Wednesday, February 18, 2015


I emailed a voice mail message to myself at home today.

"Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable. ... Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
--Douglas Adams

One week before my dad died, we got cell phones. I recall him, mom, and me in their room, programming the little sneaker-shaped things, laughing at how amazing they were, playing with ring tones and so on, commenting about their appearance.

Dad was in bed that day, and we got the phones because his disease was terminal. Mom wanted to be able to reach out instantly in case of emergency.

We had no idea we had so little time left.

Long after he died, I read somewhere about the Columbia shuttle disaster, and was shocked and perplexed; I had no recollection of this event, and this is not the sort of event one easily misses. It had happened the day I was over at the house, playing with the phones. It’s entirely possible – even quite likely – that we were watching news of it that day. If I claimed to remember, I’d be convincing myself though.

An event I cannot erase, unfortunately, was the epochal broadcast of the Michael Jackson interview with Martin Bashir. This aired the night before he died – and after we did know.

Dad went to the hospital on a Friday afternoon, or perhaps it was morning. I went upstairs to my boss’s boss’s office, a still and stately area of our building, and interrupted a meeting between them. Anything my own boss said was blotted out by her boss, a man I still respect, admire, and am immensely grateful to to this day. He all but insisted upon getting me a car to the hospital. But I drove. I needed that time in the empty space of the cab of my beloved, first car. I needed to have it and the freedom of movement it brought with it, and I had the strangest fear of leaving it, like my purse, at my office – and then what, and then what, was all I could think, though I recognized how kind the offer was even as I refused. I needed the drive.

I needed somewhat less the turquoise Honda or Toyota with the Icthys and “GOT CHRIST” sticker on the back that cut me off on a steeply curved part of the freeway, where I spun out and ended at a standstill, facing east in the westbound lanes, and wondering (to this day, yes) whether that Christian ever knew what they’d done to me. Even just on the practical level.

The rest of the drive was safe, and the hospital was what hospitals are. Dad was in a grey cul-de-sac of the ER, it seems cluttered in my memory, but we were alone at least. Mom left us after a little while – ostensibly to eat or go get someone or talk to people or use that cell phone … but, I think, to leave us alone. Mom doesn’t always work that way, but that day, she did.

And that day, we still didn’t know.

Before she left, the three of us were talking about my boyfriend. We’d only been seeing each other a few weeks – our first date was on my parents’ anniversary, in fact – and he was coming to visit the next day. I was thirty-four, they could see I was smitten, everything was heightened with dad being in the hospital, and this was his first visit. Mr. X.

Mom wanted him to come to the hospital (we’d learned by that point they were admitting dad, they were just waiting for a room). Dad was flat against that. Not the right place. Not the right time. “Another time, Helen.” And he would not be brooked. I was to enjoy our first visit, and a little celebration which had nothing to do with hospitals.

I wasn’t anxious for any brooking myself, not least because – good gravy, what pressure to put on a new guy. I agreed to dad’s proclamation that I would follow through with celebration, and he and Mr. X would meet some other time.

The backstory here is that dad wasn’t a big one with the I Will Not Be Brooked thing. He tended to appreciate my mom’s motivations, and if he didn’t he indulged them. She wasn’t a bad planner, it worked out most of the time. But in a hospital gown and in a poor state of health – not the way he planned to meet the new boy. No. Period. Done. No anger, and no flexing of power. Just a blank absolute, baldly laid down, no more drama than that.

Then he had an attack.

When dad had an attack, he called it the dragon. Dad hated that goddamned dragon. Hated it – and, like the brooking thing: dad was not given to hatred.

He told mom to give him an Oxycodone, and she remonstrated, and he cursed that he didn’t care about prescription guidelines, he needed it and he was going to take the pill.

He took it. Mom left. And he and I sat alone, talking about Cicero and Rome and Sulla and Marius.

And then the room was ready. I seem to have left, perhaps to go home and change clothes, because I then recall coming back to the hospital, suddenly filled with family – and we knew. We knew. We knew.

I hate that goddamned dragon.

No memory of the Challenger, but memory of Martin Bashir and spitting, icy, snowy weather. Bitter stuff. Pretty only on the skylights outside dad’s window. Memory of that long-ago neighbor, of my cousin V, of getting dad into the bed. And a morphine shot.

That was the end, then – the prosaic fussings of a man transferring into a real hospital bed out of an ER one. His abject little cotton gown, socked feet. Orderly, nurse, someone giving him the morphine once he was settled. And gone. No more chance, ever again. No return. No more conversation. Breathing, still, as hideously awful as that process had become. But gone. Irretrievable.

His flesh purple and his muscles thin.

Gold wedding band *glowing* in that twilight.

And me and mom and Mojourner. Only us.

Phone calls on that silvery sneaker, at all hours, in the hallway. I must have called Mr. X, told him. He was still going to come. He was still going to come.

We talked about the plans. Nobody else was with us, it must have been so late. No television by then. Only snow, blackness and glaring hospital parking lot lights. And us. We knew – and could not imagine.

Great Xs of snow on those domed skylights. Falling, then slipping away, occluding the light in soft-edged X shapes.

Dad’s skin so soft.

Mom made us both leave. Get some sleep, she enjoined us. I think I did go to bed, because I have this memory that through much of the next day I was wearing the pants I wore to bed. Fortunately, not obviously pajamas. But yes. That exhaustion, that emotional fume, social oblivion. Living, that day, in the sacred space-time of mourning.


Talking with my best friend TEO at some bitter hour of the morning, knees up, pressed against the hallway wall, sitting on the gleaming floor.

Mom spooned him all night. He died where his heart lived; wrapped up in her.

She called us at 4:30 and we came back. It was like, and unlike, the time we spent alone with him sleeping. But he was there still.



I held his hand, and some residual electricity spasm’d, pulsed. It didn’t feel like magic. It didn’t mean anything. Even still warm. I knew this was a body. With a wedding band glowing on it.

I did not see him after that. Some did, but I held to his wish he not be … viewed. I treasure those who needed that. Some saw him after his eyes had been harvested, head bandaged, Teiresias destined for an oven, mute, and no longer my daddy. I know why they held his hand then.

I’d held his hand already. That was finished.

And then a blur, a rush, the longest day in the world. I cannot talk to you about that day. Must not, it feels like. Too many things.


Some time later, my mom handed me a Valentine’s Day card without telling me. It was from dad. Opening that almost killed me.

But there was one treasure.

Dad had left a voice mail, that day – that dark Columbia day – that day we’d all been at the family house, the day he’d been in his own bed, the day we were smiling over those nifty phones. He’d left me his voice.  “Hello (phone number)” that gruff, joyous voice of his.

He hadn’t known.

I lost that recording, long long ago.

I don’t need it. Any more than I needed to hold or see his body after it became the domain of orderlies and donations and morgues.

But I miss it.


So, today, when my mom left me a recording my email dutifully saved to a file. I sent it home.


Anonymous said...

Okay. So, I am so totally choked up. THIS:

"He died where his heart lived; wrapped up in her."


DLM said...

When he was diagnosed, he put his arms around her and said, "I feel like I've betrayed you."

My dad LOVED.