Letter from My 48th Year (Jan 16)
Four years ago at this time, my father had roughly five hours and six minutes of life yet. Of course at that moment being alive for him meant actively dying. We get so used to seeing death on TV and in the movies, the way it always happens in an instant—whether the cause is trauma or it’s some erosive disease—that it’s somewhat startling how long and orderly dying is.
The body knows exactly what to do when it needs to die: switch off consciousness and all of the voluntary functioning of the brain, ease the beating of the heart so it’s no longer sending blood to the extremities, slow the breathing of the lungs as the number of cells needing oxygen grows fewer and fewer.
If you have an experienced hospice nurse, they can estimate with some accuracy how long the dying body will remain your father, show you the signs to look for as his body moves from life to not life. You can watch his limbs grow increasingly mottled as the blood flow slackens and you can count as the number of seconds between breaths increases. It can take most of the day for your father to die, you sitting with your sister and one of your brothers on the double bed pushed against the window to make room for the single hospital bed where your father’s gaunt body lies ticking away its time, your uncles and your father’s wife also in the room.
Today, on this fourth anniversary of his death, I confess, I’m not thinking as much about my father’s death, but what might have happened had he lived. If he’d gone right up to the edge of cancer, far enough that my brother, sister, and I would still have taken our turns to help nurse him, but not so far that his body had started its relentless closing down. It is painful to imagine that possibility because I don’t know that anything about our relationship would’ve changed. It is even more painful to admit that that’s the only possibility I see, a return to the status quo.
I don’t see a revised version of the story where ,after my father beats cancer, he decides to become a loving father to me, learn the names of my friends, make more of an effort to come visit me and give advice. I don’t see him trying to map the outline of his absence in my life and doing whatever he can to mend those wounds. I do not think that this is a failure of my imagination; I think it is instead an attempt on my part to accept my father for who he was, even if that wasn’t who I needed him to be.
From one point of view, the poems that I am writing about my fathe, as I try to circumnavigate our relationship may seem unkind. He doesn’t come out as father of the year in them. But I am not writing to accuse my father. It pains me that because of what I write people will think my father was a bad man. He wasn’t. He just wasn’t a good father to me.
I am writing, instead, with the desperation of a woman panning for gold. If I just keep digging through the dreck and the muck surely I’ll find something shiny, some moment where he recognized me as his daughter with his whole heart, longed for me the way I have spent my whole life longing for him, even now when he’s so finally out of reach. If I keep looking, surely I’ll find a day he sat with me, the way he sits with me whenever he comes into my dreams, happy because I’m there with him and that is enough.