Dear Dad // No. 31: The Beginning of a Beginning

Dear Dad,

The beginning of a beginning is often hard to see. We don’t realize it’s come to pass until we spot it behind us, waving goodbye. We’re past the beginning at that point, its lessons only recognized through the mercy of hindsight.

The following is an account of a beginning, Dad. I made these notes as the events unfolded. They aren’t pretty, weren’t written with an eye toward prose or style or anything of the like. They are the beginning of a beginning, and nothing more.

They are the beginning of our goodbye.

Sunday, March 19

I receive word from G at 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 19. Dad is in Allegheny General. Bad stroke. Still waiting to hear back from dr.

I’m at a writing retreat in the mountains of Tennessee, so I stand in the cold with my sweater wrapped around me and dial the hospital’s NeuroICU, but the doctor isn’t there and the nurse prefers to give updates through only one family member.

There is no news the rest of the night. I sit among friends and think, “We’ve done this before. Maybe your recovery will be slower, but we can do this. We’ve done it once, and we can do it again.” I wonder if you’ll forget me again. I wonder if I’ll have to introduce myself to you once more.

The next morning, I start the eight-hour drive to Pittsburgh. The entire drive, I think, “Remember to ask whether he’s breathing on his own. What are his chances of worsening aphasia? We’ll need to arrange physical therapy.”

G calls while I’m somewhere in the Tennessee mountains. We agree that assisting living will be a must going forward. No debate, Dad. We got lucky with your first recovery, and we won’t be with this one. It’ll take work, but we’ve done it before. We can help you through it again.

All through the mountains, I drive. Past farmland and rolling pastures, thick swaths of trees and craggy rock. I climb skyward, and I wait to cry.

#

It’s 7 o’clock when I arrive in Pittsburgh. I drop my car off at my room and take a cab to the hospital so I won’t have to worry with parking. When I arrive, it’s like a strange déjà vu. There is the lobby and the cafeteria, the sterile smell of life and its germs wiped clean from every surface, the gentle ding of the elevators. I know which floor to go to, and I go without thinking.

Seven floors up, I lift the phone in the hall and ask the receptionist if I can see you. But visiting hours aren’t until 9 p.m. I go to the waiting room to find that the couch I’d slept on four years ago is gone. In its place is a row of metal chairs with the thinnest padding I’ve ever seen. I curl myself into one and watch the door, waiting for something even I don’t know. I must look horrible, because the man next to me gets up, moves a coffee table in front of me, and says, “Here. Put your feet up on this.”

His wife asks if I have a place to stay. I tell them about the AirB&B room B rented for me while I was on the road. They ask if I’ve driven, if I know my way around, if I am alone.

“Right now,” I say. “But others are coming.”

I sit in the chair with my feet on the table until 9. Then I get to see you.

#

It isn’t like the first stroke. When I saw you after the first stroke, you had fallen down the stairs and cut your head. There was a deep gash that ran along your forehead. It had already bruised purple and red. You couldn’t breathe on your own. A machine blipped out your breaths, forced your chest to rise and fall, steady as a drum. Back then, the nurse had spent an hour, maybe longer, talking me through all the various complications you were experiencing and how the team of doctors planned to address them. This is what I anticipate as I walk through the pale lights down the familiar hallway to your room. But this is not what I find.

You look so normal, Dad. So very ordinary. You don’t have a cut on your head or a tube down your throat. You breathe on your own. You are just as restless as you were before, moving your arms and legs in the bed and pulling against the restraints, but the moment I see you, my heart buoys. I rush to pull on the plastic gown and gloves so I can enter the room and tell you I’m here. I don’t need a nurse to tell me to do it, because I recognize the note taped to your door from your last stay in the NeuroICU, and I know what it means. I yank on the gown and hurry to your bedside, and it’s all so familiar and odd and comforting somehow, not to have so many machines hooked up to you. I go to your bedside and I touch your arm and I say, “I’m here, Dad. It’s Ash. I’m here.”

#

When the nurse comes in, I know. The way she walks in is so different than the last time. The way she holds her hands in front of her and hesitates before she speaks. The way she says, “So, have you spoke with anyone about … him?”

“No. I haven’t seen a doctor. Can you tell me what we’re doing for him? He’s breathing on his own, so that’s good. What else is going on?”

“We’re making him comfortable,” she says. “They think, maybe a week? Palliative care has been called.” Then, gently, “Do you know what that means?”

“Yes.”

