Submerged in cool, clear water
rocked softly by barely perceptible waves
The sun, a fierce golden ball directly overheard
warms my face, while my body remains underneath,
limbs spread like starfish
My ears pick up the mumbled sound
of trivial conversation, and I am
uninterested, calm and removed
suspended and subdued,
in the fluid casing of the sea
Sunlight seeps into me through my skin
A dragonfly beats his wings
Someone whispers in a language I don't understand
There is chirping, rustling, breeze in the trees
The distant sound of an engine registers, then fades
A mass of cottony cloud slowly, visibly approaches the sun,
closing a gap of cerulean blue before my eyes
My flip flops clip clop down the path
A bamboo fence to one side, nearly overtaken in parts
by thick black electric wire, haphazardly hung in bunches,
used by monkeys like swinging branches,
and a towering cliff to the other,
I crane my neck and gaze up, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun
to see the top, jutting proudly towards a baby blue sky
The limestone alternates in a pattern of nearly black, dark brown and golden yellow
Twisted tree limbs stick out in all directions and vines cascade to the ground,
and as I continue, nooks and crannies appear, entryways to caves,
carved out of solid rock over a period of time I can't quite grasp
Dark, inside, unreached by sunlight
I think about leaving the path to peer inside,
but I hesitate and continue,
driven on by the promise of a dip in the expanse of sea ahead
Dark, shirtless men dip long sticks in a bucket of gasoline,
and suddenly they're on fire
Twirling, spinning and circling the very real, very scorching, flames
around and around their bodies on the dock, inches removed from gentle waves
They move in tune to the loud, thumping, hypnotic music blasting from speakers nearby,
putting on a show for a crowd gathered at candlelit tables,
sipping occasionally from cold glasses,
dripping with condensation, and crinkling with ice
lighting Menthol cigarettes with aid of the candle's blaze
My body is giving out too early. I was supposed to have more time. I haven't written a will and I'm going to leave them a mess. I've made so many mistakes, but I also made them. My girl, my sweet, adventurous world traveler, she has lived, really lived. My son, I'm worried he is a little too much like me, but he is smart, so smart. He's got so many ideas, just like me, just like I had.
What good were they? Here I am, in a hospital gown that has probably been rewashed hundreds of times and worn by who knows how many other patients, and I can't open my eyes. My breath is coming in gasps and my chest feels heavy. I'm hooked up to machines, which must be telling the doctors my heart is beating thunderously. I hear my ex-wife telling me the kids are coming and to please wait.
My boyfriend and I are watching something on Netflix when the phone rings. I should have went to bed after the last episode, but he is warm, and I'd rather be sleepily aware of the feel of my head on his rising and falling chest, than actually sleeping. I miss some dialogue when it becomes overpowered by his heartbeat.
I should answer. It's Angela, she probably has something to tell me about dad. But I don't want to deal with it right now. I'm so tired, and I have to be up in seven hours. I called him on New Year's Eve, that was five days ago. I was the one who ended the conversation. I was headed to a bar. He wanted me to have fun; he was so happy I had someone to celebrate with.
She was my second wife, but she was the one who changed me, the one who tried to change me for the better. My biggest regret is that I wasn't able to change enough. I failed her and she left. That was twenty years ago. I didn't think she was serious at first, but she stuck to her guns. She took our little girl, just morphing from a toddler to a developing child, and our sweet baby boy, still crawling around in diapers, and moved into an apartment across town.
I'm so lucky that even with all my flaws, she trusted me, or maybe it was that she respected my role as their father, to have a continued relationship with them. They would live with her, that was obvious. She was the breadwinner. She hated putting them in daycare, but she made the sacrifices I wasn't willing to. I have to live with my choices, but staying at home allowed me time with my children, when they were still young. I cherish those years, when I still saw them everyday. When I could walk them to school, make them after-school snacks. Before she moved for work and got remarried.
My boyfriend pauses the show and I sit up to answer the call. He puts his head on my shoulder and rubs my back as I talk to her. She tells me my dad really isn't doing good, and even in this situation I notice myself noticing her grammatical error. She called Roy and he drove the icy Wisconsin roads to help her because she didn't know what to do. Dad was unresponsive. He was supposed to go in for a treatment earlier, but he was too weak and refused.
