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.”