I wrote this piece in response to a prompt I gave in the Tuesday night class–“I Can’t Believe…”
I can’t believe my father is dead. I can’t believe it was ten years ago today that I raced up to San Francisco Medical Center and drove around the visitor parking lot frantically looking for a non-existent parking space. Desperate, I finally pulled into an illegal spot marked with screaming, white diagonal lines, and at the end of that very long day, at 3 AM, when my father was dead and the world has stopped, I came out to a $180 ticket. The world hadn’t stopped at all.
I can’t believe that ten years ago was the day that I raced into the intensive care unit and found my father and his love, Ophelia, in the E.R. They had stuffed Abe’s bed in a storage closet because there were no rooms available and he was taking up valuable space in the ER. They couldn’t do anything for him, so they put him somewhere where he would be out of the way. Is that really how it happened? I don’t remember, but he was definitely wedged into that storage room.
I remember sitting on the edge of his bed. The bed was crammed in sideways, the only way it would fit. I sat and held his hand. His arm was bruised purple up and down the forearm from the inside of his elbow down to his wrist. Even the top of his tattered hand, the hand that had firmly held mine when crossing the street, the hand that had hoisted me asleep (or pretending to be asleep) from the back of the yellow dodge dart with the slant six engine (or was it the brown Plymouth? I can’t remember). That same hand was now bruised purple. They’d had six different nurses come in, all looking for a viable vein. Protocol. Had to do it. Did it matter that he was dying? Couldn’t they have left him alone? Did it matter to anyone on that staff that my father spent his last hours being poked for veins that didn’t exist anymore?
My father’s voice in that little room was high and light–oxygen deprivation, perhaps–and his eyes were the same light blue as his father–the bastard, the one who smashed my father’s piano with an axe for disturbing his nap–that bastard had the same light blue eyes as Abe. And ten years ago today, on his last breathing day on earth, Abe looked at me out of those pale blue eyes, smiling. We saw each other. I stroked his bruised arm. I don’t remember what we talked about. How can that be? I can’t believe that ten years later, I don’t remember the last words I spoke to my father.
I do remember when the orderlies arrived to take him upstairs to a shared room on the cardiac unit. Ophelia and I clustered at the head of the big bed as they wheeled it into the oversized elevator and out onto the floor. And when they went to transfer him from the stretcher to his bed, he collapsed on to the bed and died. One last breath and then no more. The nurses wanted to get the crash cart. Code blue. “No,” I said, “he has a DNR. He doesn’t want to be resuscitated.” Where did I find the strength to say that? To say it without hesitation. With no holding back. No quivering. No equivocation. “No,” I said, “let him die.”
And then we watched, all of us, Ophelia and I, and the nurses, a male nurse and a female, they uncomfortable not trying to save him, suddenly aware of their intrusive presence, strangers, as we watched him die.
I kept looking up in the corners of the room, feeling for angels, for some kind of presence. My father didn’t believe in God. He was an atheist, born from a long line of Russian Jewish Rabbis. But his old man, the blue-eyed bastard, didn’t believe in God and neither did my father. If you couldn’t see it, hear it, taste it or smell it, it didn’t exist. But still, I hoped some kind of essence might float out of Abe’s mouth at the very last moment. I thought some wispy presence might swoop down on my shoulder and say goodbye, but there was nothing. Nothing at all. Just he absence of life. That’s all I saw.
I can’t believe it was ten years ago today that I watched my father skin grow alabaster. I’ve always loved that word and when I saw his body cool and harden, it’s the only time I’ve found a good use for it. Alabaster. I’d look away and then look back at him, expecting that this time, there would be one more breath, that I’d sneak a look and see his chest rise one more time, but it didn’t. He was really dead.
And now, ten years later, I can’t believe he is dead. How could someone who made me, who formed me, who loved me, who abandoned me, who cherished me, be dead? How can I have kept living for these past ten years? The only way I can mark the time is by our children. Lizzy was only three. Eli was seven. His only memory of the man who made me and by extension made him, is one time when Grandpa Abe stole his pancakes. I wish they’d had more of him.
I can’t believe that I thought that grief would get easier. Before my father died, I thought that it would hurt less as time went on. I didn’t know the real secret of death–it hurts more. I miss him more. My world has never righted itself. Even though he lives in me and in the puns and songs on the lips of my son, I can’t believe I╒ve spent ten years on earth without him. I can’t believe all that he has missed and all the things he doesn’t know about me.
I can’t believe today was my father’s yarzheit and after I lit a candle and called my brother and said an Om, I spent the next three hours in stopped traffic on Highway 17, waiting for a big rig to be pulled off the road, playing word games and trying to make things okay for Lizzy who was missing her big reunion with her friends. I can’t believe that it is evening now and the air is cooling. This anniversary is almost over.
I am preparing for a trip to Costa Rico tomorrow night–and finishing my work, packing my bags, and checking the details off my list–get silica gel packets for Lizzy’s camera bag, copy the traveler’s checks register, pack the passports–and still my father is dead. Ten years is a long time. I can’t believe he is really gone.
I can’t believe that his generation is almost gone. He was the last on his side. There is just my mother and her sister on her side. Pretty soon I will be at the top of the heap, the elder, the one closest to death, whenever that will come.
I cannot believe that we find a way to keep living when the people who made us are gone. I know this is how it has been for humans for millions of years, but I still can’t believe it. How can I be here when he is not?