“I couldn't get him out of the bathtub,” she says. She called the ambulance and they are going to take him to the hospital. “I just wanted to let you know, it's not looking good.”
She was with me when I got the diagnosis. I asked her to come. I wanted her there, the mother of my children. That was six months ago. Summer. My little girl, my wanderer, was coming home from Asia in the fall. We hadn't talked in some time, but I was always so proud of her. I could see she was restless like me, but she did something about it. I hoped she was happy. She inherited, for better or worse, my sensitivity and my somewhat misanthropic outlook. My reserved nature, my independent streak, my depth and my longing to fill an invisible void. These last few years, thousands of miles away, I believe she has found a way to fill it.
The doctor told me I might have two years. It was a shock, but not an immediate death sentence. There was so much I could accomplish in that time. It would be a big task, but I would work to get everything in order for my daughter and my son. I wanted to leave them with something. It wouldn't be money, but it would be potential. Maybe this is the push I needed to stop procrastinating and make something of what would be remembered as my life. Not for me, but for them, those that would remain. We decided not to tell them just yet. There was time. My boy lived eight hours away in Chicago and my girl was starting off on a few months of backpacking before arriving home. They were living their lives, which was all I ever wanted for them.
I hang up and don't say anything for a few minutes. He is still there and his presence calms me somewhat. I tell him I don't know what to do. It's after midnight, the temperature is below zero and it's snowing. Should I go? It would take two hours to get there and driving in the dark makes me nervous. He must be okay. At his last appointment they told him the radiation had slowed the spreading. He did seem really tired at Christmas, but it was the treatment. I didn't have to think about how it would be when it was really bad, not yet.
I know if it was his dad he would probably go right away. I hope he understands the difference. I'm not ready and I'm tired. He suggests we go to sleep and see what happens in the morning. We turn off the TV and though my body feels tense, and my mind anxious, I fall asleep almost right away with him wrapped around me.
I opened the bookstore before my kids were born. I was in my thirties then. We found a historical property, with a storefront and living space in the back. We didn't have much money. I'd been fired from my job at the post office – I was not able to conform to the idea of being somewhere at the same time everyday. My wife, she was my wife then, that wonderfully capable woman, would say I blew it. She was probably right, but I was still pissed off at the government. I didn't want to play their game anymore, now that I had a choice. I didn't want anyone to tell me how I could spend my time.
She was working dutifully as a telephone operator so I was able to focus on building up my collection of used books, occasionally drinking with my buddies and making candles in the basement. We used to make them together, molding the vivid chunks of melted wax into shapes and spheres. I sold some in the store and even won a few contests. Somewhere along the line, after she left, I stopped making them. To this day the basement is still filled with dozens of jars and baggies of scented wax pieces I'd made to eventually meld onto my candles. Though my materials have been sitting unused for multiple decades now, I was going to use the time, the time the doctor told me I had, to share my creative process with my children. I know neither of them will want to take over the store, and I can't blame them. It has never done very well. But, after I'm gone, they could come together even a few times a year and make a bunch of candles on a weekend, or on a holiday. They could sell them online and really make some money. I could leave them with that.
When I wake up the next morning, groaning at the sound of my alarm clock that is beeping way too soon, I don't have any messages on my phone. It must be sorted out. Maybe he just needed fluids, or was just plain exhausted and stubborn about going into the doctor. His old building is not adequately heated and this is no mild winter. I hate the thought of him staying there, but he wouldn't dream of leaving. His store, his thousands and thousands of books, piled up on shelves, and stacked up in boxes and on the floor in the back where he lives, that is his essence. His space for more than thirty years now. Every time I go I note its level of disrepair, and wish we could set him up in a more comfortable, and manageable, apartment, but when I see my elementary school drawings still on the walls, and my old backpacks still stuffed with trapper keepers and notebooks sitting untouched upstairs, I understand he can't let go of what once was.
