The last words I heard my father speak were Help me, over and over again. In all the rest of my life I will never reconcile this with any God I could dream of believing in.
How our chatter, and our worry, and the clink of cups and forks as we fixed ourselves plates, all went on until his breaths settled, and then all stopped and we gathered around him where the breaths came sporadically and cruelly, and each one we anticipated being his last, until at last there was a last, and we stood weeping over him while our coffee grew chill in our cups.
To be there, to have been there, to watch, to have watched it happen. As a person passes from here to there, without knowing what there is or is not, somewhere or nowhere. To be there with him until he no longer is. The words are all wrong. Tenses shift.
When I call his friend to tell them? I say my name, and he asks Big Dave or Little Dave. How could he know that his question had only one answer, and the wrong one?
Two griefs: the first, the departure of him whom we had loved, demands suspension of our normal lives. The second, the departure of those with whom we had grieved, demands resumption.
Back to work: wash and rinse, pen and page, a schedule to keep. These pretensions to normalcy, which are normalcy.
If something happens to one of us – their euphemism to explain life insurance, living wills. Years later, once we knew, my mother said when something happens. To plan who would call whom, and say what. When something happened, he lay an hour or two in the hospital bed in the living room. Two quiet men in suits covered him and carried him out of the house.
In some I say he and in some you. But all are you, and the you is not him.
I sit sometimes in the evening, when the house is quiet, and say Dad to the empty room.
You died in winter and so the whole world was your elegy. Now spring comes with its silly, joyful tune, and I cannot hear the words.
Yet what is to be said of all the days that pass without note, what is to be said of a normal life? There are too few days; there are too many.
For years I have not thought of sitting out behind the shed with my father, he on the old stump and me on the log he’d felled from it. Years even since they each began to sink into themselves, soft with rot and the long becoming something else.
My father, of course, is dead, and now I clear years of logs he’d split and stacked here, and I want to tell myself that art is more than the grief of what was and what is, that some days I am filled with joy beyond my capacity to know, so that those days, Father, I am full within myself, I am shooting forth into leaf.
I write, In this world, Father, I am what is left of you.
No. A lie. A self-aggrandizement. So much more is left behind. And less.
You would have known the name for the rude stink the rain dredges from the soil. You would have known the origins of the word. Petrichor, I can hear you say, from stone and ichor, blood of the gods. That it bleeds from dry plants into the soil and then, in a time of rain, into the air. You would have been satisfied to tell me how the heat of a day such as this rises, cools, condenses and falls. You would have known the reason why just before the storm the leaves turn their backs as if in farewell.
When they see me, they ask how my mother is doing to ask how I am doing.
You taught me the names of clouds – cumulus, status, cirrus, cumulonimbus. Equinox and solstice. The phases of the moon. None of it is any use in these long nights, awake listening to the hiss of the rain.
In line today I hear behind me an old man’s stiff, shallow breath. The same I heard in those last exhausted nights, when I kept my useless vigil at his bedside. Now I blink tears away – now? – turn to see a man older than my father ever was. I want to embrace him, but this is not my father. He is, perhaps, no man’s father, as I now am no man’s son.
A man brings his phone to his ear as he walks past: Hi, Dad. Poetry, someone has said, is the raising of a hand to say farewell.
I was thinking about those October days, that autumn light. How they were almost happy, though you were dying and we knew it; how we would talk with each other as if the world and time were not against us. Or we would sit and say nothing until the food was ready, and I brought you my mother’s oyster stew when there was nearly nothing left that you could eat. And you would say that it was good and lie down and maybe sleep a while.
This is no elegy for you or else where is your life in it? This cannot be for you; you do not need it. This is the elegy a hurt and selfish child writes for himself.
Why not say I miss my father?
I asked if you were afraid. You said yes. You said you were afraid and that you knew it would be soon and that you had wanted to be older than your father had been. And you said that you and your father never had the chance to talk like this, and that you were glad for it. You were worried that you had not been good enough, and you said that if you accept the onus of being born you have to accept the onus of dying. That this was just a depot, and not the end. I was pretending not to be crying, and all the talk had made you tired. On TV the game was still going on.
His ashes are an earthenware grey and fine as sand. The day itself is clear, brushed with a few cirrus clouds, and a waxing gibbous is already starting up the sky when I leave for the lake. I drive through the Headlands, past the house where he lived before he met my mother. I listen again to the Kingston Trio, thinking it would have made him glad, and when they sing the ‘Matador’ I can hear his voice in my head, and then I too am singing with ghosts when I walk out towards the lake.
By the time I reach the water’s edge the sun is down and the sky is all wounded twilight. I am wearing his thick wool socks. Here he would show me how far the water once ran inland, how epochs of geological time have smoothed the gouge of ice ages, worried the stones into sand. The ashes are grey and fine and stain my fingertips when I gather them. They are grit dug beneath my nails.
I bend down to the water’s edge and the waves cover my hands to the wrists and I give him back. I let his ashes drift from my fingers. They are a brief trail of smoke and then the waves take them into the lake. I hold my hands beneath the water; I want to be scalded with cold,
and when I take them back again the water has washed them almost clean.
Photograph by Alana Sise