My father left us a year ago. He died just past midnight, one day past his 82nd birthday on January 30. This means we will have to clear a double hurdle as the anniversaries approach. And this is, of course, in addition to the fact that his date of death by the Jewish calendar has already passed. On that date, we unveiled his tombstone. We gathered at the cemetery in freezing (but thankfully sunny) air. We spent a few minutes there, tears freezing on our faces. We left stones behind as our calling cards, then repaired to my brother’s house and reminisced out of the elements. We will make further visits once winter recedes.
What remains for me, between now and February 1 is recalling, and trying not to recall, the way things ended for my father — hospital-acquired conditions taking him from bad to worse, conferences with medical professionals becoming ever more dire, and treatment options decreasing to only interventions we knew my father never would have wanted. To confront this anniversary is to remember all of these things, and more — our terrible bedside vigil, the monitors slowing, then ceasing their beeping. There was the drive my mother and I made, away from the hospital in the middle of the night, having left my father’s body to arrive at my parents’ home, every inch of which seemed ready for Pa’s imminent return. I still don’t know how I managed to make that drive. I remember we couldn’t seem to make ourselves go to sleep that night, because sleep seemed too much like an acknowledgment of what had just happened.
There have been many unusual, coincidental encounters with my father’s memory in the past year. When I went to catalog them in order to read them out at the unveiling of his gravestone, I winnowed down the list to seventeen instances. His presence persists, in my mind and in the physical world. I have made my peace with his appearance in the most random places, at the most random times, and in various forms. Twice he has appeared to me in the form of a strip of Velcro attaching itself to my clothes: the first time, at the funeral, and the second, on Father’s Day.
But some reminders of Pa are less random. Nearly every day, I drive past the street where my father pulled over his car for the last time, having experienced a brain hemorrhage while at the wheel. Every time I pass the spot, I marvel at what it must have taken for him to manage it. It’s off a fast road. He would have taken, I think, a left turn, which meant he probably waited for a signal. He then parked the car and got out so someone might see him. This is not the spot where my father began to die. It is the spot where he tried very hard to keep living.
I think about these last moments of my father out in the world, before the medical interventions that made his final two weeks intolerable, and ultimately ended his life. I think about these moments because I think I have experienced something like them: The slow realization that my lung had collapsed the day after my biopsy, and my determined journey by subway and bus to the ER. Or, later on, the morning I was losing my capacity for language, when I went through with a half day of work and a staff meeting and lunch with a friend before finally heading (again by public transportation) to the ER to discover my brain was riddled with tumors.
What these experiences have in common with my father’s, perhaps, is the relative calm with which we contended with them. In the face of near-certainty there was something mortally wrong with us, we each chose to put one foot in front of the other. If you can still walk, and talk semi-coherently, all is not lost. If you can joke about your situation while you’re in the midst of it, nothing can be all that wrong. I didn’t know how closely I held these beliefs before I got cancer, and I wouldn’t dare to say that this way of living is responsible for my survival. (My father, after all, did not survive.)
What it is, maybe, is a way of meeting the world, a way of being in the world. It takes stubbornness, and it takes resilience. My wish is to exhibit both of those traits even when my life is not at risk, because it is so good to have the confidence that comes along with it.
Pa is no longer here for me to talk this over with, and he won’t comment on this post. So, at a year’s distance from losing him, I’m reverse engineering his personality, seeing which components of it migrated to mine, and working out what parts of it I need to keep.