He doesn't want my brother or I to fuss too much over him – just to keep in touch, visit often, and plan some time when we can make candles, all of us together. Last time I was back to see him he gave me some candles to take back to my boyfriend's place, where I've been staying since getting back to America a few months ago. On the nightstand next to the bed, I've placed a beautiful marigold colored one with a pattern subtly woven through, similar to something you might see floating on top of your latte. My dad really was talented – what a shame he deserted this hobby. I'm skeptical that my brother and I will be able, or even willing, to carry on his legacy in the form of a candle business, but it seems to be what is keeping him hopeful, keeping him hanging on.
When the ambulance showed up, I let the technicians lift me out of my chair and lead me out into the cold air, to the stretcher, still wrapped in an afghan my mother had made for me before she died. I could feel their hands on me, but I was too weak to protest, or walk on my own. I was aware of screeching sirens and the worried stares of Angela and Roy as they rode with me, though my eyes remained mostly closed.
Soon the quick ride was over. I was brought inside and bombarded with voices and light breaking through my fluttering eyelids. The first thing they asked was if I wanted resuscitation measures if my heart stopped. I vigorously shook my head no. They slapped a DNR bracelet on my wrist and we continued into the depths of the hospital.
I don't get a chance to check my phone until my lunch break. Two missed calls, two messages. One from my mom, and one from an unknown number. I recognize the area code as the one from my hometown. I walk to the staff lounge and sit down before listening. One is from a nurse, who tells me she is taking care of my dad. She leaves her name and extension, and tells me to call back. Before I call her, I listen to my mom's message. She had driven to the hospital earlier today and was there now. Give me a call, honey, she says. I love you.
I call the nurse and the first thing she tells me is that my dad is currently stable, but I should probably come see him as soon as I can. He is sleeping, and in and out of consciousness, mostly out, but he would want me there. I tell her I am in Minnesota, at work, and it will take me a couple hours. She says that's fine, they are monitoring his breathing and blood pressure and giving him morphine, so he is not in pain. The doctors think it might be pneumonia, or possibly sepsis. They are working to treat the infection, but just to let you know, she says, he was very clear he did not want to be put on life support.
“Right now we have given him some medicine to keep his blood pressure and heartbeat down, and a tube to aid his breathing. We will continue these measures until you and your brother can get here.”
I ask if it's really serious. She tells me, yes, I'm sorry, it is.
I go to my boss's office and tell her I need to go. I tell her why and she says of course. The tears haven't come yet, I feel more anxious than sad. I pass a few coworkers in the hall, but don't really say anything. I exit the parking ramp, run home to grab a few things, and start driving. It's still below zero, but it's not snowing, and the roads have been cleared. I'm grateful for that.
The morphine has lulled me into a semi-lucid, sleep-like state. I prefer this to moments of full consciousness. Breathing hurts. My lungs are working extra hard to provide me with oxygen, but I can't seem to take in enough. The tube in my mouth is supplying me with a constant stream of the life-sustaining chemical so my body doesn't have to grasp for it so much. Once in a while I hear soothing, muffled female voices telling me they are going to clean me up, adjust my pillow or just rotate my position.
This is what it feels like when one's body shuts down. I feel like I'm slipping, like there is less of me here in the bed. My awareness though, the awareness of self that has made me, me, all these years hasn't disintegrated an ounce. I'm the same man who has used the draft as a scapegoat for most of my adult life, mostly as justification to myself. I let her leave, with them, and I didn't fight it. I knew she would stay if I stepped up, like a man, got a job, provided financially and gave her a bit of a break. She wanted so badly to stay home and nurture our children during their early years, but instead she got up every day and went to work. I didn't.
After she left, she didn't push the issue of child support and I never brought it up either. We stayed civil, eventually developed a friendship, and even after she got married again, I was always welcome in her home on holidays shared with our son and daughter. Angela always had to drive because I never had reliable transportation. I guess I let my women take care of me.
They are both here now, taking turns holding my hand.
My kids are coming, I'm holding on.
I meet my mom in the lobby of the hospital. I am so happy to see her. My brother booked a last minute flight from Chicago and won't arrive until after midnight. She tells me Angela is there, and some of my dad's friends, people whose names I've heard in stories, but never met, have been filtering in and out. I've always viewed my dad as quite solitary, though I know he developed relationships with a lot of his repeat customers over the years, and always seems to have anecdotes about old friends to share when we are together on Christmas or Thanksgiving. My memories of those holidays are always of him dominating the room with his booming voice, long beard, ponytail and unique style of flannels, corduroys, newsboy hats and old union T-shirts.
