I should probably give a bit of insight into this piece before releasing it to the world, but there’s not much to say. It might my best written work to date (which doesn’t mean it’s any good). As always, constructive criticism is welcomed. Please let me know what you think.
Thank you to my ex-boyfriend and sister for allowing me to publish sections 1 and 3, respectively.
TRIGGER WARNING: Graphic depictions of death.
“On fathers and daughters, airports and hospitals, the best and the worst.”
Airports and hospitals are the best worst places to be. Large buildings filled with the essence of humanity; in each, you’re watching fellow beings in a state of change. In both, you say hello or goodbye; the former if you’re very lucky, the latter if you’re very not. People stray from their day-to-days in these places. The atmosphere is filled with the buzz of thoughts and emotions that others in stagnation just don’t have at 2pm on Tuesdays. These are the people embracing change, feeling apprehension, excitement, dread, joy, worry, relief, anger, happiness, irritation, loneliness, and everything in between. These are the two places that display the human condition at its best and at its worst.
The best moment of my life happened at an airport. The worst moment of my life happened at a hospital. Here are four moments, in reality just seconds apiece, in chronological order, expanded and dissected.
An eternity of waiting ended on this day. The level of excitement I felt shouldn’t have existed in reality. Six year olds weren’t this excited for Christmas morning. Sixteen year olds weren’t this excited to get their driver’s licenses. Sixty year olds weren’t this excited to meet their new grandchildren. For months, thinking about this moment caused me intense physical pain where my eyes would tear up and I would shake and hyperventilate until I forced myself to think of other, worse things. Papers being due, going to work at my three part time jobs, money troubles, and, in some instances, I’d bring to the forefront of my mind the unending existential crisis that most people have, that I’ve had since childhood: the why am I alive?s and is any of this worth it?s. This was the first and only time in my life my endless skepticism of reality itself actually soothed me instead of sending me into a panic at 2am during insomnia-filled nights.
That is how excited I was.
This was the day I would finally get to meet him. My love. The owner of my heart whether he wanted it or not (he didn’t). When this endeavor started, I wrote in my journal, “I love you without needing your love in return. Unconditionality of devotion.” (It’s true. It was before, it was then, and it still is now. Incredibly unfortunate given the circumstances.)
(It’s difficult writing these bittersweet moments as though only the sweet occurred, before bitter was even an option.)
Love at first sight is not something I’d ever believed in until this moment. That I could grow to love only the mind of another person, a man who personified art and bled creativity, was not something I ever expected to happen. And for him to return the love I felt for him? It could only be a dream (and it was, in fact, temporary).
I cleaned every inch of my living space, cleaned it again, sat on my bed and stared out the window, breaths shallow and glancing at the clock every ten seconds, wearing the nicest outfit I could throw together. When I thought I would explode, I drove to the airport, every red light lasting a lifetime, face inches from the windshield, wound so tight that you could shoot an arrow with me.
I got to the airport. I waited.
And I waited.
I looked at my phone.
And I waited some more.
Until finally, I looked up.
And there he was.
I remember his eyes. I’d never imagined they’d be so bright, so big, so brown, so happy to see me. Grinning from ear to ear, perfect teeth and dimples the size of moon craters, nothing between us but the quickly receding distance and air charged with love so intense that only naive nineteen year olds can feel it. No phone between us, no monitor, no written words. Just us, our unknown (dismal) future, and a week of staring at each other as though we’ve each just met divinity.
We embraced, we kissed. He smelled like leather and smoke and his hands were rough and calloused (though not as much as they are now, a symbol of his heart), fingertips stained brown from pack upon pack of unfiltered cigarettes.
We spent a week in a happy delirium, grinning at each other and wondering if any of it was even real, that someone so perfect could exist in the world and how the hell did we get lucky enough to find each other.
That week, I wrote, “We are nineteen. And he is everything I’ve ever loved.”
We would stare at each other as the sun set over a world that revolved around us.
But, like all things too good to be true, it was, and we finally drowned after several years of vainly plugging up the holes of our sinking ship. I am not part of ‘us’ now. I’m just me, Ms. Unconditionality of Devotion. And he is part of an ‘us’ with another person.
Despite the shrapnel of my heart slowly eating away at my metaphorical insides, I will always have the bittersweet moment of love at first sight.
I also have the endlessly tragic moment of watching a loved one die.
This was my first journal entry on the topic:
“I watched my father die.
It was Valentine’s Day, three months ago. It’s not something I ever expect to recover from.
At first, I couldn’t sleep.
Then I started dreaming of him.
The only way he would find his way into my dreams was when I dreamed I was dreaming. In my dreams, I knew my father was dead, but then I would fall asleep and he would be there waiting for me.
Now I dream of ways for him to come back. Sometimes he’s a ghost I can talk to. Once he was a clone of himself. Another time he had risen from the dead.