There isn’t anything more to say. I think I might go numb. There isn’t a very good word for this feeling.

#

I tell you about your room. Describe how pretty the view is and ask you to be still and rest. And while I try to find the strength to keep talking, you say, “Ashley.”

“Dad!”

You grimace. “Ashley.”

I hold your arm a bit firmer. “I’m here, Dad. I’m here. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”

You shake your head, grimacing. The corners of your eyes crease.

“Are you in pain?” I ask.

You nod. A tear slips from your eye. I wipe it with a gloved finger as gently as I can.

“Okay, we’ll get you something for pain, okay? I’ll be right back.”

I rush from the room to the nurse’s station and ask her if we can give you anything for pain. She looks at me quizzically.

“He spoke to me,” I explain. “He told me he’s in pain.”

She frowns and examines your chart. “He hasn’t been cognizant all day.”

“He said my name. Twice. And I asked him if he was in pain and he nodded. Can we give him anything?”

I can tell that she doubts whether you are cognizant enough to really communicate with me. For the briefest of seconds, I want to scream. To scream that I know you spoke to me and you heard me and you are there, but I don’t have to. She agrees.

I go back to your bed and whisper to you for another hour, telling you it’ll be okay, that we’ll help you, to rest and rest and rest, that I’m here and I won’t leave and everything will be okay.

I lie, Dad. Because I don’t have the strength to tell you the truth.

#

It’s 11 p.m. when I get back to my room. Everyone is up around me. It’s too noisy to sleep, and it doesn’t make much difference. I lie in the bed in the dark and try to imagine what I’ll do tomorrow. How I remember from last time that the doctors do their rounds first thing, and I need to be there to speak with them. I need to ask them how we can make you comfortable and what they’re doing for you, and then I need to get on my phone and pass on whatever news they tell me to Mom and C and J and G.

I do not sleep. By the time the sun cuts through the window, I am up and dressed. My lips are swollen and have broken out with sores, either from stress or lack of sleep or something else. They must burn while I brush my teeth, but I can’t feel it. All I feel is the tightness in my chest, and all I think is that I must not cry in front of you.

#

When I arrive at the hospital, I go straight to your room. As I begin to pull on the plastic gown, I hear the doctor inside your room, on speaker phone with someone. I begin to rush, trying not to rip the plastic.

“So, that is not good,” the doctor says.

The voice comes over the phone into the room. “Fuck.”

“Is that J?” I ask from the doorway as I yank on my gloves. The doctor and nurse look up. “That’s my brother. I can help you. What’s going on?”

At that moment, J’s phone drops the call. The doctor gestures to the hallway. “Let’s go talk in here.”

Wait, I haven’t said good morning, I almost say. Instead I glance at you, and follow him into a small room.

#

What happens in the room is this.

The doctor asks me what I know already, and I say, “Nothing.”

The doctor explains that your CAT scan from this morning is much worse. The bleeding in your brain is not improving. In fact, it’s worsening. At this rate, he believes you only have a few days.

A week, I want to say. We’re supposed to have a week.

The doctor needs to know what your feelings are on these types of situations, and he cannot hear it from me. I am not legally yours. “I know.” I have to whisper. I’m not supposed to cry. “It was like that last time.”

It’s decided he’ll call J back on my phone. We put J on speakerphone and lay the phone on the table between us. When the doctor asks J what your feelings are on living on machines versus passing naturally, I hold my breath.

How cruel, that I am here and unable to help you. How cruel, that I have already told the doctor this truth and it somehow holds no value.

But I knew it would be like this. I prepared myself for it. So, when the doctor asks J his questions, I hold my breath and pray J says the same things I have.

And when he does, I feel like a tremendous gift has been given to you, Dad. I couldn’t help you. I could only sit here and hold you and comfort you, but I could not save you from your pain. Only your biological children could do that.

When J tells the doctor that you would never want to live on machines, the doctor makes a note on his chart. When the call ends a few minutes later, he looks at me and says, “We’ll change our care plan now, and make him comfortable.”

He pauses. “You’re doing the right thing.”

When he shakes my hand, I start to cry.

#

Is there a “right thing” when your father’s life is involved? I wonder about this as I sit beside you the rest of the day. You’re restless, moving your arms, trying to reach your head, and shifting your legs, bending your knees, crossing your feet. You are in pain.

But the doctors act quickly now. They come in and take away the tube that had been draining the blood from your brain. They remove the tube in your nose. They remove the restraints from your ankles and wrists. They give you a dose of morphine.