In the elevator, my mom tells me he has been sleeping for a few hours now. She saw him conscious earlier, but just to gesture for more pain medication. The doctors feel it is best to keep him unconscious for now as the infection is making it hard to breathe. We exit the elevator, pass the nurses station on the critical care floor, and come to his room.
Up until now, the effect of cancer I've seen on my dad has been fairly minimal. Exhaustion and moodiness mostly. A desire, and often a stress, to use the time left to do things he'd been talking about since I was a teenager, to clean up his place, to get rid of his hoarder level of clutter, to get that online book business going more seriously.
When I see him lying in the plastic framed bed, looking frail, and making throaty wheezing sounds as he is sucking in air, I start crying before I register any emotion about what I am seeing. He looks so withered, and the sound, the gasping. It's too much. It's so sad. It looks painful. I look away and cry into my mom's shoulder. Oh, baby, she says.
She's here. My little girl. I can hear her. I want to let her know I know. She walks over to me, puts her hand on my shoulder. My head is turned towards her, but my eyes remain firmly shut. Dad, I'm here, she says. She puts her cool hand on my forehead. I can feel it, but I can't tell her. Wait. My arm. I can raise it off the bed. Just a little bit, in her direction. I hear her take a deep breath in and take my hand in both of hers. She repeats, I'm here, I'm here. I know sweetie, I know.
I lose track of my surroundings and I don't feel twenty-nine anymore. My daddy is in pain. He hasn't been daddy to me since before middle school, when I used to see him everyday. This man laying here, with big blue veins on his bare feet, and wrinkled skin on his neck, is my daddy, who used to watch Nickelodeon with me and play marbles and checkers and walk me to school everyday. I used to share his heating pad on the couch with him during winter, in his house, which was never as warm as mommy's house.
The last five years, I've been mostly away. Until coming back and learning he was sick, I'd probably seen him only a handful of times on brief visits home. I think a year elapsed once with only a few emails passing between us. I realize now he was here, this whole time, when I was there. He was living his life, a life I could only imagine, and I was living mine. That's how we are. We lose touch, we wait to be contacted, we move on. Him, staying in one place for decades, and me moving to a new one each year like clockwork since going to college. Similar, but different. I am ashamed at the time I let pass focused solely on my own journey.
I imagine my organs shutting down one by one, like lights flickering out. I don't want to fight it. Something is eating away at my insides, and though I haven't been fighting it long, I want the something to win. The darkness seems quiet and peaceful. I believe my mom is there, waiting for me. She took care of me always, after the war, after my divorce. She never made me feel like I let her down. She was eaten by sickness too. I had my plane ticket when she took a turn for the worse, but my sister called before I could get on the plane. She was gone within a few days. Like mother, like son.
When the nurses come in, they address me, of all the people in the room. I am the next of kin. He and Angela never married. Until my brother arrives I am solely responsible for the medical decisions, as my dad can't offer his opinion. I know I'm not young, but I don't feel like I am the right choice for this type of thing. I'm not ready. I don't know.
I was sleeping at my boyfriend's just last night and at work earlier. I need time to process.
My brother has not arrived yet, so I will get some time. The nurses say they can keep dad stable until he gets here, but then we will need to decide if we give consent to unplug the machines. They say they believe his body has started the process of dying, and that left unaided, would likely last minutes or hours, not days.
It's around 9:00 now. I call my boyfriend and hear my voice telling him my dad is probably going to be gone within twenty-four hours. He asks if I want him to come tomorrow.
Yes, I really do, I tell him.
My brother arrives after two in the morning. He flew into Minneapolis and had to take a shuttle bus to town. My mom and I tell dad we'll be right back, and drive to the McDonald's where the shuttle dropped him. My brother tends to deal with his emotions privately, in fact I don't think I've ever seen him cry, so when we see each other we say hello, and hug, almost as if we aren't about to make the biggest decision either of us has ever made.