But during the waking hours of this nightmarish life, I can’t feel anything at all.”
My father was diagnosed with cancer just months after I graduated high school. After four years of getting better and worse and better and worse and then just worse, the disease claimed him.
Because he was not a man to sugarcoat the truth, neither will I, though it will take every ounce of willpower in me to drag the memory out of the hellish prison of my unconscious mind. The memory of his last moments is the stuff of trauma, the bits and pieces of truth that weave their way into nightmares, fevered dreams, and drunken stupors. This is the memory that trudges from the deep at my darkest moments, my biggest fear come to light and my worst nightmare manifested in reality. This is how my father died.
My relationship with my dad was a very good one. Growing up, he wasn’t the perfect father, but he was perfect in the development of who I turned out to be. Strict when he needed to be (and sometimes when he didn’t), fun and spontaneous, filled with epic stories of bar fights and worldly wisdom. My father was well-read, well-traveled, and could fix anything. He listened to blues and wore ball caps everywhere, enjoyed all sports and all beer, and had a story for every occasion.
He used to hold my hand in the car and sing “My Girl” by the Temptations, off-key and too loud until I would laugh and sing with him.
It doesn’t matter that for most of my life he had a bad temper. Or that he compulsively bought and collected random things. Or that he wasn’t very good at keeping a job.
When it comes down to it, my father was a passionate man, and he loved my mother, sister, and I more than anything in the world. He was a good man and a great dad, and his life ended far too soon.
I have this very bad habit of leaving myself in times of stress. It’s like I become a robot. I take myself, my emotions and reactions, out of my body and all I can do is observe my surroundings objectively, taking in all the details to be sorted through later, my only emotion a mild, vague pleasantness, like a giggle before it reaches your lips. It’s very childlike, this state. Oftentimes, I’m so objective that I acknowledge that I’m not feeling the correct emotions that a given situation warrants, but I can’t help it. I turn into a machine, a camera, observing the world and recording every detail, relaxed and unbiased, until I can process all the details and be haunted by them the rest of my life. It’s safe. It’s how I cope with stress.
When my father took a turn for the worse, I reverted into my robotic state. For days, my father’s mind quickly unraveled from the realization of his impending demise and the slow deterioration of his brain from the agony and being pumped with poison for years on end. It felt like he went so quickly from helping me hang up curtains in my new apartment to being unable to walk, from drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl to being unable to put words together to form a coherent sentence, instead remarking on odd things like “the spears” which he insisted filled his hospital room.
His first night in hospice was his last night of full awareness. As I bid my goodbyes to go home and sleep for the night, I didn’t realize then he would be speaking his last words to me. He held my hand and looked me in the eye, putting effort into shaping his words that were so hard for him to put together, and said, “I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad.” I hugged him and kissed his cheek, all bones and agony at this point, no more of the plump, tan man who taught me how to shuffle a deck of cards and play baseball, and, after this moment, would never be able to teach me anything again.
He spent his final days unconscious and (hopefully, dear god hopefully) pain-free, hospice having managed to procure the strongest pain medication on the planet, and surrounded by his family. All we could do was wait and be there for him, taking shifts so that someone was always there and someone was always doing other things, because although one person’s life was ending, the world was still spinning for the rest of us, as much as we didn’t want it to.
I don’t remember how many days my father was in hospice, unconscious, breathing his last shallow breaths. The call finally came at 3 o’clock in the morning from my mother. “They say he only has a little bit longer.”
I never realized how textbook death was, that it’s such a common thing that the moment it happens can be predicted by the people who see it most. Like the common cold, there are symptoms, and those of us who are blissfully unexposed to death hope it’s only a blip, that there will be one last “better” hill before the sine wave declines to zero.
We (my love from the airport, remember him?) drove to see my father in his last moments. My poor mother, the kindest, most patient and wonderful person I’ve ever known, was sitting with him in the dark. I took a seat on the opposite side of his bed. My robotic self didn’t even have the vague pleasantness it usually did, instead it was replaced by utterly blank curiosity and the realization that this is the moment we’d all been waiting for.
I reached my hand out to touch his arm. His skin was yellowed and felt like paper beneath my fingers. I would have said something to him, maybe muttered, “It’s okay, Daddy,” but logic dictated that he couldn’t hear me, that his mind had been gone for several days and this was only his body finally catching up.
His hands were curled up in an uncomfortable position, which I later realized was one of The Symptoms. Unable to look at his eyes, I stared at his hands and remembered an entire lifetime of fixing things, playing guitar, changing the channel, playing catch, turning pages. Hands that were once rough and calloused from years of physical labor, strong and deft. The hands that carried me to bed as a child and pointed at me when I did something wrong. Now they were contorted in pain, soft from months of un-use, sallow and thin.
