My father died in 1993, at 60, of acute leukemias. I say leukemias because he had two kinds: an adult version and a childhood version that is generally lethal when it develops in adults.
Juli, Wendy, Mom and I were present, all holding onto some part of my father when he went.
Soon thereafter, I wrote the following youthful tribute. It’s very simple, and not very good, but it began to outline my complex feelings about my father. It was my first stab at writing fiction, although it is really mostly memories:
They were just babies when he taught them how to read. “Spider-and-Ladybug-saw-the-thieves-running-away.” His callused finger moved from word to word, pointing, sounding. They were light on his knees, his babies, two sides of one coin.
Blue-eyed Rowena, pale and shy, hid when company came to the door; bowl-legged Hazel was younger by one year. She was the one that opened the door.
He held Rowena lightly, one hand on her back, because he knew she liked it that way; the other arm circled two-year-old Hazel while she curled up against him, because he knew it was what she wanted.
The room was quiet. Eva was making dinner, sending adoring looks his way. He loved her, he loved his babies, and he loved his life.
Crickets sang outside, in darkness.
They were still babies, to him, when he and Newton hung the tire in the Eucalyptus.
“Not high enough, Daddy, higher!”
So he pushed them higher, as high as he could, and watched their dirty feet fly out over the roof.
Each summer he pushed them, and each summer they were bigger, and saw less of that roof and the leaves that weighed it down.
The babies, for they were still babies to him, looked out the window, over the airport, towards the setting sun. It was a sunset-colored wasteland, like the Daunorubicin in his blood. Jet engines purred, then thundered, in the background.
“My babies,” he whispered. “My babies.”
Rowe and Hazel turned from the window and went to him. He had pulled the sheet over his head to hide his tears. Hazel took up his hand and held it against her face. His hand was the same as her own: large and strong and square. His fingers rested on her forehead, his palm on her jaw. Rowena pulled the covers from his face and looked into his lashless blue eyes, the same depthless color as her own. She stroked his unevenly bearded chin.
They stayed that way for a long time.
More than ten years later, in the writing program at San Francisco State, I further explored the day my father died:
The day my father died, we sat with him. Hands that had built wading pools and porch swings lay inert, driftwood in a leach pond.
My sister pulled the covers from his face and looked into his remaining, lashless eye, the color of glacial melt, the same matchless color as her own. She stroked his unevenly bearded chin.
Their eyes were a river that flowed only between them, something present in the beginning of things, that widened every day of their lives until finally, on the last day, it swept him from the shore, and he disappeared.
I’d always wanted to be a part of it, part of that underworld connection he had with Wendy, included, necessary, a tributary meshed in their mighty tide.
That day, my father’s eye picked out Wendy at his side, like a collector picks out a favorite stone from a collection stored in a jar, across the room, on top of the fridge, out of reach. A gem nestled inside a rock, a secret, a soft wedge of gold he would leave buried on the shore behind him when he died.
A grim nurse in Birkenstocks and a frown injected my father every fifteen minutes. “Morphine,” she said, when I asked. “Is he in that much pain that you need to come so often?” I asked. “Oh, honey,” she said, and put her hand on my shoulder.
My head was a fireplace; my heart was dry sticks.
Many thanks to Charida Rose for a very moving post that caused me to dig through ancient files to revisit this old writing.
My sister Wendy and I have become so much closer since that day. We have our own connection now, for which I am uninhibitedly grateful.