When we go upstairs to see our dad, he goes up to him, pats him on the shoulder, and says, “Hey, buddy.” My brother is a few years younger than me, and has recently broken up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend since high school. I think of myself at his age, and I would have been an absolute mess facing this back then. Living in Thailand for a year-and-a-half really mellowed me out, allowed me to see things as a bigger picture and view pretty much everything as cyclical. I think those perspectives are really helping me now, but I tend not to process things when I'm in the thick of them, so I know this could be an illusory calm.
I think of my boyfriend and how much I am looking forward to seeing him tomorrow, turning away from this and losing myself in a hug, even for a moment. I wish my brother had someone to turn to.
Both of my children are here with me now. How different they are, how special. My son is on the cusp of greatness, I can feel it. He has an entrepreneurial spirit like me. We both have always had hope that our big ideas will make our lives big too. Now, I just want everything to come together for him. These last few months, we've smoked a lot, talking for hours around the old wood stove I still use to heat the place, and I worry that maybe that was a mistake. I know from experience it will make the ideas come, but not always the realities.
My daughter appears to be finding a way to settle back into life in what she has taken to calling “the states”. She's recently found a job, working with kids like she was in Thailand, and will soon be moving into her own studio. Unlike me, who has hardly spent a night away from my home in thirty some years, she hasn't really had a place to truly call her own space yet. I think it will feel good for her. I don't know how long she will stay. The globe seems to call to her, she might be too big for it here. I wish all the happiness in the world for her, a sensitive, gentle, soul like hers deserves it. I hope she finds everything she needs in this life.
After talking to each other, and the doctors, we decide that we are going to take the night to think on it, but that sometime tomorrow we will likely stop the medical treatment. I advocated for keeping him stable through the night so my brother and I could get some sleep and be fresh for what will likely be a very draining day.
Right now, it feels like the right decision. The doctors said even if he were to recover from the sepsis, the road ahead would just be filled with painful treatments and a worsening of symptoms. I don't want that for him. Selfishly, I don't really want it for me either. He has been so stressed about what he'll be leaving us with, but in the end that stuff really doesn't matter. I know to him it does, but I have been trying to communicate to him that it really is okay. True, he has tons of debt and he's late on the taxes for the building and we might lose it, we might have to sell, but what we are really losing is him, and he, with his stubborn eccentricities, strong opinions, and historical bookstore on the corner, is who we will remember.
We go to sleep at my mom's, about a twenty minute drive from the hospital. I was nervous to leave, but the nurses assured us dad was sleeping, not in pain and we should go get some rest and come back tomorrow. It was under control.
I can sense that the room is empty now. Dark. I think I can hear my own breathing. It's loud. They'll be back tomorrow. They will be saying goodbyes. I will be listening.
We wake up early and drive back to the hospital. It takes a while for the car to heat up, and we can see our breath freeze as we exhale. I'm in jeans, boots and a green sweater. I wonder if I'll remember later what I'm wearing now. Earlier, after a shower, I'd dried my hair and put on a little make-up. Maybe it was stupid, but I wanted to look put together for the day.
I don't want the drive to end, but at the same time I'm anxious to arrive and see him, to make sure he is still there. There haven't been any calls so he must have made it through the night. I hope he didn't feel scared or alone.
My mom parks and we walk quickly to the entrance, shivering when we get out of the car. We go up the elevator and then we are back in his room. He is still unconscious. Angela is there and a few of dad's friends I'd met yesterday. A full house, he must sense that he is loved.
It's getting closer, I can tell. I didn't tell too many people about my cancer. It wasn't their problem. Don't we all have enough problems? My friend, Tim, is here now, holding my hand, and crying. I haven't heard him cry before. I can't see it, my eyes are still closed. I just hear the sobs coming out of this man, my smoking buddy, and imagine him head in hand. He didn't know. Almost thirty years younger than me, constantly in trouble with women, kind of like I was before I met her. Man did I meet some interesting women back in those days.
Tim has been a big help these past few months, as winter hit early this year and the temperatures dropped quick. He kept me supplied with firewood and shoveled the sidewalk in front of the store. He's a good guy, I think he'll help the kids out with the property when I'm gone. Maybe I should have told him. But, he'll be okay. They all will. Life will move on, that is its way.
My boyfriend calls me to say he's made it to the parking lot. I put my phone on vibrate earlier and stuffed it into my pocket so I would feel it when he called, and not have to dig in my purse, or disturb the quiet, yet expectant mood that had settled in my dad's room.
