Feeling less-than-accomplished yesterday, I looked up sunset time and determined I could summit Echo Mountain in about 45 minutes to enjoy some last light. Something in the air motivated me. And I needed an arbitrary goal. It’s also good to clean the arteries and clear the thoughts.
This being born will go two ways.
You were halfway through when I arose,
and now I’m at the point where you decline
to say if the meal is any good,
the way a baby passes up some pea puree.
Tonight I’ll pat the fat with Sichuan
and salt and time the slab with silent nurturing.
I will try to paint your tongue with something bright,
with extra haleb, and I will chop to little chunks
so that your teeth can rake the pink and grease,
and later I will guard your ash with a poem you wrote
when your final child fell into your lap.
“Timothy,” with a colored tone betraying Parkinson’s flat gray,
“You have strange taste”—and now I know
those are the fraternal twins in your back crying out
in the neonatal ward of the body.
I will remember how you always loved my cooking,
said I should open up a restaurant,
that you’d be the funder had you the money.
I will know that something inside you is shutting off the lights,
room by room, slow among diseases,
to let us slip in for a quick visitation.
Here between red wine and last stories,
we swirl the great bardo.
In that between, my only meal
is thank you, thank you, thank you
as you go out, & I—
I’ll hold down the fort.
Right now, just now, I first imagined you,
friend for six days, or twenty years.
You came into being just this moment.
Fall into the heartbeat first heard,
and wake into the smelling salts of love.
Hold your gaze to the curling fingers—
they vine through lattices;
they window for a world
you are blind to,
where your smile is born.
Right now you came into being.
Sui generis grandfather I’ve never seen.
Out-of-nowhere mother. And on and on.
Just now, my once-dead father is seven
and on his second cup of tea.
He sprung from my crown
fully formed, my
strange boy coming home to me.
(c) Timothy Tiernan, April 19, 2017
One of the most famous quotations from Thoreau goes: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” In this way, I went to Montaña de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo because I wanted to escape Los Angeles deliberately, to carry to my hike-in environmental site the nonperishable basics, and to break from/break up the inertia* at my work and relationships back home. And so I was fortunate enough to reserve a spot away from the other campsites, even during Labor Day weekend. I supposed that no one really wanted to have to hike to their campsite. To me, the thought of doing this alone, and away from others, yet close to the beach, sounded perfect.
And while it’s easy for an introvert like me to romanticize “alone time” to a degree that merely stirs the cauldron of isolation, I know myself well enough that alone time in nature means confronting countless irrational fears, followed by a deep appreciation for life by morning. The woods are terrifyingly useful to my soul. The critters of those hills would make my heart pound. And so I brought earplugs. Blessed, blessed earplugs.
Settling to the Site
To back up a bit: Driving through Los Osos into the park was a lovely, peaceful journey. I found that I couldn’t type this place as I might a wealthier hippie coastal town like Encinitas, CA. It felt “just as it is,” unshowy, real, eucalyptus-laden. Something about the roads were wavy-soft like the bluffs I’d soon enjoy at sunset near Spooners Cove.** (If you do nothing else out here, try to make it to this cove in the early morning. And if you’ve the upper body strength, hoist yourself onto the main rock slab and enjoy the private beach on top, complete with a cozy cave.)
Once I parked at Camp Keep (Kern Environmental Education Program), I backpacked in my tent and goods up a route that passes Keep’s lovely geodesic tent dome, a garden, several bungalows, and a shiny yellow school bus. One veers left from there and up a wash, eventually arriving at one of the two campsites on the left off Bloody Nose Trail, which couldn’t have been more than 1/4 mile from the designated parking. My site was the further one.
Once settled, out of a perhaps inordinate fear of mountain lions, I then pissed at the boundary of my site near the trail to mark the area. (This was something I saw Bear Grylls do on his show Man Versus Wild, but he had good cause in his case. I was just relieving my fears and hopefully some useful testosterone.) I then walked down to the car to explore Spooners Cove and walk the bluffs for a couple miles.
I enjoy nature in part because nature doesn’t give one flying squirrel fuck about me. It delivers a robust indifference and clean air. The only real danger out here would be a dusk or dawn hike alone, as a puma could maybe pounce at such a time. Doubtful, but a great reason for a paranoid like me to sleep in. Anyway, back home the danger was that I was in an emotional rut; I wasn’t writing, creating. I was in a relationship that was doomed to end soon due to her circumstances. Work itself was a great albatross around my neck. I was immersed in compulsive behavior. That’s enough to list.
To Live Alone
As I relaxed with sundown, I thought to myself, “What the hell did I do this for?” I may have even mumbled this. The loneliness had voiced itself. There was this sense that I had sucker-punched myself into solitude with a half-baked camping plan. I reflected on Nietzsche reflecting on Aristotle: “To live alone one must be either a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both – a philosopher.” I felt less of a philosopher than an awkward beast, but one that was cognizant and culpable for being alone. And then I found myself curious why I thought myself “culpable.” There’s a kind of self-blame inherent to loneliness. And I hadn’t yet let go of my chatty narratives to immerse myself in solitude.
