Your profile, more beautiful than I had ever appreciated, growing sharp and waxen, the contours of your cheeks hollowing out.
This picture is from the other side of a sharp dividing line that separates life with my dad and life without him. When I poured those three cups of tea, I was still buoyed by hope that I could get him to eat, that I could comfort him, that we would have beautiful moments together that would sustain me when he finally died.
It's hard to know exactly when the dying begins. I don't mean the incremental dying we do from the moment we're born – I mean the serious business of the spirit preparing to leave the body and all the focus and determination it requires. It sneaks up on you. You read it on the faces of friends – their astonishment at all the things you've dulled yourself to. Sometimes you dread their visits, the hushed conversations in the kitchen that force you say things you never imagined saying, things that leave you feeling bewildered and desolate.
Even when my father, lying in pain on the chaise, wished aloud that we could do for him what we did for our ancient, crippled dog, my mother and I couldn't fully accept the inevitability of his death. Instead, my mother stroked his hair and told him that a course of mild chemo would make him feel better, that he'd have some good days again.
"No," my father said. "I want to die." Later, when things got really bad and we moved him to a hospital bed that smelled of plastic, his impatience grew stronger. Launching himself over the edge of the mattress, he pleaded with us, with the gods, with nature. "I have to get out of here," he insisted. The spirit wanted out of the body, and there was nothing stopping it.
His oncologist concurred. My father lay on the stainless steel examining table wrapped in our coats, gray and shivering and small, while my mom and I took in the word "hospice." I hammered the doctor with questions to avoid seeing my mother's valiant, radiant face crumple. He asked if I was a nurse. In the midst of all the devastation, I remember a perverse moment of pleasure: Finally, recognition for my pretend internet medical training! And then: Why didn't he think I was a doctor?
My father became more animal than man. The pain of his back breaking vertebrae by vertebrae made him snarl like a wounded beast. He stopped reading, he stopped eating, he stopped communicating beyond basic commands. He shed his characteristic refinement and politesse, his shy affection, his insatiable curiosity, his endearing charm, his unwavering sense of propriety. He couldn't bear people - people who wanted to love him, feed him, comfort him. My brothers and I overwhelmed him with our tall, strapping bodies that brimmed with vitality and distracted him from his new purpose: to go ahead and get on with it.
I made myself small. At night, I camped out on the floor near his bed, resisting the urge to curl up on the corner of the mattress to be closer to him while he slept. My mother and I spent hours every day in an elaborate rearranging process, trying to make him comfortable. I wept in frustration at my clumsiness and ineptitude, my lack of physical strength. The failures mounted: I couldn't lift him, I couldn't get him to take his painkillers, I couldn't alleviate his constant anxiety, I couldn't convince him to eat or drink.
And yet I was one of the few people he could tolerate, the one who knew how to position the pillow, the one who discovered that foot massages were the purest form of relief. My heart swelled when he called for me, when he let me wash and shave and perfume him. These small victories filled me with a pride and purpose that had always eluded me.
The night before my dad died, my oldest brother convinced me to go home and get some badly needed sleep. When my dad noticed I was gone, he panicked. "How will I sleep tonight?" he fretted. I weep every time I think about this - not so much out of guilt for not being with him that night, but from the honor of knowing I was capable of giving him momentary peace. Peace was all I ever wanted for him – and what I hope for him now, on Father's Day.
Love you and miss you more than words can say, sweet Dad. Your memory is eternal.
Friends, it's been a while. Though I haven't been here much, I've carried you with me, and feel the warmth of your goodness and kindness, always. I owe you an update, but somehow I let things build up until they seem too formidable to tackle all at once, so today I'll just start with what's on my mind this morning. And that would be...eggs.
Huevos, Part I
A few days after my dad died, a friend brought us a dozen eggs laid by her chickens. Amid all the elaborate floral arrangements, gift baskets and gigantic deliveries of cold cuts we received through the generosity of friends and family, this offering stood apart in its purity, simplicity and symbolism. Eggs – the promise of life eternal.
Huevos, Part II
Then, Victoria and Albert, the mourning doves, made their nest outside my parents' bedroom window. We were so excited that they had chosen us, so touched by how content they seemed sitting on top of their eggs through snow storms and gale force winds. It seemed like my dad had orchestrated the whole thing to console and distract us during those dark days. It seemed like the universe had sent us the avian equivalent of my parents - devoted, steadfast, loving.