I ride down the elevator and he's in the entryway waiting. I smile at the sight of his familiar face. He looks at me as if it hurts him to see me hurting, and says, “Come here.”
I wipe a tear and disappear for a moment enveloped in his arms.
“Okay”, I take a deep breath, “Let's go up.”
When we get to the room, I introduce my boyfriend to those he hasn't met, and go to hold my dad's hand again. I start talking about memories of our walks to school and playing marbles on the carpet in the living room. Though it appears I'm the one holding his hand up off the bed, I swear as I speak, his fingers flutter and he reaches out for me just slightly. His breath deepens, as if with emotion, and head seems to lean a bit more in my direction. Though his eyes are closed, and he can't reply with words, I sense he can hear what I'm saying. Maybe it's what we tell ourselves, what we need to believe, but in this moment, it is truly what I feel.
My boyfriend and I step out into the hallway.
"You really don't have to,” I tell him.
“No, I want to,” he tells me, “it's the least I can do.”
I stand on my tiptoes to put my arms around his shoulders and we kiss before he goes to pick up lunch for my family.
It's a strange, sort of overwhelming feeling, to feel lucky at a time like this.
We eat off paper plates in my dad's room. We are spread out, some of us on chairs, others standing, framing his bed. He doesn't join us, but he's a part of our group, the focal point, and the reason we are all here sharing this meal.
The nurses have provided coffee, tea and cookies for all of us as well. I know it's all part of a routine; they've shared this pivotal moment with so many families before, and are used to it. After their shift, they go home to their own partners, children, or pets, and I imagine, even through exhaustion, feel a sense of gratitude for their health and a special insight into how temporary our time together with those we love really is. We've only seen my dad's doctor once, but the nurses have been unobtrusively coming in and out to check on him, always calling him by name and explaining what they were going to do, as he lays there unable to nod in agreement or even acknowledgment. I'm thankful there are people willing to dedicate themselves to this kind of work, I know I couldn't do it.
After we eat, my brother and I go out to talk in the hallway. We're in it together, but I'm the big sister here. I ask him what he thinks. I don't think he really wants to do it. I don't want to, but I've become hastily convinced that there aren't really any alternatives, especially that wouldn't involve more pain for our dad. I'm not really allowing myself to fully grasp the effect of what a few simple words to some medical professionals, to strangers, will have. I typically hate making decisions and prefer to leave all my possibilities wildly open-ended so I don't feel trapped, but this choice will be final and unchangeable.
At the moment though, in this sterile, white, florescent corridor, it seems like the only option.
We agree, and it's done.
We go back to his room to inform the hospice nurse.
Click. Off. Someone has removed the tubes from my nose and mouth. My body's functions are no longer being monitored. I think I will be released from my shell soon. These shells we live in, year after year, seem indestructible, until they aren't. I always hated my chin. I can't remember seeing my face without its protective beard since before it was wrinkled.
My kids have never seen me without it.
When I go, will my youth be restored? I don't know if I deserve it, but I've been talking to God, a lot, and the pastor who came in to see me, prayed over me and told me to go in peace, to a place where there will be no more pain, no more suffering. To me, it sounds like relief.
My daughter is telling me it's okay, I can go. She loves me and she'll be okay. Everything will work out, I don't have to worry. No more pain. I can let go. Soon. Soon, I think I won't have a choice.
A nurse came in and unhooked him. It will happen any time now. His breathing has slowed considerably, which is relieving to me in some ways. He looks now like he's sleeping, instead of gasping for air to sustain his body. I'm watching his chest intently, holding my breath unconsciously as he appears to hold his. When his chest rises after progressively longer moments of stillness, I know he is still in the room.
For the most part, we are all quiet. I'm standing at the foot of his bed, warm tears silently, gently, streaking down my cheeks, acutely aware that I am about to experience something that will alter my world forever. It's like a feeling of anticipation. Is this normal? Do I want it to happen sooner, rather than later, so I can begin the process of dealing with it? Always in my head, always analyzing what I'm feeling and why I'm feeling it, and what it means, even as my dad is dying in front of me. I did this after I found out he was sick too. Passively disgusted by my self-absorption, I shelve thinking about it until later.
