Yesterday afternoon I got a text from my mother telling me that my Dad wasn't expected to make it through the night. I had just gotten home from a meeting with a new friend, a woman I didn't know who had called me to talk about the book I wrote about my dad three years ago . I knew I was going to be crazy about her when halfway through a sentence she started coughing, took a big gulp from a glass of water that had been left behind by the young couple who had been previously occupying our table and announced "I'm drinking someone else's water. Fuck it."
If you don't understand why that simple action qualifies her for instant membership to a club I call "People who don't make me want to gnaw on my own wrists until I bleed to death just so I can get out of the mind numbing conversation I am wasting precious minutes of my life nodding and smiling along to" there is no way to explain it to you. The clubhouse is closed. Go watch Regis and Kathy or whatever it is that you people do.
She is an editor who wants to publish my book. I don't know her, and the call came out of nowhere. A friend sent her my manuscript last year and for some reason she called last week to set a meeting. As if that isn't awesome enough- she's funny and brilliant and cool in the way that the senior girls were cool when you were a freshman.
To find someone whose judgment you trust to edit your book is rare. It's like handing over your baby to a person holding a scalpel.
"I will do whatever you tell me," I told her."I am the beta, you are the alpha. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it."
As I drove home I had this weird feeling I couldn't identify and it bothered me.
Then I realized it was happiness.
"A Respite from Despair"
-which is what I had gotten used to accepting as happiness- it was the feeling I used to have every day.
I have had a very hard year.
I stopped and got a Thundercloud sandwich because apparently being happy makes me hungry. I took one bite and thought "This is the best Italian Club sandwich I have ever eaten in my entire life."
Thank you Jesus for this kickass sandwich.
Then my Mom sent me that text. She did that instead of calling because I'm not really speaking to her right now. Mothers and daughters go through these things, but my immediate family is batshit crazy, which makes it much worse than the disagreements of Normal People. I include myself in that designation-but sometimes my Crazy doesn't blend well with her Crazy and it's best for everyone to take a break. After some time passes I will wake up one morning and think "It's been a long time since I had someone write up an Excel spreadsheet detailing every fuckup I've perpetrated upon the world since birth" and then we make up.
I looked down at my sandwich, realized I wasn't hungry anymore and thought "DAMN IT! That's how I know there isn't a God. If Jesus had my back he would have let me finish my delicious sandwich before getting that text." You think things like that when crazy shit is happening to you. Nothing makes sense.
I tried to call his wife- no answer. I began to panic. Was I supposed to fly up there RIGHT NOW in case he regained consciousness for a few minutes? The alternative was just to stand paralyzed in the middle of the room.
My best friend Coco usually tells me what to do in times of crisis. Some people have a Higher Power- I have Coco.
But she was camping in Wimberley.
I paced around for about an hour. Was he dying right at this moment? Should I be getting on a plane right now?
I suddenly wished I hadn't gotten rid of the husband.
"This is the time when you need a man to tell you what to do." I thought.
(Shut. Up. Feminists. It's biological.)
Because when bad things happen I almost NEVER know what to do and there is nothing men like more than bossing women around. It's Win-Win.
I texted a few of my Match.com dates but their advice was useless.
(Hey Ladies- don't do that. In case you were wondering, it doesn't go over well.)
There should be a hotline divorcees can call when they need a man to tell them what to do. Not just in a crisis, but things like
Is this a good price for that car?
Which handgun should I buy?
For an extra fee he would listen to you describe in detail the fight you're having with that bitch in the office next door as many times as you felt like talking about it. He would always take your side.
"I can't believe she said that to you!" Fake Husband would say.
"I know, right?" you would reply, and then get over it and go about your day. Because that's really all we ever need anyway.
But there is no Fake Husband hotline yet so I just sat down and waited for whatever was going to happen next to happen.
Question- How do I live through this?
Answer- "You live through it."
Then there was a knock on the door and my mother came in.
"He's gone." she said, and hugged me tight.
As I stood there I thought two things-
I never really thought he would die. Not really.
I would give anything to talk to him one more time.
And I looked at my mother and realized that someday I would be wishing the same thing about her. Only when that happens she won't be there to give me a hug, and decided to go ahead and forgive her because I really don't know when that will be.
I can count the people who I define as "family" on one hand and only two of them are related to me by blood. So many friends I love but only a few would I fight and die for. Sometimes the lines blur, but here is how you differentiate-
when you call someone up and tell them your dad has died the only response from family is "Where are you?"
Because they are going to come to wherever you are no matter what like my Mom did and bring flowers or food or pot or read you some Irish poetry. The details don't matter. They are with you.