You have not been cognizant today, but I sit with you, and I whisper to you, and I rub your arm and try to tell you things that will make you calm. When family calls for updates, I step away from your bed and try to keep my voice low when I relay that something unspoken has stolen a few of your days from us. I don’t want you to hear. I refuse to believe that somewhere inside, you cannot hear me. They said you couldn’t hear me yesterday either, and you did.

Perhaps our days aren’t lost yet, Dad. Perhaps they will be wrong again.

#

At noon, your neighbors come by to see you. I’d met them the previous night right before I left, when they stopped by to check on you. They are kind people, maybe in their sixties, with a love of jazz and art. I could see immediately why you like them. One of them sang a few bars from a Tony Bennett song to you.

Today, they stand beside your bed and ask me if you’ve been cognizant. I have to say no, but I also say they should still speak to you. They offer to stay with you while I get something to eat. I don’t tell them that I haven’t been hungry in a day, or that retracing my steps from four years ago makes me nauseated. Instead I smile and go to the elevator and down to the cafeteria, get an apple and a green tea and sit at a table in the sun and wonder how long I have to stay here before it’s acceptable for me to go back to your bedside. I eat half the apple and decide that’s long enough.

#

At 12:30, I am alone with you again. I watch the monitor and try to figure out what all the data mean. Some numbers rise and some numbers fall, and I don’t want to look away from the screen to research it on my phone. Soon, a nurse comes in, and I glance at the monitor and ask, “What does the pink number mean?”

She looks up at the screen. Her hand rises to the edge of the monitor, and she slowly turns it away from me. Then she tries to smile. “It’s probably not a good idea to look at that.”

I wonder if she realizes, Dad, that her answer has told me more than any number could.

#

You are still restless, so they come back. They give you a morphine dose, then a drip. It works quickly, and after a minute, you are calm. I think, maybe, you begin to sleep.

#

I cannot see the data now, Dad. There is only so much I can tell you, and I don’t want to make you sad. I opt to stay in neutral territory, reiterating how kind your doctors are and how good you are doing at staying still and resting, how nice a view your room has and how fancy the hospital is. I tell you I’m here and you can trust me to care for you and you can rest. Just rest.

But I cannot see the numbers and I need something, so I start to count your breaths.

A few days. I will do this for a few days. I will count your breaths and whisper calming words to you, and it will be okay.

When I cry, I try to do it silently, so you don’t hear.

#

Soon, another nurse comes in. She looks at the monitor and then at me. Her expression is kind. “He probably only has a few hours now.”

I flinch. “But we had a few days. Is something wrong?”

“His oxygen level is really low.”

“What is it?”

“45.”

“What’s normal?”

“Yours and mine are at 90.”

I stare at the back of the monitor. I feel as if it’s stolen your days from you. I cannot explain it. How could they have evaporated over the course of a few hours?

When I look back, the nurse is gone. I send messages to family and friends.

Oxygen levels very low. Hours now.

I go back to counting your breaths. I wish I could remember where I’d been before. Every one feels precious now.

#

At 1, two neurosurgeons come to see you. They look at the chart and examine the monitor, and tell me they’re going to give you something to help with your breathing. It’s been rough for a while now, Dad, a kind of pattern I’d memorized. A sharp breath in—a gasp—then 30 seconds until the next. Then 2 seconds. Then 45. Then 3. Then 30. And so on.

“Will this help him breathe better?” I ask.

“It’ll make it less work. The part of his brain that takes care of that … there’s too much bleeding there.”

“That’s why he’s taking breaths like that.”

“Yes. This’ll help him feel better when he breaths. Is that okay?”

“Yes. Anything to help with the pain.”

#

From that point on, you are comfortable. A feeling seeps over me. I know it will happen soon. I tell myself not to know it. But I cannot.

I count, and I count, and I count. And when I realize I’ve stopped talking, I whisper something else to you. I’m here. I’m here. It’s Ash. Dad? It’s Ash. I’m here.

I am alone, but you are not. I am here.

#

Two exhales stand out. They come from deep, deep down, and they sound calm, relieved almost, as they exit your lips. They frighten me.

I know it is your final breath because my count goes over a minute. When it reaches 60 seconds, I stop counting your breaths. Instead, I watch a spot in the crook of your neck where a vein pulses in time with your heart. I count the seconds and I watch the spot on your neck as it fades and fades and fades and fades, a small, quiet wave that cannot reach the shore.

I am watching when it stops. And when it does not begin again.