His mouth was slack and breathing in shallow, shaky breaths, counting down to zero. The death rattle is another of The Symptoms, but I half expected him at any moment to take a deep breath in, sit up, and say, “Well that sucked. Let’s go for a beer.” But he didn’t.
His eyes were the worst. They were open in terror, an expression of agony, sightless and staring off into a distance none of us could see. His eyes were the windows of a lifetime of memories, stories of grand adventures I’d never get to hear again, knowledge and wisdom he would never be able to impart on me. His eyes were my eyes, the icy blue-gray of my family, and I thought about how unfair it was that I could continue to see and he would never be able to see, feel, think, talk, or be ever again.
The moment finally came. The rattling breath stopped, in its stead a palpable silence. One less heart in that room was beating, and we were left to say our final goodbyes.
My mental camera stopped recording then. I remember the conflicting feeling of wanting to leave that room and also stay there forever, to never leave my father’s side in case he decided to wake up and go get some breakfast. We had to leave, though, and in my childlike state, I was bewildered at the thought that he wouldn’t be coming with us, and my saddest realization was that this was the last time I would see his face, the last new memory of him I would ever make, a lifetime of rewinding and replaying memories until my internal tape finally wears out.
When I came back to myself at last, what felt like months later, after my unconscious mind had continuously berated me with nightmares every night, a cryptic plea to begin processing the recorded material of my father’s death and let loose a dam of unwelcome emotions, the first thing I felt was relief.
It’s difficult to explain, but when you hold the knowledge that someone you love is going to die soon, and you don’t know when or how or what life will be like after, and when that loved one is in the worst pain a human is capable of feeling, I realized that the anger and sadness and grief I expected to feel after it finally happened actually occurred slowly over the span of four years. My anger was at the illness itself, and death, it turns out, was a gift.
The dreams still haven’t stopped.
Exactly one year, ten months, and four days after my father’s death, I received an unexpected phone call late on a Friday evening. I was, as usual, in my pajamas watching a terrible movie and gorged on pizza I pretended that I split with someone else in my empty house.
It was my sister. I answered. “Hello?”
There’s that split second when you answer the phone and someone’s crying that you can’t tell if they’re maybe actually just laughing. For a split second, you hope that they’re maybe actually just laughing.
Panicked and terrified and angry, my sister struggled to say, “I just got hit by a car. You have to get Mom. She’s not answering her phone.”
And just like that, I evaporated from myself. Again. Predictable. “You what? Are you okay?”
“I got hit by a car. I don’t know. Get Mom.”
“Where are you?”
“Second and Patterson.”
“Okay. Okay I’ll be right there.”
By the time I hung up the phone, I was already in my car and starting the engine. I called my mother as I drove the mile down the road to where my sister said she’d been hit. No answer. I called my grandmother, who thankfully still had a landline. She answered. I elaborated the situation to her and asked if she could please go get Mom, putting enough urgency into my voice so that she would understand that this was a very big deal.
When I got to the site, my sister was already in the ambulance, so I followed it to the hospital.
During my drive, I tried to logic myself into expecting every possible scenario, from she’s dying (unlikely, given her capacity to call me and have a mostly coherent conversation) to her spinal cord has been severed to various limbs have been broken to the most optimistic and thus unrealistic, she’s actually perfectly fine.
In the ER, in my pajamas that still had pizza crust crumbs on them, I waited for my mother and grandmother.
The last time I was in this emergency room was when my father called 911 after forgetting how to call my mother on his cell phone. His thoroughly poisoned brain reverted to the logic that when you need something and there’s no one who can help you, you dial 911. In our modern society, it’s basic instinct.
What I found fascinating about the experience is that when a slowly dying man calls 911, the emergency room paradigm kind of breaks. We sat with him in his room waiting to get his discharge papers, and the ER doctor told us he was “fine” with the obvious unsaid caveat of, “for the moment. He’s still dying.”
Emergency room waiting areas are truly fascinating places. Every time I’m there, I think about how no one waiting had planned to be there that day, that their daily lives have been interrupted by something unexpected, potentially tragic. This is a place where the veils of public faces begin to lift, revealing emotion that we’re all usually too afraid to share with strangers, instead opting for niceties and facades, biting back our passions and anger and euphoria and grief.
As I sat there examining my pizza crumbs, mind whirling with uncertainty, I noticed a family sitting a few chairs down to my right. There was a mother, a father, and an infant daughter. The obvious gap in the bunch was an older daughter or son, who was somewhere in the ER being tended to. The family looked scared and tired, their eldest having had an asthma attack or taken a nasty fall or had epileptic seizure or any number of problems a child can have in the middle of the night.
Their clothes were rumpled, having been hastily donned over their sleeping attire. The father wore a football jersey and ball cap and the mother wore what appeared to be one of her husband’s sweaters, jeans, tennis shoes. The quintessential lower-middle class family, they probably even had a used minivan parked outside. They were the picture of the modern American Midwest.
