The First Anniversary of My Father’s Death

fullsizeoutput_ef24

“She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?” ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The first anniversary of my father’s death is in three weeks, January 14, 2018.

As a kid, I thought about death a lot. I would get that electric panic that the self sends jolting through the body when it contemplates its extinction. I would jump up and down or turn on the television to block out the dread. I was fifteen when I read the passage in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess contemplates the date of her own death, “a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year.”

It stuck with me.

Every January, when I fill my planner and move my hand across twelve new and unopened months to add appointments and birthdays, I think of the quote.

I thought about Tess on the drive home from the hospice center after my dad died. It was a freezing Maine winter night, so cold that the snow squeaked when we walked outside with my dad’s body to the hearse.

The date of my father’s death had been revealed.

My dad had a handful of touch stone stories that he repeated often. One of his favorites was about how he spent his senior year at boarding school consumed with planning a post graduation, venomous diatribe against one particular teacher. Instead of a cathartic explosive finale, the story ended with a sigh and a tilt of his head.

“It all didn’t matter in the end,” my father concluded, “I crossed the stage, was handed my diploma, and it was over. Just like that. I shook his hand and left the campus.”

The story seemed silly to me when I was a complaining teenager, a waste of rage.

For much of our adult lives, my dad and I overtly and covertly struggled against each other. I visited several times during his slide into dementia, hoping for a neat closure that would finally make everything better between us – a moment that would erase a lifetime of scratchy discomfort.

During my last visit, I apologized for being a difficult teenager and thanked him for how much he sacrificed for our family. I told him that he had done a good job and that his efforts mattered to my mother, brother, and me. He looked surprised and then softer. He turned to my mom and asked, “Did you hear that? That’s really something. I did a good job.”

The exchange held for longer than most conversations but it was soon lost to his disease. Unlike my fantasy, it did not dissolve all the hard feelings that passed between us. Later the same day he looked at me with a familiar annoyed expression and I felt frustrated when he became argumentative in the evening.

Our dance continued.

By the time I arrived at the hospice, my dad was already unresponsive and we would never have another conversation. My mother and I were on either side of my dad when his chest jumped and his face tightened with his final breath. He fell back and suddenly looked younger, at peace.

On the first night when I returned home to Austin I dreamt that I was running through my parents’ house. It was ravaged by termites and about to fall down. I saw my father standing across the street in a park. He looked like he did in a picture that was taken with his best man a couple of days before he and my mom married. In my dream my dad was twenty-five, slender and handsome, wearing a madras shirt and pressed kakis. I told him that he had to leave the house immediately, that he and mom were in danger.

He smiled the most loving smile I had ever seen directed at me and said, “I already left, everything is ok.”

I bolted up. It was as real of a moment as any in a wakeful state. It was then that I knew exactly what my father’s high school story meant and the scratchy discomfort was gone.

 

 

Eat Your Pie

img_2158

During the past two weeks since I watched my father take his last breath, I have been powered by the frantic metronome beat of Live-Now-Faster. I have thrown myself back into work, political outrage, my daughters’ gymnastics and dance competitions, and tying up the loose ends of our year-long house repair project.

But when I wake at 4:30am to start my day, it’s then, in the quiet morning peace, that I think about the pie.

In the hospice where my father spent his last twelve days on earth, the kitchen is partitioned off from the vistors’ common room in a similar fashion to restaurants where diners can sit and watch food being prepared. Although sequestered in his own space, anyone can observe the cook go about his tasks of making meals for the patients who are still eating, and the homemade cookies for visitors.

He is a tall, sturdy man but has a gentle, Downeast Maine quietness and does not readily make eye contact or engage in small talk. As I make my mother’s tea, I covertly take note of how he is carefully wrapping pieces of pumpkin pie on plastic cafeteria plates.

A hospice volunteer pushes open the swinging half-door that separates the visitors’ area and the kitchen and stands next to the cook. She comments that he doesn’t usually make pumpkin pie. He tells her that room 107 wants to eat only pumpkin pie, as he wraps the last piece.

There are six pieces of pie on the table.

How many times did the man or woman in 107 say no to a piece of pie because of some unfounded fear that eclipsed their freedom to enjoy tasting the sweet, nutmeg earthiness of a favorite dessert?  How many times did some regimen for self-improvement gobble up the thrill of being alive?

As you can imagine, sitting at my father’s bedside for six days gave me an uncommonly long pause to think. I saw my father’s face soften as the emotions of a lifetime left his body. He grew oddly young, like a blank state. Our choices shape and contort the body. Every time we betray our finest impulses we deform ourselves, both inside and out.

I want to let go of the maddening monkey-mind chatter that convinces me that I must be better, that I must do more.

None of us are extraordinary. I felt that with certainty as I watched the soft animal body of my father struggle to live and then stop. All that my father accomplished vanished into the nothingness of the past on every labored exhale. In the end, our legacy is measured by how our presence makes others feel, and how freely we are able to love and let go.

Although my dad died at 8:45 in the evening, it’s the cold, steel gray day that came before that is my reference point of time and place. That morning, I had been thinking of Miami and its hustle, warm white sand, blue raspberry water, and old men in tee-shirts, sitting on stoops, holding small dogs, loving their breathing, heart-beating lives.

Eat your pie.

We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time. When we hesitate in being direct, we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.It’s like wearing gloves every time we touch something, and then, forgetting we chose to put them on, we complain that nothing feels quite real. Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold and the car handle feels wet and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being, soft and unrepeatable.

― Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

I took the photography from my parents’ kitchen window, at Goose Rocks Beach, Maine, on the morning of the day that my father died – January, 14, 2017.