My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day.
As his body lay still, no longer hostage to late summer stickiness or mosquito whine, I was three states and a thousand thoughts and moments away. As the last thread binding him to me, to us, to this place and time finally tore free, I was stumbling to my son’s bedroom. My ten-month old was standing at attention, awake. Alert. I must have comforted him, laid him down and smoothed his hair, damp with the sweet sweat of baby dreams. Surely I shushed him, stroking my finger down the length of his nose before falling back into the expanse of my own bed, the expanse of my own oblivion. The truth is, I don’t remember. I remember only that he woke. I remember because it was unusual.
An expected death, a waited for death, a death which comes uninvited but not wholly unwelcome, drags behind it a range of emotions demanding admission. There are the tight contractions of your heart still beating like a traitor inside your ribcage. There is the leaden realization that nothing, not one single thing, will be the same. There is a sense of relief and a deluge of guilt and, if you are lucky, a quiet, enveloping numbness. There is a small pocket of air in which to breathe again.
Two weeks before that otherwise ordinary day, I said good-bye. My father knew he was loved; that his laughter, his stubbornness, his simply being would be missed. I needed him to know I was happy. A happy that went beyond the sickness, beyond the grief. A happy that waited, patient and quiet, to be reclaimed.
In our family, happiness is not a given. It is not a trait passed down like blue eyes and long legs, like heart disease or depression. There are several boughs of our family tree crumbling with rot. There is a real danger of breaking your neck on the way down. I wanted my father to know I had found my footing, my counterbalance: despite rotten branches and a dying parent, I had found a place of happiness.
My father was wasted away from the cancer. He had tumors you could see and touch pressing through his skin. Yet he understood. He was still, in every capacity, my father; slightly watered down, but my father nonetheless. He understood. For that small mercy, I am grateful. It is the only thing that allowed me to breathe when I got into my car to travel home. Those breaths did not come easily, but they came.
My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day. It was as peaceful as dying can be, the fleeting moment of time and breath that takes you from the living to the dead. The lights had flickered dim, then bright, my mother said. There were no storms, no faulty fuses, no electrical surges, simply a flicker. Dim, then bright. A small, wayward movement in the universe, a butterfly flutter between two worlds.
Dim, then bright. The same time that my son had woken the night before.
That summer, I learned to look for the unexpected. What I found was my father: in the sweet night sweat of my son’s dreams, in the corners of a room that went dim, then bright, in the shiny copper of a forgotten penny. I found him in my own happiness. Though my foot sometimes slips on a rotted branch, he is always there to guide my way, his hand at my back.
First published on August 1, 2014 as the winner of Paste’s That Summer writing contest.
As August 2nd marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, I conintue to honor his memory by sharing this memory here.