In any other scenario, I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at them. But now, in this place of unexpected evenings and potential misfortunes, we shared the same uncertainties.
The father, holding and rocking his infant daughter, in a quiet, slow, off-key baritone, began singing “Amazing Grace.”
The gears and metals of my heart warmed back into their usual aortas, and with it, the flood of emotions I tend to save for the written word. I was worried that everything would change again just as life was starting to get back to normal. I was worried for how scared my sister was, knowing her fear of needles and hospitals and generally any situation over which she didn’t have complete control. I was worried for the nurse helping my sister, who is genuinely terrifying when she’s in the aforementioned type of uncontrollable situations. I was worried for the family next to me.
Twenty years earlier, my family could have been that family next to me. Except my father never sang “Amazing Grace.” That really wasn’t his style. He would have sang “Hey Jude” or some classic rock ballad. More realistically though, he would have been yelling at the hospital staff, similarly to the way I imagined my sister was at that moment probably also yelling at the hospital staff.
Sometimes there’s respite in genetics.
(I found out later that when a nurse took my sister’s vitals down on a paper towel, she yelled, “I’m going to be paying out the ass for this hospital bill and you can’t even afford a fucking notebook?”)
Finally, after what felt like a lifetime of waiting, we found out my sister was fine but for a long-lasting concussion and some bruising.
In the four years since that moment in the airport and the two years since my father’s death, I’ve changed. I’ve grown. I’m not afraid of much anymore, so when an opportunity to travel presents itself, no matter what the circumstances, I’m usually willing and ready to go, no questions asked.
I found myself in an airport recently, after having spent a week hopping about the country, meeting people, having adventures, trying to get away from the day-to-day doldrums.
Heading home, I had an hour-long flight. Delirious from lack of sleep and food, all I could manage was watching the sun rise over the thick floor of clouds and counting down the moments until my next (fifth) cup of coffee. In the seat in front of me was a magazine that, during their last hasty sweep, the cleaning people had failed to take out of the little pocket where SkyMall is usually kept. It wasn’t SkyMall, though. It was an interior design magazine, dated over a year ago.
I thumbed through it and it fell open to a page that had been bookmarked with two boarding passes. I stared at them blankly for a number of minutes, disoriented from exhaustion, until I realized they were dated for today, for a time in the future. One was from Fargo to Nashville. The other was from Nashville to a city I didn’t recognize.
I created a little story about this person from the bits and pieces I’d learned from her life: a woman leaving for a week, hastily packing for an unexpected trip and grabbing the only reading material on hand before rushing out the door, a dated copy of a magazine she isn’t really interested in but keeps on her coffee table for guests to read. Getting to her next gate, she realizes she can’t find her boarding passes, must have left them on the plane, asking the clerk at her next gate to print new ones for her. She waits around during her layover, wishing she had something to read, never wondering who picked up her magazine and her boarding passes and what they were making up about her life.
This little window into the world of a total stranger I would never meet was intensely beautiful to me. It was art: a connection between two total strangers whose only commonality was seat 34A.
I kept the magazine and the boarding passes and the vivid picture of a tiny moment in this woman’s life.
During my next layover, after my seventh cup of coffee and staying awake only by sheer will, I thumbed through the woman’s interior design magazine, looking only at the pictures because I was unable to focus on any words. The airport was bustling with people rushing to the first flights of the day, all people who, like me, were in transit.
I felt the air shift to my right. Looking up from the magazine, I saw a father sit down with his daughter who looked to be about a year old. Alone, he was trying to sift through his bags to put together a snack for his daughter without setting her down. It looked to be a complicated and arduous task for him. His daughter was fussy, probably tired from the appalling hour of the day, and hungry too.
I couldn’t see either of their faces. The man was plump and tan, probably in his mid-30s. His daughter had blond wisps of hair on her oversized head and was resting it on his shoulder while wriggling around in his grasp.
Twenty-some years ago, that could have easily been my father and I.
My father always told us that he never wanted children, especially when he was angry with us. He was a man’s man, setting aside his bachelor lifestyle for wholesome domesticity.
Here was this man next to me in the same situation as my father probably was: fumbling, sometimes literally, through fatherhood, just trying his damndest to make sure we were safe and that he didn’t screw us up too bad.
I find solace in these times I see my life in others’ lives. It connects us, like the magazine connected us, like planes connect us, and it makes life seem a little less lonely if only for an instant. In a world of simply getting by, the times we come and go are the moments we remember most: the periods of change, apprehension, excitement, dread, joy, worry, relief, anger, happiness, irritation, loneliness, and everything in between.
We are connected in a circle of arrivals and departures, and as our lives flash before our eyes when we give our final goodbye, we will think only of airports and hospitals.
My zone was called just as the father next to me handed his daughter an apple slice.