As the sun dropped further, I began to relax into the bird calls. I imagined them like orchestral members doing their sound checks. Two woodwinds, and a percussionist that issued the ribbed sound of a zydeco washboard. When the avian ensemble wound down, the headlining crickets were on stage by 8:00 p.m. My plantar faciitis was lit up from the bluffs hike.
And soon the waves in the distance grew louder as the cars became infrequent. The waves seemed to increase in power, and the crickets chirped powerfully in a way that a city cannot hear (and just as a city cannot see the depths of the Milky Way). I looked above and felt a protective love – the eucalyptus trees reaching toward each other concentrically, leaving enough room for sky, me. In my head I said, “I heard on Radiolab how you guys network and communicate.” Immediately, I felt the response, “Of course we speak to each other.”
Meditating in Darkness
It was tent time as the darkness blanketed. And within minutes of shutting things off, the critters were ready to rummage. One raccoon, I presume, was at my bag on the picnic table, and seemed to check for 30 minutes to make sure the empty water bottles truly didn’t have anything yummy. I had knotted the tasty goods in the locker by the table; the creatures didn’t seem to even try to deal with that. There was something slightly amusing about the intricate, relaxed search of that raccoon, and I found myself calming my breathing, even smiling, as my ears were fixated on every cracked leaf and puttering animal. It was the human-like steps in the woods to the left of my tent that forced me to do the real existential meditation: If it’s a human, that human could be a murderer, in which case you’re dead. It’s likely not a human or human murderer, so it’s likely another raccoon or three. A mountain lion would prefer to stalk you, so it’s likely not that. There are no bears, and you have no decent food scent in the tent, so you will live. Most likely.
Such went the cognitive therapy coaching, which gave me a “very likely going to live” prognosis. It was the calmest that a neurotic mind was gonna get. Also, it was at this point that the earplugs definitely helped. And somehow I slept pretty well, and slept ’til 7:00 a.m. Then I packed up everything and hiked out, threw it all in the car, and made it to Spooners to enjoy the cove, having it nearly all to myself. Brewed some coffee with my propane burner by my car, and sipped as I walked along to that calcified slab in the waves.
It had been the first solo trip–ever? in a long time?–where my emotional chemistry wasn’t composed mostly of loneliness. Sure, that narrative came up, but I let the voice of immersion and nature speak louder. I had felt, in fact, protected and with a surrounding that was largely friendly, if happily “indifferent.” I had felt that I had provided myself enough deliberate space to write, and read, and relax.
I had found that I would not second-guess the richness of my inner life.
Two summers ago I spray-painted a quotation from Nikki Giovanni’s poem “For Saundra”: “Perhaps these are not poetic times at all.” The white letters and purple background cover an image of a Buddha in a golden temple (you can see the gold come through the “et”). I had felt some guilt for spraying over religious iconography, but the life-affirming quote meant a lot to me, so I pursued it.
Giovanni’s poem represents to me that even in our darkest moments, art arises. (The powerful irony is that a poem is formed from what is “not poetic.”) I nearly spray-painted the Samuel Beckett quotation, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” I have for six months tried to write about my father’s death and I keep failing at it. When I publish this, I’ll consider that I simply failed better. And as my grief has “only begun to evolve,” as a mentor told me, let this article be some small stage of grief’s evolution.
I had written another essay about my father. But a good friend read it and rightly asked me, “Who are you writing about, you or your father?” And it stumped me. It had been too much about me. And here I am doing it again. But I guess I’m also here to question the idea of who “I” am and “you” are, and most important, who my dad was—is. And I feel I need to write this because I did not have an opportunity to eulogize him.
I expressed to my brother Kevin this regret of not eulogizing my father. “Eulogies are more often about those who deliver them,” he reassured rightly. That helped my heart with a broad stroke of comfort. But it’s not entirely true. Besides, what’s wrong with eulogizing for the sake of the survivors? We are made up of those who passed before us—their behavior, genes, and memes (as in any idea, behavior or trend that passes person to person), even memories, according to a 2013 epigenetics study that concluded that mice inherit the memories of their parents. Why not punctuate the lives of the dead with ceremony and summary? What I am lacking about my father is a summary.
How to speak of
But a summary is impossible, likely inauthentic. So I’ll jump into an anecdote that captures him in a flash of personality, captures everything I love about this man. In my dad’s later years we connected through literature, poetry especially. It was some time in 2003, while I was going through a rough breakup with my college girlfriend, that I called my parents from Houston, where I was living at the time, to tell them about the situation, and that I was moving home to Cali. They listened. Mom consoled, asked when I was returning.
Dad asked me, “Are you writing?”
You had to hear how he said it. There was more I love you in that statement than in umpteen “I love you’s” spoken sincerely. It was like “Please take care of yourself,” and “Are you taking care of yourself?” in three words. He knew that writing was what healed me. There was a softness in his question. And it was that kind of respect from my father that I could only repay in thank-you’s later.
The night of
On Saturday, January 23, 2016, I drove down from L.A., arriving about 4:00 p.m. The sound of the hydraulic hospice bed and his comatose breathing immediately turned my stomach with what was imminent. Hours later, at his side, his hand in mine, I thought how lucky it was to have him at home.
