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 alive.

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.

And 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 sound bite:
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 life.

Maybe a big part of writing my own story will be listening to his.

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 specific Hope.

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 Hope.

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 love her.

And then tomorrow I'm going to see my father.

Rick Wyatt
November 1999

Return to the Harlan Ellison Home Page

Return to the Ellison Webderland entry point

Maintained by Rick Wyatt - webmaster@harlanellison.com