A Short, Shallow Breath
My sister called tonight to warn me about my father.
He's been living in St. Louis for the past seven weeks, waiting
for a lung unexpectedly long in arriving. I'm driving up there
tomorrow to see him. My sister wanted to spare me shock, to
align my expectations, to prepare me for what I'd see.
She wanted to tell me that he was barely there. And there was
more. Maybe she was a little drunk, maybe she'd had a bad
weekend there and back, maybe she was just too engaged in
worrying -- still, there was a catch in her voice, and a
conspirital tone. I had the feeling I had to choose my words and
my questions lest I trigger a cascade of held-back tears.
And now I'm scared....as she is, as he is. And now I want not to
go even more, and now I want to go even more.
I wanted to write about something else tonight. I wanted to
write about how I've come back to the city of my birth to figure
out what I was born here to do. I wanted to write about how
strange it feels to be about to go back into undergraduate school
at the age of 33, how scary it feels to be free to do it, like a
roller coaster car that just jumped the tracks.
I wanted to write about something else tonight. I wanted to
write about ANYTHING else tonight.
But that's a lie I told myself until my ass hit the chair. I
wanted to write about one thing, about this and only this: how
the threat of death has risen to the surface of my life and why
it must be expelled before anything else good can come out of me.
I am going to expel it by telling you three big things. I hate
to glorify them by calling them secrets or confessions, I hate to
ennoble them by presenting them in fashion dramatic. They're
going to hurt bad enough coming out that I don't feel I need any
flourish or garnish. So I'm just going to call them "things" and
give them to you.
Here's the first thing. I feel cheated that my father is still
I feel lucky, too, and grateful, and all those other things
you're supposed to feel. But goddamnit, I'd finally gotten it
all in the box a few years ago. I'd written the letter, I'd had
the talk, I'd made my peace and done away with my hang-ups. I
was SO PROUD of myself, I was actualized as all hell.
whattya know, now he keeps hanging around bring up new shit I
gotta deal with.
I've written about all this before, I'll give you the 30 second
Few years back - man gets idiopathic pulmonary
fibrosis, man isn't expected to live more than a couple years,
man winds up hanging on long enough to get to the top of the
transplant list and have a chance at a new lease, high rent and
month-to-month but at least renewable. Present Day - son throws
himself a pity party because he's having trouble dealing.
I wish I were dumb enough to use that cop-out and say "a part of
me" feels cheated. Does anyone ever buy that? Like there's the
eight man "Dealing with Feelings about Father" commission and
it's just that one inconsiderate bastard that's ruining things
for the other seven white boys?
It's too bad it doesn't work that way. It's too bad I have to
know that I'm the schmuck, not just Sub-Compartment 7C. I'm the
asshole who thought he could tie his father off like a bypassed
artery, who thought he was so damn cool for dealing with his
grief and regrets. I'm the jerk who thought he'd done what
needed to be done and could throttle back to holiday visits and
making phone calls when they were convenient for me.
Yeah, I've got a damn good excuse. I don't have time for this right now. I'm trying to dig a new
path. I'm trying to make a long-distance job work so I have the
time to dig, and meanwhile I'm also trying to work on a marriage
that's in danger of becoming automated. I'm trying to become
engaged with life, not death.
But my father is drowning on rich air. He's getting winded by
phone conversations. He's having to plan his trips down the
hallway. And he's been away from home for almost two months
waiting for a beeper to go off so he can rush to a building where
they're going to claw open his chest with tools, take big wet
parts of him out and put a dead person's big wet parts in, and
then sow things up and attach him to machines while they see how
it goes. If he's lucky, that is - more than half a time, I hear,
it's a dry run and the dead person didn't work out and my dad has
to go back to waiting.
So maybe I need to do some thinking. Maybe I need to compare my
need to have him in neat packages to his need for my more-than-
half-assed love. Maybe I need to consider just how little of my
time and attention it would take to make a difference in his
Maybe a big part of writing my own story will be listening to
Here's the second thing. I have to admit that expending a lot of
effort on a dying person seems like a waste.
I don't believe in God, I don't believe in a hereafter, I don't
believe that there is a soul that survives the death of its
vessel. What's the point of trimming the wick and managing the
air flow of a candle that's about to be snuffed out? And even if
I believed in an eternal reward, I'd be of the mind that someone
who is on the way out is about to get the big payoff and deserves
my congratulations more than my sympathy.