#

I only realize I am still counting when the machines go off. It takes three minutes before they scream. A nurse comes in and shuts them off. She meets my gaze. “I know,” she whispers.

But you don’t, I want to say. It happened three minutes ago. I know. I was counting. She pulls the sheet to cover the doorway, and once again, we are alone together.

#

I sit with you for an hour before anyone comes. I keep thinking I see your chest rise again, and for a split second, I think, Oh! I’ve miscounted! It was my fault! Silly me, thinking all that time had passed, when it was only a breath. But then I remember that the nurse has already come and the silence in the room is because the machines are no longer turned on and the muffled sound is me. I cry quietly, because there are other patients on this floor, and I don’t want to scare them.

#

After an hour, G arrives with Gl, your first wife. Gl has dementia and has never really acknowledged me. She once told you that she didn’t understand why you bothered keeping in touch me because I wasn’t your real daughter. But today, she walks up and hugs me.

“Thank you,” she whispers, her voice thin and delicate. She does not cry. She asks the priest who arrives at the same time she does if he will pray for God to give you back. The priest is shocked, and says, “Gl, why would I ask for that, when he is in Heaven?”

#

After a while, they leave, and once again, it is you and me, Dad. It has been almost two hours since you passed, and I do not understand what I’m supposed to do. I cannot leave you here—but you aren’t here anymore.

The nurse asks me where you’re going, and I have no idea what she means. She explains that someone must do something with your body, and something inside me flinches at that word. But they need me to decide. They need direction.

“I’ve never done this,” I say.

They tell me to ask the church, so I call them from beside you and I whisper into the phone that I don’t know what to do. They give me the number of a funeral home. I make the call. Again I explain that I don’t know what to do.

I don’t know what to do, but I do things anyway, because they must be done, and people are waiting.

#

Sometime after 3, I’m able to walk away. Before I go, a nurse hands me two clear plastic bags. Your things. A pair of jeans and a belt and shoes and a pocket knife and a cell phone and a wallet. I carry you in my arms as I get into the elevator. The woman beside me sees the bags and says, “Oh.” Then she stares at the floor.

I get lost in the hospital. I look at the signs and turn in circles and I think the weight of you is throwing off my compass. I don’t know which way is North and which is South. A woman says, “You’ve had a rough day. What can I help you find?”

“I need to leave.”

“Okay. Follow me.”

We walk through a beautiful atrium with arched ceilings and marble floors. Classical music plays from somewhere. She leaves me at the front door. I go outside and sit on a bench and wait for a cab with your belongings beside me. A man sits on the other side of your things. He doesn’t say anything to me, but when I spot a cab and pick up your things, he says, “Have a good day.”

I get into the cab and set you beside me. Your things. Not you. The cab driver twists around and smiles. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

I burst into tears.

#

It’s around 4 p.m. when I get back to the room. I set your things on the carpet and crumble beside them, bury my face in my hands, and cry.

After a while, I pick myself and open the bags. I open your wallet and sort through the slips of paper you’d tucked inside. You always had this habit of writing everyone’s phone numbers on slips of paper, and here they are now, along with the sheet I gave you after your first stroke, with our phone numbers on speed dial. Your phone tumbles onto the carpet, and I pick it up and scroll through your recent calls.

A history forms. A 4:49 p.m. call with Gl on Friday. A call to 911 at 4:07 p.m. on Saturday. The doctors were wrong, Dad. You didn’t suffer the stroke on Thursday or Friday and sit alone without help until Saturday. It was sometime after your Friday dinner with Gl and the call to 911 on Saturday. The window of pain shrinks a bit, and this time when I cry, it’s with relief.

#

There are other things in your wallet. A tiny Star of David that I know nothing of but set aside. Forty-five dollars in cash. Your bank card, art-store card, your social security card, Medicaid card. A little drawing by C. All of this I tuck inside the softened pockets of your wallet, and slip it into the bag.

Your shoes, pants, belt, scarf … they all smell so strongly of the hospital I cannot take it. I hold my breath and dig through the pockets. Then I put them back in the bag and tie it tight. I can still smell it from across the room. I can’t tell if it’s in my head or real.

#

The last thing I find is a cross. I don’t recognize it, but it’s in the bag, so you must have had it on you when you went to the hospital. I slip it over my head, and crawl into bed.

I want to say I don’t cry, Dad, but we both know that isn’t true.

