Tonight is the one year anniversary of my Dad's final breaths. I was already back in L.A., huddled in my apartment, shook up by the visit to Houston to see him one last time.
That trip was hard, you might remember. He ... was skin and bones. I had no idea how much worse things would get - the last time he and I had hung out in Thousand Oaks, he was incredibly thin, but still able to type, able to utter medium-specific sounds that were easily-guessable words. At that point, he had a dry-erase board with a marker and a cloth. His girlfriend was stressed - so my time spent with him was an opportunity for her to get away, to be with friends, to spend time outside of a life filled with walkers and handrails and Dad being unpredictably ornery and frustrated and mean. When she would get back, she'd vent to me about how the situation was wearing her down, and she'd make frustratingly oblique comments about discussing "matters" with my brother. She made it quite clear that there was Official Business between them that I was not invited to. I kept a polite distance, and only asked after things that seemed safe to talk about.
I was still working insane hours in the fall when his girlfriend lost her shit and my brother had to fly out to take Dad to Texas. In a way, I had a career, finally, I had no personal life beyond a few gaming sessions with friends nearby, and I had a car that needed serious repairs, with no money nor time to fix them. I was pressured to feel very, very guilty about not braving the mountain pass and the terrible traffic all the way out west past Calabasas to the house where my Dad lived now, where he slowly stopped forwarding as many e-mails and unapologetically ate dessert (he was a health nut for many years, this was a source of HUGE amusement to me). And, I felt guilty. I was still running on sleep deprivation from work, and I was still living out of boxes from the move several months previous. I was straining to keep up with SoCal expenses, frustrated with the contractor pay I received for those few crucial months after I moved here when I really, really needed to be earning the salary that was promised.
When I saw him that last time in Texas, I felt utterly beaten by life. I'd lost my dream job, and my colleagues had moved on firmly without me, to my chagrin. Dad was a skeleton dressed in grey skin, his face showing bruising and abrasion from a bad fall he'd taken only recently. He was bandaged. He was incapable of any real specific utterances beyond groans or an exhalation of air with a bit of sound. His eyes still contained some expression. He still had surprising strength in his arms.
When I arrived for the first time at the home, I helped feed him some milkshake. My brother had established a routine of bringing and feeding Dad a vanilla milkshake every single day, in order to cajole him into taking any sort of sustenance. Dad was stubborn about holding the spoon, about guiding it. Unfortunately, his muscles did not always cooperate - his brain would go on autopilot or something, and he would pull, hard, and he would wave the spoon and slosh milkshake and then ram the spoon towards his mouth and I would firmly hold him back, praying he wouldn't gash his lip, break his teeth. Like the pudding and ice cream desserts he tore into in Thousand Oaks, these milkshakes were his concession to nutrition. Most of the other meals brought to him by the caretakers in the home went untouched.
My brother's wife had made a chicken dish my Mom made all the time when we were younger, and she brought a small portion of it that day for Dad to try, even though solid foods were incredibly difficult for him to enjoy, as they took effort his brain couldn't accomplish. But I got the honor of feeding him that first forkful - this baked, savory clump of breading and soup and chicken, and when Dad tasted it, his eyes welled up with tears and his eyebrows raised in surprise - the memory of this meal was so strong. It was a small bite, and, encouraged, I forked up another from the plastic container. But then the brain stubbornness kicked in, and the muscle memory, and the strength, oh my god, the strength, and the pushing away, and suddenly I was in a tug-of-war with my Dad, calm, but liable to turn bad quickly, so I quietly and politely asked the orderly sitting nearby to give me some help. A big, gentle bear of a guy, the nurse firmly pushed Dad's shoulders back and pried his hand from the fork and moved his arms safely out of the way. I put the container away. I asked the nurse to leave for a few minutes.
I said goodbye to my Dad. At the time, and even now, I feel like I said stupid things then. I babbled, I talked, I kept filling the room with words that were trite and stupid. These words that were waterbugs, skating on the surface. The pit of my stomach held a hot stone, with tears that threatened, anger at everything that was happening. Otherwise, I felt nothing. I said stupid things. I said goodbye in this fake voice like I was going to see him again soon, and suddenly I couldn't see anything - I was backing out of the room and tears were streaming down my face and I was smiling. I was smiling and waving and my Dad was already beginning to let his eyes droop, his body relaxing into sleep that he so frequently dropped into. It was easily the worst goodbye I have ever experienced in my entire life. It was nonsensical. It was backwards and wrong and stupid and had no pretty bow with which to tie things up.
