true meaning of loss. Nineteen days I woke up anxious and scared, waiting for the doctor to call—yearning for, yet dreading the daily update on Dad’s condition. Nineteen days I went to bed unable to sleep because I was terrified that the phone might ring in the middle of the night. Nineteen days and then the words we didn’t want to hear: “Gary passed.”

This year, I will give nothing up for Lent. I will never give anything up again, because Lent has taken from me one of the most precious people in my life. Unlike the ice cream I decided to forgo as a child, I will never get Dad back. He’s gone for good, and Easter will always be a horrific reminder of the awful way he died.

Two days after we were supposed to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, I said goodbye to my unconscious father via Facetime. There was no final hug—COVID restrictions forbade it. We couldn’t have a wake or a funeral mass. It still feels surreal. He went on vacation and I never really saw him again, except to drive him to the hospital. After a painful interlude, it’s like he disappeared. I’m still waiting for him to tell me about the trip. Still waiting to compare notes about Tierra del Fuego and Santiago. Still waiting for the front door to open and the loud stomping and wiping of his feet to alert me of his return.

Twelve months ago, as Dad was packing for South America, he was simultaneously booking a trip to Disney and Universal for my son. We spoke on the phone several times discussing which parks we would visit, which hotels we’d stay in, and which restaurants we absolutely had to dine in. We reminisced about former trips to Florida, and my son began counting down the days to when we’d be there again. Needless to say, the countdown clock broke down—forever stuck on April 14. We never got to Disney. Dad was deprived of the pleasure of spoiling his grandson one final time. And my son was robbed of the man he loved most.

My son was extremely close to his grandfather. Growing up with two moms, my son developed a special bond with his grandfather, who happily played the role of father-figure in his life. The two of them greatly enjoyed “boys’ days out.” They would go out for lunch or to watch a movie. Dad rarely said no to anything my son requested, and he made so many of my son’s dreams come true.

It has been a difficult year. I still cry every day, some days more than others. But, memories creep up on me and the next thing I know I’m wiping my eyes. This afternoon, after my son and I finished our homeschool lessons, we went to the beach—Dad’s favorite place. We played catch and we practiced our taekwondo sparring. And I wondered for the thousandth time if Heaven exists or if it’s just a comforting story we tell children to ease the pain caused by death. I want to feel Dad’s presence, but I don’t. I feel nothing but the silence and the wind, and I hear nothing but the water lapping at the shore.

After sparring, my son pulled his cap gun out of his pocket, shot the invisible enemies in the distance, and then—the caps still smoking—he said, “Do you remember that time Grandpa took us to the beach and he was so cold that he put the sleeves of the beach chairs on his legs. And you called it his nuclear suit. He looked funny.”

“Of course, I remember.” How could I forget. It was Valentine’s Day, 2013—another blustery February day.

“I think whenever I’m at the beach and it’s cold I’m going to remember that.” He lifted the gun, aimed at the water, and took one final shot.

There are so many things I will remember, and someday, maybe the memories won’t make me cry quite so much.

About the Author

Elizabeth Jaeger’s essays, short stories, book reviews and poetry have been published in various print and online journals, including The Blue Nib, Capsule Stories, Watchung Review, Ovunque Siamo, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, and Italian Americana. Newtown Literary published an excerpt from her novel-in-progress. She is the book review editor at Ovunque Siamo. You can find her at: jaegerwrites13.wordpress.com and on Instagram @jaegerwrites.