Other responses and expressions of support are awesome in a different way-but that is the line between the people you would give a kidney to and those you just really, really like.
So my Mom is back on the list.
Maybe I can get her to make me an Excel spreadsheet of the list.
This morning I felt fine- then I remembered I will never get to talk to him again. I'm used to having someone I can call when I have insomnia. He stayed up all night drawing and playing music.
When you are awake at four AM it feels like the Apocalypse. I remember standing in my dark living room staring out of the window at the dark, quiet street just sort of barely lit up by this orange streetlight and thinking I could not be more lonely if I was the last person on earth.
But I could always call my dad. And he would always pick up. I would pace around my apartment talking to him until the sun came up. There were no interruptions, no incessant texts, no children to take care of or people to meet. Just me and my dad talking about politics and religion and psychology and science. On one of those nights he spent 3 hours explaining black holes until I finally (I mean really) understood them. Another night he explained the mystery of string theory- a scientific loophole for the existence of God because impossibly tiny things whiz around by the billions inside of everything, jumping in and out of dimensions and confounding the shit out of all the nerds up at MIT.
"I'll be a particle right now but later on I'll be a wave if I feel like it," says Higgs Boson "Or not. Fuck off. I'll do what I want."
That's my explanation for particle physics. It is both accurate and all you really need to know.
Whenever I felt small or afraid I called my Dad. By the time I hung up I remembered-Oh that's right. I forgot. I'm awesome.
It continues to surprise me how sad I feel. I keep wanting to call and talk to him about it. It's not as if I didn't know this was coming. He's been hanging on by a thread for a long time. That's the thing about loving someone who has a chronic terminal illness- you get the full package. You don't just mourn them when they are suddenly gone. You go through a long Pre-Grieving process, which you think will make you better prepared when the time comes but it doesn't. As though each tear that falls over the years as you watch their slow decline towards death is some kind of deposit-a payment plan towards the balance that you owe.
When I heard about someone's parent dropping dead suddenly of a stroke or getting hit by a bus I felt bad for them. I figured it was harder for them than it would be for me because I was given years to process the event beforehand and they weren't.
But when the other shoe finally dropped I realized that it's not like that at all. It's more like preparing for a parachute jump, no matter how many times you go through the drills you don't understand what it's really going to be like until you jump.
On a minute by minute basis I didn't know what to do last night.
"This sucks." I thought.
I sat down.
"Sitting down sucks," I thought.
So I stood up. That sucked too. I looked around. I didn't want to be at home.
"My house sucks," I thought. I knew Coco would make me go to her apartment because people don't want you to be alone when someone dies. Which is good because you go a little crazy.
But when I thought of being at her house it felt like suck too. I tried to be positive and look for what didn't feel bad and came up with two things.
I like text messaging. It's instant. It's fun to go back and forth with clever people while you are doing something boring.
I like to write things down.
When you write about what happens to you it becomes real. You turn it inside-out like a pair of socks, take it out of you and present it back to the other members of your tribe as a story. We tell each other stories because we are trying to figure out what all of this means.
"This is who I am"
is what you really mean every time you post something on Facebook.
Then the members of your tribe respond to the tiny bit of your story that will fit into the box Facebook allots you by "Commenting" on what you've shared.
Or they "Like" you.
Which is what we all want really.
I've written things down since fifth grade, first in a Calvin and Hobbes journal my mother gave me and later online in a blog. It isn't real and I don't know how I feel about it until I see it printed on a screen.
I don't write anymore.
"That's why you text like a teenager" Coco told me."It's the only way you get to write."
So I smoked cigarettes inside- an indulgence only fully appreciated by smokers- and typed out the truth of the moment I found myself in-
"My Dad died."
Realizing as I did so that it is the absolute permanence of that statement that is at the root of the profound sorrow it inspires. We experience very few changes that don't have at least the faint possibility of a second chance, of being remade,undone or put back together someday. We see everyone marry and divorce and marry again. You can always make up with a lost friend, switch careers, move across the country and back again, dye your hair blond then decide the next day you prefer being a brunette, go to a womens college and announce to your family that youre gay then decide to marry a man after grad school, announce that you're an "alcoholic" then decide you have a "thyroid problem", give up veganism for steak, repair your destroyed credit rating, recieve a pardon for that life sentence for double homicide and ditch Jesus for Muhammed or Buhhda or whatever it is that those B'Hai people worship. There is always the girl who recovered from being shot in the head that went on the win a Nobel Prize, malignant tumors that miraculously shrink, the kidnapped child that comes home, hurricanes that veer back into the sea at the last minute- but no one comes back after death.