But then Victoria and Albert started to look confused and nervous. I told a friend about it at a party.
She thought for a moment, and said, haltingly, "I don't think eggs are viable. In a few days, the doves will probably realize they're not going to hatch and take off."
"Oh, God - are you serious? What am I going to tell my mom? She'll be so crushed."
"Shit, I don't know. Get her a puppy?"
I didn't have to tell my mom. The next day, Victoria and Albert abandoned the nest with one unhatched egg and one, teeny-tiny furry thing that didn't make it.
My mom peered into the empty nest. "So much for symbolism," she sighed. When you're down and out, it's hard not to look for signs everywhere.
Nature, I shake my fist at you. Why are you being such a bitch to my moms?
Huevos, Part III
Some days are harder than others. Today is a not-very-good day, for example. If my dad were alive, we'd celebrate him with birthday candles and chocolate cake that he'd inevitably get all over his moustache. My mom would buy him a pretty shirt and a bowtie and his grandchildren would climb all over their Poppi. We have no one to spoil today. It's hitting my mom the hardest.
"I need something to nurture." By "something" she means something small. Something helpless. Something cute.
"What about a puppy?" I say.
"I'd rather have a baby."
I know where this is headed. I was born a year almost to the day that my mom's beautiful sister died of cancer. Babies are consolation for the bereaved. The hints are becoming less and less hinty.
"But wouldn't a puppy be great?"
I try not to rise to the bait. I stall. Stalling is what I do best. See also: avoidance. Meanwhile, I have dreams that my eggs aren't viable. I wake up feeling bereft.
Huevos, Part IV
Strangely, all I want to eat for breakfast - or anytime, really - is a fried egg on a corn tortilla, smothered with hot sauce. Blowing up my sinuses with cayenne seems to be my preferred method of distraction, along with Game of Thrones. Sometimes I consume them together and speak Dothraki to my husband. In fact, these three things - egg tacos, Game of Thrones, and my husband distracted me from the dread I felt all last week.
Huevos, Part V
Part of the dread had to do with the prospect of asking my workaholic boss for a bizillion vacation days in a row to take a big trip this summer. I ran the idea by my friend at work.
"It's takes a huge pair of huevos to ask for that."
"Shit. I don't have any huevos. I'm working with a serious huevos deficit."
"You better grow some if you want to take that vacation."
I still haven't asked. I don't have the huevos. I need the huevos. I must have the huevos, otherwise I'll let myself down.
Huevos, Part VI
The other part of the dread was getting through our first holiday without my dad. Greek Easter is a big deal in my family, and even though he was thoroughly Protestant, my dad was always a big part of the proceedings. I always looked forward to taking Good Friday off from work to prepare for the feast, meeting him at Ninth Avenue International Foods to pick up Greek goodies, and then swinging by Poseidon Greek Bakery to buy tsoureki, a special Easter bread. This weekend, my mom and I quietly went about our preparations, pausing momentarily to sob over some detail that reminded us of his absence.
Mom: "I CAN'T FIND DADDY'S PLACECARD! WAHHHHHHHHHH!"
P: "I FINALLY DYED THE EGGS PERFECTLY AND DAD'S NOT HERE TO SEE IT! WAHHHHHHHHH!"
Mom: WHO'S GOING TO SIT IN DADDY'S CHAIR? WAHHHHHHHHH!
P: WHERE SHOULD WE PUT DAD'S PHOTO? WAHHHHHHHHH!
What can I say? Stoicism is not in our genetic makeup. But the eggs were unprecedented perfection – a deep, even crimson, polished up with olive oil - and a different thing altogether from the patchy, leprotic eggs of years past.
The eggs were my dad's domain. He would have been so pleased that after countless years of trial and error, we finally got them right. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost hear his voice – I can almost make out the words he'd say. My God, Tata Baby. Those eggs are spectacular.
P.S. One of these days, I'll write a post that isn't about dreading death, dying, and being sad about death and dying. I may one day even get my sense of humor back. If you hang with me until then, I'll give you a baby panda wearing earmuffs, or a tiny baby kangaroo riding on the back of Simba, it's adopted lion mother. Your choice. xox