A few weeks before my father died, my mother made him a Valentine. She was in late stage dementia, on another floor of the same hospital. A nurse brought her to my father’s room to give him the card, to a man who was quickly running out of minutes.
My mother said to him “Get up.”
But he couldn’t get up.
This is around the time I had to shell his favorite food – pistachio nuts – and put them into his pursed lips like a baby bird, because he was too weak to shell them.
He said to my mother, “Glo, I can’t get up, I’m dying.”
She said, “you can’t die, you have to take care of me.”
Then she raised her voice.
Throughout his life, my father got up and up and up. For all of us. The same time every day he took the same commuter train and ate breakfast at the same diner, and he came home to a woman who demanded his time and love and endless attention, and he gave it to her.
But now my mother was a child inside a woman’s body, and when he said he couldn’t get up, she tore the valentine in pieces, the red and pink construction paper raining on his hospital sheets.
He began to cry with his whole body, his last big cry before he left us all weeks later.
I wasn’t there to witness this, his nurse was.
Her shift was over, but he told her he was afraid to be alone, and she stayed with him, holding his hand until the sun came up, smoothing the skin on his cheek gently.
After he was finally asleep, she clocked back in and worked another shift at the hospital.
I remember her telling me this story, and crying when she told me. She was young, only twenty-six. Her name was Makena.
I asked Makena where she was from. She had a beautiful, melodic accent, and when she spoke it was like a song or a prayer. She was from Kenya, her skin dark and her eyes like the earth and her touch so gentle.
I was wearing a Tree of Life necklace, and I took it off and I put it around her neck. As I leaned in to clasp it, she smelled like pine trees and my father. I could not have loved another human being more than I loved her in that moment.
And I know the whole night Makena was with my father she didn’t see his racism, his privilege, or the young boy who had lost his mother at five years old. She didn’t have his history.
She just saw the soul of him. She showed up for him in his moment of need, as he had shown up for all of us.
My granddaughter was born ten years later, and I was in the delivery room watching her head crown between my daughter’s strong thighs. Mika came out on her side, facing me, and when I saw all of her emerge into the world, her curved mouth and long toes, I yelled, “It’s my father!”
I was shocked by my declaration.
Now when Mika is asleep in my bed, or telling me a funny story with her small hands flying through the air like rags, or laughing with her whole body, the way my father did, I know I’m showing up for her, but I am also showing up for him, as we are all showing up for each other…
in birth and death and rebirth.
The memory of my father’s earth angel from Kenya keeps reminding me how to show up for others. The presence of my granddaughter reminds me of all of my father, especially the parts of him I never got to know.
Just yesterday, Mika declared pistachio nuts her favorite food.
We come through the great Mother ship covered in blood and fluid and vernix, landing in someone’s hands with the memories and DNA of our ancestors.
And we go out with help from those who love us and those who left before us, whether they call to sing us a song, pick up the pieces from a broken Valentine, or hold our hand until the sun rises, helping us chase away the dark.
Today I wanted to remind you that angels have been assigned to you, and you have been assigned to others, and sometimes all you have to do is show up.
Other times, all you have to do is receive.