I really am sorry for the critical way I've looked at him, and his choices as I've gotten older. I haven't always given him the same understanding I would want others to give me. Once, when I'd called him on his birthday from South Korea, where I was spending a year teaching English, he told me he was worried I was too much like him. I am pretty sure he was stoned, but his point was valid. We both have a tendency to wrap ourselves in otherness and distance ourselves from relating to the general population. It comforts us, to a degree, to feel as if we don't belong.
Not much time left now, on this earth, in the company of these people, who have loved me despite my selfishness and poor choices. At times it has been a lonely road, perhaps self-imposed. I always felt different than other people, like I understood something they didn't. From the outside, I may have looked like the strange one, the book collector on the corner with my array of knick-knacks piled up from decades of acquisition. I was approached countless times by developers hoping to eat up my building and land to build their modern condos, but I refused, even with the city constantly trying to cite me for some zoning violation or another. They wanted to push me out, but letting go of my shelter, my space, was never an option for me. And my stuff, so much stuff, three floors of boxes, drawers and cabinets overflowing with, well, mostly junk. Some hidden treasures, and a lot of memories, but if I'm honest, a lot of it could have been tossed years ago. I'd wanted so badly to clean it up for my babies, not to leave them with such a burden, but it isn't going to happen that way. These last months I've been so tired, just so tired. Days passed when I couldn't open the store and I just sat in my chair, smoking to dull the aches.
The highlight of those days being a call from my girl or boy and hearing how they were doing. My son and I would talk about his work at the Chicago start-up he just joined, and the deals he was going to make for them. My daughter would ask if I'd been drinking my smoothies, and tell me to meditate, everyday, to just sit there and focus inward on the cancer, telling it to shrink, to go away. I think she really thought it might work, none of us were ready to accept the finality of the situation just yet.
I'm still holding my breath, just waiting.
“I love you, dad. You can go,” I repeat.
I don't know if I'm ready, but he appears to be. His collection of years, here, is coming to an end. My first time experiencing someone dying. Passing, passing on to whatever is next. Leaving the casing of the body, the body we inherit out of an infinite number of possible bodies.
His skin already looks less alive to me. His spirit appears to be departing, taking the blush of his cheeks with him. He's going softly and quietly, leaving us alone, gathered together in the hospital room he was brought to less than two days ago.
Everything has slowed to a near stop, and all outside sounds seem like they are echoing through a tunnel. I don't feel the weight I've carried around all my life anymore. Weightless. Trying to hold on to thoughts now, thoughts of who is in the room, who I'm leaving behind. But, that's becoming difficult. It is time for my next journey to begin. I've reached the culmination of six decades that started at a crawl, and sped up to a sprint before I had a chance to figure out why I was running, or what I was running to. I can't say if I accomplished all I could have, or should have, but I like to think I did it my way, and that that's what matters.
I sense, more than feel, the pressure of someone squeezing my hand.
I sense, more than hear, voices, a chorus of familiar, loving voices, telling me to let go.
I use one last burst of energy to try to squeeze the hand back, then slip away to stillness.
And then there is no more movement in his chest. No cold chill brushed my skin, but the room does feel emptier. I hear myself gasp and then automatically bury my head in my boyfriend's chest – unaware of how anyone else is reacting. No one is talking; we are all ushering in this new chapter of existence, our existence without him in it, in our own personal way.
Eventually we start to look each other in the eye, hug, talk about how it really did seem like he went peacefully.
The nurse who has been with us today, a different one than last night, but equally friendly, and with an equally Midwestern air about her, comes in to pronounce him.
“Your father's heart has stopped,” she says.
The next hour went by in a blur. Dad left no will and we hadn't talked about any funeral arrangements. We thought there was time, and none of us were the most organized of planners. Dad especially was the type to cross bridges as they came, to live day by day. Though I would have preferred to deal with logistics later, or if I had my way, not at all, pretty much as soon as he was gone we had to inform the hospital what to do with the body.
I tend to get overwhelmed by making a choice on what food to order at a restaurant, so being forced to focus on concrete arrangements for my dad's remains, before I could even process his absence, was nearly impossible.