We live in a world of possibilities. One time I saw this episode of ER where this guy had his arm completely sliced off by a helicopter blade and they sewed it back on and after a while he could wiggle his fingers and hold his Starbucks cup like it never happened. That happens all the time. They can really take a needle and thread or some gorilla glue or whatever it is that they use and reattach a severed limb.
Unless your arm gets eaten by a bear. Even Dr. Kovac can't help you then. So I guess what I am trying to say is-
Sometimes bear attacks have permanent consequences
Death is also always permanent.
Which is why it is hard for us to understand and so unbearably sad.
We are such tiny creatures in such a big universe.
How could we possibly think we can grasp something like eternity?
Coco's boyfriend dropped dead of a heart attack last year. He was 35. No one even knew he had a heart condition. In the morning they were having brunch, in the afternoon he was brain dead in a coma.
"I kept getting mad at him for not coming back and giving me a sign from the afterlife. You know a dove or super-real dream. I wasn't asking for anything as ambitious as seeing his ghost. But some kind of contact, something." she sighed.
"That's like the most extreme version possible of being mad at the guy you're seeing for not texting you back quickly enough" I said.
"Yeah," she laughed. "Um-dude? WHERE DID YOU GO?"
That's the question isn't it?
Where did you go?
I didn't even know where my delicious sandwich went last night so Coco took me to our favorite French restaurant for onion soup and asparagus.
My Dad and I went to a Halloween party there two years ago. He wore a giant Tibetan hat made out of goat fur with a pair of Rubys fairy wings. He liked to be ridiculous as often as possible.
While we were eating I told Coco about the meeting with Ms Awesome the Publishing Lady earlier in the day. I had forgotten all about it.
"Does it seem strange to you that as your dad was leaving his body you were talking to the person who is finally going to publish the book you wrote about him?" Coco asked.
It is true that there are often uncanny coincidences of timing in this life. Some attribute that to Jesus merrily arranging things behind the scene. Some think there is no connection at all except the one your brain makes as it tries desperately to ascribe meaning to your existence. I'm somewhere in between.
I don't think my Dads ghost arranged a meeting for me with a book publisher. But I do think that there are hidden clues and parachutes to be found if you look for them that are hard to explain by coincidence. Like the mystery of where all those particles go when they disappear from orbit- we don't know everything.
Paying attention to coincidences as though they could be road signs to where I am supposed to go feels like moving along with Life instead of fighting upstream against it.
For months I have been looking for these signs and not finding them. Actually the only ones I could see said "Give Up" and "It's Clearly Only Going to Get Worse." I have watched my life fall down like a house of cards this year- each event compounding the loss and despair of the one that preceded it until I was wandering alone in the dark unable to find a way out.
When you have a hard time for a few months it's explainable. When it drags on for a year or two you begin to think it's your fault. Everyone starts to act like there is something wrong with you. You are a bad person who makes bad choices and things will never be right no matter how hard you try. Even random events like illness and death are somehow your fault. This state of mind develops gradually over time but by the time you realize you are trapped in that cycle it is almost impossible to get out. It becomes a self reinforcing loop. Only a dramatic event can wake you up and shake you back into your true self. My Dad called this kind of event a "pattern interrupter."
When he found out he had a tumor growing on his liver in May-in addition to the end stage Hepatitis C- I knew he only had a few months left. In a way, I lost him then. When the liver stops doing its job efficiently ammonia builds up in your body and damages your brain. It changes you, producing an irritable stupor you can't quite wake up from. I could no longer call my Dad and ask him what to do. There was suddenly no Hotline available to me in the middle of the night if I needed advice on how to fix my refrigerator. There was no one there to pick me up when I fell.
That's what fathers are there for, the good ones anyway. They sternly push you to climb out by yourself on the high part of the monkeybars that you're not totally comfortable standing on. You can do this because you know that they are standing somewhere over there to catch you if you fall.
So I have been wandering around for months without a compass, asking myself
"What the fuck am I supposed to do now?"
Today I am suprised that he is still gone. But, for reasons I don't understand, I can hear his voice more clearly than before. No one I love has ever died. People say stuff in movies like "I will always be with you." I get mildly annoyed when they say that. I think
"No you won't! Dumbass. That is a stupid thing to say. What the fuck are you talking about?"
But I guess now I know what they mean by that.
He really is kind of with me.
All I ever wanted to do was write and I stopped doing that because I became afraid. Fear will paralyze you. When I get scared or don't know what to do I just STOP.
But I can see him in that stupid goat hat laughing at me from wherever he is and telling me to get up and go live my life.
"This is your movie," he would say "Do you want to write it as a comedy or a tragedy? Because it's your choice kid."