#

Sometime after 5, I walk down to the river and sit beside the water. The wind is chilly but feels nice on my cheeks. I lift my face, and watch the clouds.

Wednesday, March 22

At midnight, my aunt and uncle arrive. We talk until 2 a.m. Then I give them the bed and take the couch. I’m able to sleep for a few hours.

The next day, they offer to drive me to the funeral home. We sit in a carefully decorated room with yellowed curtains pulled tight over the windows, and the funeral home director—a thin man with a quiet voice—explains the options. I had asked everyone what their opinions were beforehand without telling them what each other had selected, so that everyone would speak from their hearts without influence, and everyone had chosen the same option. This is what I tell the director. He nods and tells me the price. I jot it down in my notebook, payable by cash or check. (Later, I’ll frantically search my purse for a check. I finally find one in my wallet. Just one, but that’s all I need.) The entire time we speak, I sit at the edge of the couch with my back rigid enough that I cannot cry.

On the way out, the director stops me in the hall. I turn around, and he points at the paintings along the wall. “I Googled your dad, because the name is so unusual. He was a real artist.”

I smile. “He really was.”

#

We go to the church next. The office is bustling, and the music director explains that they have two weddings and a funeral already booked for this Saturday. Then begin the questions.

Were you a member of the church, Dad? No, but you attended mass six times a week for years.

Do I live here? No.

Could I come back in a week? No, it’s expensive to travel here, and I have to get a hotel, and the expenses add up quickly. I’m paying for everything myself, but it’s all so sudden. Could we not do something on Sunday? No, I’ve forgotten about Lent. I’ve forgotten what day it is and where I put my phone and I can’t recall what time B’s plane is supposed to land, though he’s told me over and over again. How mad he is at himself for me being alone but we all thought there was more time, Dad, there was supposed to be a week and really none of us thought that was true. We all thought this would be like last time. That we’d nurse you through physical therapy and months in the hospital, that I would introduce myself to you again and we would learn each other’s histories and habits and hearts anew.

But none of it was like that, Dad. You didn’t forget me at all. In fact, it turned out that my name was the last thing you said.

We leave the church without any details settled. I feel as if I’ve let everyone down, but I cannot explain why.

#

We pick B up at 11:30 a.m. We stand by the car at the arrival gate and hug, and I don’t care if we’re blocking traffic or annoying people or about to get yelled at by the cop parked on the corner. My aunt and uncle take us to lunch, where they go through everything we have to do now.

Go to probate court to open an estate. Go to the post office to have your mail forwarded. Close your bank account. Go to your apartment and make a list of everything of value for the estate. We’ll need the paperwork. We’ll have to place an ad in the paper and let it run once a week for three weeks or something like that. We should check with the court in PA for the rules. They could be different here. But there are papers to file and rules and regulations and somewhere over my lunch I feel the weight of you welling up in me and I try not to cry into my soup.

I just want to sleep. Or at least lie in a bed in the dark and be free enough to let these tears fall instead of clutching them in my chest so I don’t embarrass myself in a Panera Bread. I never knew dying was so complicated. Grief feels heavy enough without the paperwork.

#

After lunch, we drive downtown and make our way to the probate court. I repeat what my uncle told me under my breath. I feel like a kid again, unsure of myself and afraid to speak, but I make my way to the desk when I’m called and I shove the words out.

“Hi, my dad’s passed away, and I need to pick up the forms to open his estate.”

“Okay, well, they’re all online.”

“Oh.”

“But here, this list has everything you need. These are the fees.” He slides a paper across the desk to me. My eyes flit down the list. “He’s got a house?”

“No.”

“Car?”

“No.”

“Credit cards? A bank account?”

“No credit cards. I don’t know how much is in his bank account, but it can’t be over a few hundred dollars.”

“So, what’d you opening an estate for?” he asks.

“I—I don’t know. I thought I had to.”

The man shrugs. “Nope. He doesn’t have anything, so you’re good.” He points at a sign. “Any possessions valued less than five thousand and you don’t have to bother with anything.”

I quickly add up how much your paintings would be worth. They don’t come close to that number.

When we walk outside into the cold, I realize I’m shaking. You always said you wanted things to be simple, Dad. In the end, that’s exactly what happened.

Thursday, March 23

My aunt and uncle leave at dawn. B and I get the first full night of sleep either of us has had in days. I’d averaged two hours this week until last night. As the world wakes around us, we lie in bed and talk in soft voices. We still need to go to the bank and post office, but until we have the death certificates, we can’t. So, we wait.

