June 29, 2015

Notes on the death of my father

Most of us live as though our lives were permanent.  They are not.  We are really only here for a brief stay, which we can extend only a little by our actions.  Our stay is subject to cancellation at any time.  The door opens and we are born.  The sun shines warmly on our faces.  We stand in the light, or in the shadow.  We make the most, or the least, of our stay here – but either way the final day approaches, quietly, unseen.  The door closes behind us and is locked forever by disinterested hands.
When I was a child my father answered almost every question I could ask.  He seemed to know everything that anybody could know.  I owe him much.  He taught me how to think, how to question, and how to listen.  He was as steady and predictable as the sun.  Five days a week he worked, and many evenings.  Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, he spent with the family.  Sometimes we went to a shopping mall.  Sometimes we went to a museum.  And such was the routine – more-or-less, week in, week out.  Year after year.  When you’re young, of course, the days are long and rich; the seasons are epochs; the years – eternities.  But time deceives us.  To the child, life is a long, slow, circus parade – mixing the familiar with the new, the comfortable with the terrifying.  But always, father held fast to his comfortable routine.  If my life was a parade, it was he who beat the quiet cadence.  He was not a great man as the world saw him, but he was an intelligent and purposeful one.  Kind but distant.  Patient but dark.  But the calendar pages turned.  I grew up – and he grew old.  Aging is the most predictable of all surprises.
What am I now but a fleeting disturbance on the surface of events that aren’t worth mentioning?  A human being – scratching out words as the current of days and relevance erases them.  Anonymous, one lost among lost millions, all plodding unthinkingly, inevitably, toward our own final moments – all alone, amid the days, the small talk, and the innumerable obligations – all infinitely, unspeakably alone.  Dust we are indeed.  We rise from nothing and return to nothing.
My father ebbs from the world I know.  He lies in an unfamiliar nursing home bed, pestered by well-intentioned nurses who do not grasp his sense of humor.  He is a curious wreck on an empty beach.  The seagulls do not know what to make of him.  He has grown tired of the sea and will not be moved again.  He shuns his food.  Little by little, the unforgiving logic of starvation breaks down his flesh.  The forms of the bones are made visible under the muscle.  The skull looks out from under his face.  To lift an arm is a kind of work now – his working life long done.  His words chase after his thoughts but don’t always catch them.  He dies in front of me, slowly, visit by visit, as though he were unraveling his days one sentence at a time.  I try, when I remember to, to avoid self-pity and pay attention – even as the conversation slowly loses its coherence.  When I ask, not for an answer, but simply for the reassurance of a response.
I now have my own answers to almost every question I could ask.  Almost.  But almost no one asks me questions.  I live alternately in light and shadow – but I fear the dark.  The current of days and relevance erases my footsteps also – as rapidly as I make them.  Yet I must learn to walk with grace regardless, even if no one in the universe sees.  Especially – if no one sees.
Even the circus parade has a beginning and an end.  It begins with a clown.  And it ends with a clown.  It is crass.  It is beautiful.  It is what you make it, one illusion to the next.
The eyes ease open.  His last lights have retreated there.  Where the mouth fails, breathing out almost silent words that smell of gathering decay, his eyes still peer at me from the bottom of their wells.  They still say much.  They ask much – all of it beyond my means.  How does one answer the enormous question put so eloquently by those eyes?  The old skin pulls them closed, for now, though they remain alive and questioning – underneath.  The breath rises and falls, not by will, but by mere habit.  How can I merely promise to return tomorrow when I know that his tomorrows are in short supply?  And yet I promise, merely.  The clock ticks off the seconds and the days.
What he may experience in my absence I don’t know.  Does the room grow dim?  Is it suffused with light?  Do stars swirl above him like the sky in Van Gogh’s painting?  The wreck lies on the beach in the moonlight.  The sand and sea wear holes in its paint; rust spreads stealthily across the skin and the bones of the broken hull.  Nature takes apart what man has made – wave by wave, and day by day.  When I am visible to him, do I pass overhead, as steady and predictable as the son?  Or am I a ghost from another world?  His memory still grasps at me with the strength of desperation.  His hand grips mine with unexpected strength.  Does he not know that I too am helpless?  I have nothing to say, except – “I’ll be back.”  Pushed about by the tide – he rots uncomfortably and sleeps.
I make the long drive to and from the home.  Day after day.  The green corn, dark under the rain – the sky, a suffocating blanket of grey cloud.  The cadence of the windshield wipers, hypnotic, coaxing me towards sleep.  But I cannot sleep.  The parade is not yet done.
Today his words are gone.  He thrashes like a fish left in a tide pool.  Restless, no more in contact with the world – and yet stubbornly, wretchedly still in it – until the medication pulls him under, down, down, down, leaving only the breath behind – a sigh more like the wind than like the psyche of a man.
I might as well be a ghost.  I sit in the darkened room.  I wait for awhile, then, like the tides of breath, I go.
Human beings are not the best of creatures, but it is not for want of trying.  We stand before the insults of nature, clothed mainly in lies – defiant in the face of unthinkable infinities, shaking and scared beneath the skin.  Life and death are impersonal – that is really what is frightening about them.  There is no wrath to be placated in heaven – nor is there any pity there to answer our appeals.  The grand machinery of the cosmos holds us fast in our appointed places and appointed times.  The wheel turns – beautifully and horribly.  We live.  We die.
Amid the glare of pain and the haze of opiate comfort, he has stumbled upon a word perched by itself in a gentle patch of sunlight.  He reaches down to pick it up with trembling fingers, pinching the wings together carefully to protect their powdery surfaces.  Having made his capture he looks skyward, waiting for someone to release the word to.  Anyone.  Anyone.  A face looms out of the fog.  The astonished word flutters upward – but he does not know what it means anymore.
“Yes!”  “Yes!”  His dry voice tries to shout.  The nurse looks at me for an answer, but I know nothing.  A skyrocket has leapt expectantly upward, only to arc to earth again – a dud.  The eyes close quietly, alone – infinitely, unspeakably alone.  In such a moment the entire universe seems to weep – but only seems.  In truth, it doesn’t notice.  A breath or two, and this also is forgotten.
The tan face of the nurse now hovers above him like the moon.  The strength of its pull draws from his dry lips a dry smile.  The smile is reflected.  The moon tells sweet and pretty lies.  Whether or not he knows that they are lies – I cannot tell.  If he believes – who am I to correct him, and for what purpose?
Even the eyes grow dull near the end.  They look at nothing.  Unearthly guttural sounds exit the aperture that was once his mouth.  He is, himself, like a portal into another world.  I speak to him, but largely for the benefit of the hospice nurse.  And yet I do not know for sure.  Is he there – or has he gone?  If he has gone – where is he?  The only things I say now are “I am here” and “I’ll be back.”  I tick like the clock on the wall, saying little more than it does.  All is calm, apart from the quiet agony of the minutes going by.  I am pulled back by the world to return another day.
In my absence, the last moment comes.  The door closes.  I miss the actual event by 20 minutes, speeding to get there, the last clown running after the parade – useless, but inevitable.  The first clown comes with a raucous laugh, the final one – brings solemn pathos.  Nighttime.  Darkness.  The crickets chirp.  My brother-in-law and a nurse I haven’t seen say the appropriate things to me and one another.  The last remnants of the wreck lies still, eyes closed, without a man inside.  Disinterested dark hands wash the empty vessel clean.
Most of us live as though our lives were permanent.  They are not.