He was in debt and no money had been set aside to cover the cost of a funeral, and neither my brother or I had virtually any savings to speak of. I was a traveler, changing jobs often and using my earnings to visit new places. I had just started a job in Minnesota two months before, and had recently paid a deposit and first month's rent on a studio. My brother wasn't too far out of college, still trying to build up his resume and also moving from job to job with some frequency also.
When the nurse came in to hand us a piece of paper with options of funeral homes in the area, all of us were still fairly quiet, clustered in my dad's room. I was leaning against my boyfriend, pressing my body into his for support, his arms around my shoulders and mine around his waist. I expressed that it was too much, too soon, and I didn't know what to do. How were we going to pay for anything?
Well aware of my tendency to shut down, freeze, and put up a wall when I wasn't ready to deal with something, he took the paper and excused himself to make some calls to inquire about costs and payment plans.
Again, it seemed like a strange time to feel lucky, but I felt a real burst of gratitude for his presence at that moment.
In the end, we went with a cremation, partly due to cost, but also maybe because the idea of planning a funeral seemed staggering.
And, it just didn't seem important, so soon, or really, to me, at all.
Right now, we needed to say our goodbyes to his physical body. That's what I was focused on.
Our memories of him, our thoughts, our perceptions of his life, his meaning, would be his memorial.
The last reciprocated conversation I had with my dad was the call on New Year's Eve, about a week before he died. When Angela had called to tell me he was going to the hospital, that he was weak, that something was wrong, she had tried to give him the phone to talk to me, but all I heard from him was “No, no, no.”
I don't blame him; I can't imagine how weary he must have been in that moment. If I had known it was the last time I'd hear him speaking, I might have told her to put him on anyway, so I could tell him I loved him, that it was going to be okay. That I was sorry for not being more present. Sorry for always viewing him through the lens of my experiences, and not always empathizing with his.
Instead, I didn't push it. I let my own weariness take over and invite in sleep.
They always say we should talk to the unconscious, talk to the dying. They can hear you. They are listening, even though they can't show you.
I think I always believed this to some extent, but after experiencing it in my dad's hospital room, I truly believe (maybe because I need to, or maybe because it's true) that he could hear me. That he could feel my hand in his.
After we'd given the hospital the information about the cremation arrangements, it was time for us to leave him. He'd already left the form of his body, and from now on, would exist as a part of us. As energy, as memory, as a continuous presence, not always at the forefront of consciousness, but always there.
I was the first to ask if everyone could leave the room, because I wanted some time alone with him. I wasn't scared; I just wanted to connect with him, his physical representation, one last time.
He deserved it, and I needed it.
Exactly what I said isn't important, and I can't remember my specific phrasing. Odd, considering my tendency to dwell on conversations and specific words long after they've been said.
I hugged his still body, I brushed his hair off his face, still long even after months of treatment, I kissed his forehead.
I told him he was loved. I told him I was sorry I had been a distant daughter at times. I told him he'd be with me. I told him I'd be okay. I told him I respected him, even if I didn't always show it. I told him I was glad he wouldn't have to feel more pain.
I didn't let go, but I said goodbye.
On the one month anniversary of my dad's passing, I was at my boyfriend's to play some board games and watch a movie. We went out for Indian food and came home early. I had been finding it difficult to be social; it seemed to take so much energy. We were spending a lot of time at his place, or mine.
It hadn't actually occurred to me until dinner that a month had passed. I had been busy with work, setting up my new place, and trying to establish a routine, now that I was back in America, in a relationship, and life as an expat seemed like a dream with all that had happened and changed in a few short months.
When I moved into my studio, I left a few of my dad's candles behind at his place, as it didn't seem important to move them, and I was still staying there a few nights a week. We had put one on the mantel of his fireplace at Christmas, and hadn't lit or moved it since. It was a tall creamy white cylinder with what looked like red and green windowpanes. My dad called them windows because as the wax melted down the light glowed through like illuminated stained-glass.
“We should light it tonight, it will kind of be like he's here,” I said. “Maybe he will sense we are thinking about him.”
He agreed and we put it in between the set-up of our game pieces and glasses of wine.
It was fairly dark when I lit the candle with a BIC lighter someone had left laying on the table.
The instant glow from the flame made the cold room feel warmer.