For the weeks, and even months, leading up to my father's death, I had attempted to write something for him. My dad and I had never been big communicators together - from him I learned to be aloof and silent, and though I also have a warm and expressive side, when with the tribe, one abides. Together we could listen to Jupiter from Holst's Planets, and I was quite certain that though neither of us said very much, we both felt the same thing. And that is how it was with him and I. Frightened silence of childhood transformed into a silence of friendship, understanding one another without words. But I, the writer, never without something to say, could not think of anything to say when it came to writing something for my father to read to him before his passing. And maybe that was because I couldn't accept it. Maybe the task was just too great. Or perhaps, in its own strange way, my inability to achieve what I wanted was, in fact, perfect.
Amid all my frantic searching for an answer that would cure my father of his sudden and unexpected disease, I did not quite accept that he would not live until my mother called me in the middle of August. I had been back in New York for about a week and planned to return to Boulder again. But still, I was not expecting this call to come on this particular day. If I wanted to see him again – these were her words – then I should come. I should come right away. I hung up the phone and stood in the kitchen, the sadness so thick it clung to the humid summer air.
The next morning I was in the house of my childhood. My father was unconscious. His breathing rattled in his chest and his skin was so loose on his face and body that he seemed to have aged thirty years. I sat on the bed with him, holding his hand, stroking the top of his head that was scabbed and almost entirely rid of hair, patting his cheeks so thin they caved in. I told him I loved him, because what else is there to say when you reach this crucial moment in your life when you lose someone so desperately important?
And I had to accept what I didn't want to accept. There would be no more chats over a glass of wine. There would be no more fatherly advice. I would not hear his voice again. There would be no sharing of beautifully crafted words to let him know what I wanted to say. There was only this short expanse of time that was granted to me - some sum of hours, that may add up to days, but in any case was easier to visualize as finite than a lifetime, though finite a lifetime is as well. I did not have any idea how much, if at all, he could still hear or understand me. I thought about what my mother and aunts said when I held my grandfather's hands as he passed, six years before - the face feels sensation the longest. And so I put my arms around him, and patted his sunken cheeks.
In the end, love really does just become the most basic of things. Nothing fancy, no fanfare, no particular words. It is patting my father's cheeks in his last days of life. It is him holding me in his lap when I was sad on a Christmas day as a little girl. My father and I eating croissants together in France. Listening to Holst's the Planets. It is my mother helping my father shower at the point he could not do it unassisted, even while he grumbled at her, and the family laughing as he cracked the last joke I can remember, a few weeks before he died. Love is those most basic things that we do, unadorned.
And so I realized that my failure to sculpt some beautiful words of literary value was in fact perfect. My father would not have been able to understand them anyway. But something in my heart said that maybe, just maybe, he could still hear me. And so I told him, just from the heart, the things I wanted to say: a simple list, because that's all I had been able to write. A list of the things I was grateful for that he had given me. I told him that he had been a good father, that I loved him, and that I knew he loved me. I wanted him to know that I'd found the courage to leave the unhappy marriage I'd been stuck in, and I promised him that I would choose wiser next time. I told him that I would measure a new man by his example: someone who had always chose to stand by his family. I told him that I had chosen to believe in myself and to pursue my dreams, and that I would make him proud of me.
As I told him these things my father breathed heavily, and I wasn’t sure if he heard me, though I continued to sit next to him and to pat his hand. Then I looked out the window. The August light was illuminating the trees, making them dance in a shiver of breeze mixed with late afternoon sun, silver-white and flashes of green. The most painfully beautiful sight. In those leaves I heard a voice calling: the voice of God, that voice of stillness I had barely heard for so, so long, telling me that there was no need to be afraid. No matter the story of our lives, there is something of meaning that endures, – and in the face of impending loss so great I could not even contemplate it, only bear down and prepare for it to crash upon me like a terrible wall of water – even in the face of this loss I knew was upon me, I still could hear the message in the light on the leaves. The light, reflecting off the leaves, told the most beautiful story my heart had ever heard.
Beauty is the only thing sometimes that can salvage the wreckage of our hearts. I thought to myself – if I were dying, what would I want to hear? What would I want to know? If I could not open my eyes, what would I hope to see? And so I described to my father these silver and green leaves just outside the window, and how they fluttered in the wind, and how the beautiful light reflected off of them. And as I described them, for the last time I heard my dad's voice, just a little bit, as if he were trying to speak. I leaned my head on his shoulder, trying to embrace and cherish this moment with him, even though when we are faced with moments we know will be over way too soon, it is as though we are holding a delicate vase that is slipping from our fingers, and our fear of it breaking makes us want to let it go. Even so, the only thing that made any sense to do was to keep holding his hand and to let the tears fall, like sweat from the palms when trying to grasp onto a branch of a tree just a little, just a little bit longer.