Back in California, I was lost, alone, cold, and incredibly worried about my future. I had some rent figured out - after all, the money I had saved up for self-employment taxes was just sitting there, doing nothing (sarcasm). I was able to write checks, but with every signature, I went further into future debt. Everything felt dark. I worried about my own brain stroking out, and I felt like my life was over. All of the momentum and direction and joy was squashed.
And then the call came on January 10th, just after midnight in California. My brother sounded incredibly tired, but he said that although things were rough for a short while, Dad went peacefully. And now that I think about it, that may have been the last time I talked to my brother by telephone.
I spent the next several months feeling so very conflicted over this entire situation. I started throwing things out from the boxes I hadn't unpacked since Chicago. I shredded so many pounds of paper. My grief was capitulation to the survival process. Instead of thriving and fighting, I succumbed to the instinctual tendency towards simply existing. I wasn't even numb. I just was. I cried in the shower, and I put on my easy public face for everyone I saw.
Once I got the opportunity to come back to NC, I mustered up some motivation. Through the heat of the summer and the wildfires raging 5 miles from my apartment, I sweated and procrastinated my way through sheer moving hell as I coordinated this last move pretty much on my own. Every last box, barring the ones in my kitchen, were all packed by me. Every last phone call and freight arrangement were my daily tasks, my do-or-die. I had no idea if I was making a mistake, but at some point I decided I'd had enough with the fail, enough with the desiring of success. Mediocrity and predictability were alright by me. It was better than constantly revisiting the sight of bony, tiny Dad curled up in his hospital bed, of remembering in excruciating detail his hair all wild and bed-heady squashed on one side, incredibly white and wiry and needing a trim. The move was punctuated by filling my head with hours of television shows - all seven seasons of Buffy, all 5 seasons of The Office, and lots of zombie-killing video gaming. The course was set, and I was moving on, but I mostly felt nothing.
And all this, to punctuate the day I arrived back here in North Carolina:
September 7th. My Dad's birthday. He would have been 65.
It was rainy, green, and smelled so sweet and cool. I was no longer coughing and stinking of woodsmoke, my world was no longer covered in ash. I was having dinner with dear friends at the Red Robin nearby, and I was sitting in an empty, air-conditioned apartment with a prowling torby cat later, talking to my Mom on the phone. And that's when I was told that my brother was, at that moment, in Hamilton, IL. Hamilton's my Dad's birthplace. My brother was there to spread Dad's ashes.
And it was the first I'd heard about it.
And while I suspect that there's work ahead for me regarding my family, I felt like, at that very moment, a chapter had been written and finished. There were things happening in the world where I wasn't wanted or considered, and I had to make a decision about how I felt about it. I am still not sure exactly what I decided, but once I managed to stop feeling quite so angry and hurt, I made it my focus to listen more closely to the life all around me here, where I am right now. Some days, I don't succeed. Nights like tonight, I feel just as awful as I did a year ago, shoulders aching with tension, grief spilling out of me at ridiculous moments.
The unexpected bombs drop, still - in fact, one happened just last night. On the way home from work, I picked up some veggies and two chicken breasts, intending to make a foil pouch dinner out of it all. Slicing up the potato and arranging the portabella and spices and splashing balsamic over it all was therapeutic, easy. But reaching into the drawer to get the foil, I gasped as I remembered Dad moving out of his condo to live in his girlfriend's house. I inherited a ton of kitchen supplies, including a ridiculous amount of plastic wrap and foil. I hardly go through the stuff anyway, so it all moved with me here. Today, I located my USB hub ... which was my Dad's, before he gave away most of his computer equipment when he moved.
I know this entry doesn't really hold together. I am mostly writing it so I can get it out of my head, where it's been festering all weekend. I went and read the entries of a year ago, and had a hard time keeping my shit together when I saw a supportive comment from Wolf. It's all too much, still. All this familial shit, and then the normal life stuff that happens, and me wondering when I'll ever come home.
But one thing I can be sure of is that my Dad died a year ago tonight, in the wee hours, and nothing will ever change that, or unmake it. It is stamped in a timeline. I can check my watch against it. It is done, and there is only now, there is only soon.
I am here, and I am going to have chicken leftovers and go cry some more.