Why do we spend so much time and money on the inevitably dying,
ESPECIALLY those of advanced age who would derive little benefit
from minor extensions, when there are other sick people who stand
a chance of having a long life ahead of them who could really use
the funds and attention?
Why would I be so driven to get to see my father, in person, this
week in case he croaks it, when if he is going to there's little
enough I could do and little consolation I could offer? My god,
I'm going to go up there, and make the beds, and clean the
bathroom, and go get groceries, and talk and talk, and maybe next
week all my work would be for nothing? There has to be better
bets in town than that.
I should be proud of realizing this. I should be happy that I
know how to live my life efficiently and spend what coin I have
where it will do the most good. But instead those thoughts make
me feel dirty, and selfish, and most of all just plain rotten.
Why? Because I profess, at times, to be a writer. And my coin
is not my time or my effort or my attention or my money. My coin
is Hope. And when I treat someone's probable or approaching
death in a clinical or pragmatic manner, when I play the odds in
this way, I contribute to the Death of Hope.
That's the thing about Hope. Where Hope is most needed is not
where there is the slightest chance things will get better, where
the possibility of a miracle is faintly evident. Where its cry
most needs to be heard is not where people are suffering with
some window towards surcease. Where it does the most good is not
where people can use it to think that things might get better.
For in those places, we can rely on Providence, on Chance, on
Science, on whatever gods we hold dear. We can pray for a cure,
we can work for a solution.
There is a place where Hope and only Hope can survive and
clothe us, and that is where darkness is falling inexorably and
finally, where we WILL lose, where we have already lost. And
that Hope is not the hope that things will be better or a miracle
will occur. That Hope is the Hope of the survivor, the Hope that
somehow in our lives we will make the loss worthwhile.
It is a very specific Hope. It is the Hope that sometime,
somewhere, this all means something. That somehow out of our
pain will be born something good. To isolate the dying, to not
give them everything we can give, is to refuse the pain they have
to give us.
If we deny ourselves that pain, that experience,
if we turn our backs on death and loss, we kill that very
I talk a lot about helping my father, about making a difference
in his life, about basically doing the right thing by him. But
while easing his pain and making his life easier is certainly a
good thing in a strict moral sense, and will help me to remember
him without guilt or regret, it's not why I have to go.
I have to go so I can remember him as properly and clearly and as
completely as I can. I need to make his bed so I can remember
when he tucked me into mine, and draw upon that compassion. I
need to talk with him so I can remember what sort of man he is,
and color the lessons he has taught and will teach me in that
light. I need to see his pain so I can know my own.
Most of all, I need to remember him because he is my father,
because every father deserves to know they have given their son
Here's the third thing: I only half-believe what I've said.
I only half-believe it for two reasons.
First, while I can say some pretty words to attempt to rectify
the awfulness of the first two things, the fact remains that I
still think them and continue to think them. That committee is
still at least one-eighths total bastard and I'd be a fool to
think I'm any less of an asshole now than I was when I sat down
here two hours ago.
Second, I've known basically what I was doing and where I was
going from about the time I wrote the line about Sub-Compartment
7C. Not totally, some of the stuff that came out surprised me,
but I knew the pattern. I knew that basically that I was going
to have to first confess a couple of really shitty feelings I was
having and try to deal with them and THEN admit my awareness of
the process from the get-go and try to show that it was anything
more than an exercise in mental masturbation.
It seems arrogant of me to present some thoughts that make me
look bad and then work through them in a way that I guess I hope
makes me look good. It strikes me that it's as much of a cop-out
as saying that "a part of me" feels these things or that
"sometimes" I feel them.
So I copped out. But I had to. I don't think anyone can go
through life thinking they are a total shitheel, least of all me.
And as hard as it was to admit what I consider to be pretty dark
thoughts, it would have been impossible if I had not been allowed
to mollify them with the slightest of redemptions. And perhaps
most importantly, if anyone else was getting sucked down by these
thoughts it would have been pretty crappy of me to just say "Hey,
I'm drowning too" without trying to find a lifeline.
I don't harbor any illusions that I've made my life, or anyone
else's, any better by writing this. I can hope that I didn't out
my selfish jerk thoughts for no good reason, but I don't pretend
that I've resolved any battles within myself. I don't have any
idea what I'm going to do differently a month from now or a year
from now as a result of trying to work things out here.
But I do know a few things I am going to do, right after I put
this piece to bed. I'm going to go rub my dog's ears and tell
him he's a good boy. Then I'm going to go to bed and kiss my
wife on the forehead and right under her ear and tell her that I
And then tomorrow I'm going to see my father.
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