Unexpected Healing – A Memoir : Page 2 of 2
Challenge to Write Long: Response by Amy Lloyd
My childhood experience of my father and most notably was the dinner table event where humor and its darker side first made its power known. I am one of 5 children, though in truth it feels as though I was an only child. I don't remember conversations ever including what we may have learned in history class that day or who we had a crush on, but I do most vividly remember the competition amongst my siblings of who could make my father laugh of even more crippling, who could use one of us as the target. This engendered a strange sort of cruelty, the mean clown, and the proverbial rapier wit was fatal for me. I wasn't fast enough to dodge the stabs of my older brother, who could twist a phrase and load it with acid before hurling it on my behalf. After all, someone had to die at the dinner table and it was usually me. My agreed-upon shortcomings, namely my intelligence and looks, were fodder for them. When stung with a zinger, my father would give rousing cheer. I do not like my siblings and I am not certain I even love them. Though my recollections of the verbal and emotional abuse are very clear, they when confronted have chosen to be emotional amnesiacs. Convenient. Their total lack of consciousness bred my wobbly sense of safety and prompted a breaking away from my family for many years. They didn't take kindly to that.
"You have enemies? Good. Then you have stood up for something sometime in your life." (Winston Churchill.) I had made enemies, but I had regained my sense of self back and that was well worth the bloody exchange. Back to the end, the last 6 weeks of his life.
While spending most of the day in bed and rarely getting downstairs, he asked me to read the Sunday comics to him. This event involved explaining verbally what was in each picture. I employed various cartoon-like voices to better create the world of the comic strips. He found my interpretations less than stellar and let me know, but complimented me for a valiant effort. It remains a lovely moment for me. Another lighter moment: Upon administering medicinal marijuana in lollypop form to ease his nausea, my father looked up from his bed, sucker neatly wedged between his lips and said, "Hey Ames did you ever think it would come to this, feeding your father pot?" No, I never did. He thanked me often for all the help.
"I am so lucky," he once said after well does it matter?
"No, I am the lucky one," was my reply. Those wondrous moments slip in quietly like morning light, genuine and warm.
Some days I lay next to him and hold his hand while we listened to music or watched baseball. The World Series was on and he tried to explain the game to me. Time was moving and he had only so much left. Those afternoons I would bring my arsenal of good cheer for that was within my reach. That is what I could do. I read David Sedaris to him, brought funny stories from the paper, (one he really laughed at that involved a man blaming his cat for surfing a number of pornographic websites) and made him brownies. Throughout my entire life my dad lived on one side of the chasm and me the other, but this illness spun a thread that reached across and held us together.
Most of the time I held it together, both for him and for my mom. I stuffed it all inside until I could get home and release the vapors of anguish. There was one moment though when even I couldn't solider it through. I remember the day was about two weeks before his death. My father loved the TV channel where they played music. He particularly loved the Broadway station. La Cage Aux Follies was playing and in a burst of energy, my father in a rather robust voice chimed in with the refrain, "I am what I am.." It was the most vigor I had seen him in months and it made me smile for the rest of the day. Quite the contrary came a week later. One afternoon I was laying next to him, trying to soothe him, his hand slipping out and away from mine. He was fidgeting and angry and rolled over. I could hear the labored breathing and grew alarmed at the change of his skin. I noticed that particular day he looked ghoulishly white and pasty, a reminder of the disease and its residency in his body. Over the TV came the slow refrain of Barbara Streisand singing, "Happy Days are here again." The picture of his nearly inert body, his twitching feet searching for the covers, and the dark evening light broke the dam and my tears gave way. That day I lost the battle.
The funeral was a circus. Having gained a reputation as the dark sheep of the family, the one who left, my attendance was met coldly. Death becomes so personal that is it almost comedic. I witnessed all the hands gripping too tightly to the cocktail glasses, the false frozen smiles, and the well-intentioned, impotent words. I stayed upstairs and lay on the bed where my father had been, thinking about him and hoping where ever he went it was peaceful.
Grieving isn't about forgetting. It's about dividing up one's feelings. Portions to mourn and release and portions to re-claim and build again. It is architecture and construction creative, tedious and unpredictable.
At his memorial everyone spoke of his large appetites, and his robust joy of life. I do not share that with him. I am moderate, cautious of this world, a small foot in it at best. To my credit, I have built a solid relationship with myself, having navigated my interior deeply and thoroughly. My dad did not. He couldn't or wouldn't access his personal self I suppose because his public self was so bright and playful. The truth is I believe what lay deep in there terrified him and so he scooted away from everything too emotional or candid. Uncomfortable with intimacy, with anything that involved self reflection, we were strangers from foreign lands, joined together in crisis.
The day after he died my mother immediately had the handicap rails and ramps, bars and stools all stripped. She wanted no reminders. There is a steely practicality to my mother, her Irish ruggedness, her "forward moving, stay in line solider" attitude. We lost this battle, but we have to keep moving. She confessed there were low times these many months that were so excruciating that she wanted to get in her car and drive far far away. The anguish of watching someone die is so overwhelming, so impossible that it is to marvel anyone can manage it. When the brink of my despair broke and fell before me, I was shocked to see that same pain created something even more astonishing: My heart had grown and taken on a new shape.
The weeks afterwards: random moments that break me up. Weird reminders, wheelchairs, canes, the smell of bacon. What do we all silently promise to do to the ones who made us? We promise to hold their hand. Cancer was my prison, dad was the prisoner, and the light through the cell window was love. He wasn't freed in the traditional sense, but I believe his heart was given redemption. So was mine. I never did impress him much with my intelligence or wit nor did he me. Our conversations were never deep. Who would have guessed that I felt the closest to him when in the silence we held hands and watched CSI? There was no need to dazzle with words words were futile and false. But I had the most elegant of weapons a blunt sword that required simply holding, not brandishing. It was what reflected off the shiny tip that mattered. The picture of father and daughter connected by flesh, quiet and undisguised.
I do not have regrets. I spent precious time with him that weaved the smallest strand we could both tread across. It was a joint effort and one that I know involved a series of miracles. My heart is shattered for sure, but like a mirror that has fallen to the ground and the pieces have cracked and splintered, they can also be glued together. More profoundly, what is now reflected back will be better. For that is the thing about death. You change. And if you were present to it you will absorb this experience into the gallery of your life. Turns out, you don't acquire wisdom: You become it.
As horrifying as it sounds, disease is a gift. All this time I thought I was showing up for him, administering mercy and kindness to help with the transition. But I was there for me. I suppose I had always wanted a close relationship with my father, I would have asked that he always be kind to me, respectful, and supportive. I would have hoped he and I could have been great friends, with private jokes, and mutual tastes. We weren't and I have often wondered what other woman I would be had I had his nurturing. My dad was not my hero. He was an unformed man, demonized by his excesses and crippled emotional blankness. Sometimes when I lie on my bed, I reach my hand across the pillow like I did all those months. His hand isn't there, but I can see his face looking back at me, with gratitude in his eyes. Never underestimate the power of holding a hand. •
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