I brought my Bluetooth speaker, because the last time I was down there to take care of him, he enjoyed the music coming from the hallway. I texted my brother: “What music does dad like?” I was embarrassed I didn’t know. He texted, “Standards,” and so Duke Ellington was the first on the Spotify radio. We cannot know what the comatose experience, but apparently the hearing is the last of the senses to go. In being at his bedside and holding his hand, I felt as if I were a tether that held a ship to shore; that by holding his hand, he could untether and drift as needed. It felt as if he were entering some psychedelic trip and I was his watcher.
He was dying from kidney failure (coupled with Parkinson’s) at the age of 83, a relatively humane way to go, as the body’s systems gradually shut down and death is paced out. Lorazepam helps hush the anxiety and morphine quiets the pain. His final breath was about 8:20 p.m. My mom held his head as I held his hand. We remained there as if he were still with us, until our eyes met and we confirmed it was over.
Then we prayed over him as a light, misty rain began. I’d never before so purely needed prayer. It was like a metaphysical quenching.
I tried writing about my father in his later years, for decades really. Most of it in poetry. Fragmented frustrations best framed in lazy verse. I wrote to crack the code of him. I realized much later that that code was not something to decipher but a mystery to embrace. By the time I was with him in the final months, it was a gift I was honored to be graced with. I knew well enough that being present was enough. I could simply hold his hand, not try to get to any “right” words. I think I’d had that peace with him for several years. Besides, this great event was his; I was an attendant.
As he was there on the hospice bed, I was also thankful for the amazing care he had received: a lavender massage from a hospice worker just days earlier, incredible social workers and nurses, most of all my mother’s care for years. It must have been around 6 o’clock that I was whispering “thank you’s” to him, occasionally citing memories, and trying to deliver all this without any audible crying.
The next day, my brother Patrick flew in from Boston. At dinner, he quoted the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say is thank you, that would be enough.” Nothing prompted him to say this to me; I hadn’t told him that that was my mantra the evening before. I got teary-eyed and looked straight into his eyes. In them I was trying to see what strange strings of the universe tied those words to me and to him. I knew my thank-you’s were enough, but the quote itself was welcomed reassurance that everything would be okay.
Another old man
Four months later, the day after Father’s Day, it’s 108 degrees across Los Angeles County, and I’m going out to an Argentine restaurant to meet a friend when I see an Asian man shuffle to a spot of shade under a magnolia tree. He slowly slides his butt down the fence. As I pass by him, I can’t tell if this is his usual routing or if he’s in trouble with the heat. A temperature like this impels me to check in on him.
“You good?” I ask.
He seems confused, responds in Korean. He looks up at me, shaky as if with Parkinson’s, and opens his wallet packed with cash, and pulls a slip of paper with a phone number, then another written in Korean, then another. He’s almost baffled by what he finds, the way a child is fascinated by phalanges, and I notice the short-sleeved, plaid shirt comes with a pack of Marborough’s in his left pocket. For some reason I find the pack charming. He’s my father’s age.
“Where do you live?” I thought that was a good question.
He points across the street.
At some point he gestures to me as if to push me along and lips “Okay,” so I move along, feeling this sense of slight contempt for him because I cannot seem to help him—maybe there is no help to give. And my contempt is coupled with twice as much guilt for feeling contempt. I swing into a local hip eatery—everything is hip off this part of Melrose. I pour a cup of mint-infused water and head back to him, still in the shade, now with a cig in his lips. I place the water and say “Take care,” and he delivers this immediate, robust “Thank you,” which relieves me.
Then I’m off to a dinner laden with meat and garlicky grease and chimichurri. My friend Steph arrives, and somewhere the conversation turns to how difficult Father’s Day was, how I slept in until noon and never left the house. Barely ate. Perversely enjoyed feeling famished.
“How was your father before he got sick?” she asks.
I choke up and shake my head. I don’t want to talk about it.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to have a subject too hard to voice, and to respect those boundaries. But also to consider how to hop the fence of what is perhaps temporarily taboo. Depression and anxiety, for example, seem to run in my family. And a charming sensitivity that drives us to music, poetry, humor, serious shower singing. Also, I find I can use this choked-up moment as a way to speak about what brings both my dad and joy into same picture. So I skip to the stories that make me smile.
So I skip to the stories that make me smile
I tell Steph about Eckart and my brother, how I swear Patrick was like a messenger from God—and I’m an atheist. I work my way backward in the narrative, a litany of memories. The part I don’t speak about are the early memories of scent and sensation. I go back in time with dad: Hugging me as he showed me how to put on a tie in high school, rescuing my cat 20 feet up a eucalyptus tree before I was headed to an eighth grade dance (and before the fire department arrived), playing catch in the backyard before dinner. Lifting me up from the tub as a toddler—how he swung me about like I was on a roller coaster.
How I last changed his socks before he went to bed one evening, massaging a lotion into his chaffed feet, thinking to myself how this was an opportunity for touch, and how it could be the last. How I tucked the quilt in under his arms and legs—because he insisted on being tucked in during his last year.
How he said, “Timothy, you’re a champ.”