We talk about what we should do about the church. We can’t stay another week. Every night here is $150. Yesterday, snow flurries fell, and neither of us packed clothes for winter. B’s dad just had a heart procedure a week ago, so his parents can’t travel to us. Mom and C and J are in the South and can’t afford to come to PA.

The realization settles over us. We will have to plan two services.

#

B and I decide that as much as it bothers us, we cannot make any more plans today. “What do other people do when they’re planning things like this?” I ask him. “What do they do with this in-between time?”

He thinks for a minute. “They sit around the kitchen table with family and tell stories.”

So, we go where there will be stories of you. We drive to your neighborhood, pay to park, and walk to your street. We start at your favorite bar, and even though it’s early afternoon, there are people inside. Smoke hangs in the air, the light is dull, and it is a quintessential bar, only wide enough for a two-person table and a one-person walkway. There’s a juke box in the back and shelves of liquor along the wall. Men in Steelers hats shout at each other over the music from three seats apart. I slip past them, aware of how much of an outsider I am, and find an empty place to sit. But before I even take the seat, I spot it. Straight in front of me on the wall is one of your paintings.

It’s like spotting a piece of you. I shout at B and point. “That’s Dad’s! THAT’S DAD’S!”

Over the next 20 minutes, we meet the owner and the bartender and her husband. Strangers hear our conversations and interrupt us. Everyone knows you, Dad. Everyone has stories of your dancing and your humor and your art, and they all speak with tears in their eyes. They shake my hand and though my eyes water, I don’t cry. I thank them for being a part of your life.

I don’t know what I’m doing or if this is how you’re supposed to spend the time after a loved one passes, but this is all I know to do. I go from shop to shop, to the Italian market where you bought your groceries and the art store where you sold your paintings and the restaurant whose owner has so many of your pieces, and I speak with every one of them. I let them tell me their stories of you. I tear up, but I don’t cry. All of them already know of your passing, even before I explain who I am. A mention of your name is all it takes. The entire neighborhood knows you. The entire neighborhood grieves for you.

And your art is everywhere. Everyone has not one piece but many. They decorate cash registers and hallways. They’re tucked onto shelves beside jars of honey. I see you everywhere, moments of your history, and each time, a pang echoes in my chest. Did you know, Dad, how beloved you are?

Every time I leave a shop and step into the sun, I look at the clouds, but I still haven’t seen what I’m searching for.

Friday, March 24

My chest hurts today, Dad. I’ve cried less, but I think that’s because my heart has finally decided to make room for this new weight I carry. Grief is a curious thing, a burden and a treasure. To carry it inside me means I’ve lost something I valued, and what a lovely thing it is, to have loved you and lost you. But losing you means grieving you, and grief, as it turns out, is a heavy thing. I feel lopsided now, three days into this new beginning. My limbs haven’t yet adjusted to this new reality. One day I’ll wake up and not notice that I’m walking normally again, that I’ve acclimated to this pain and my heart has shifted its contents to grow a room for this grief. But until then, I am wobbly on my feet and sore inside my chest.

Last night, when I could no longer stand the hospital smell seeping from your shoes (which we’d decided to donate), we set them outside next to the door, still in the plastic bag. In the morning when we go to leave, we realize someone has stolen them.

It plunges me into a fit of tears. I stand on the stoop and wail about your shoes and your jeans and your belt. Who would take your things? I sob. Who takes someone’s shoes? B hugs me to his chest and says, “Ash, you already went through that bag. There’s nothing valuable in it. We were donating it.”

“I know, but—”

“Think about it. What would your dad do if somebody asked him for his shoes and they really needed them? If they needed them enough to steal them? What would he do?”

I wipe my eyes. “He’d give them to him.”

But knowing this doesn’t make me feel better.

#

Today is the day we do things, Dad. We go to the bank to close out your account. We go to the post office to forward your mail. At each place, I show the paperwork I’ve gathered. Your death certificate and the paid bill from the funeral home. My name is on your death certificate, and because I took your last name as my middle name when I got married (as a gesture to you), we share a common thread. Finally, no one questions whether I’m your daughter.

#

Friday evening, we get the call and go to the funeral home. There’s a visitation taking place, so we slip through the door and make our way to the office, trying our best to stay out of sight. A young woman heads to a back room and returns with two boxes in a green velvet bag. She puts them on a table, opens the bag, and points at two envelopes taped to the top.

“These are really important, so you don’t want to lose them. It’s the permit in case you decide to scatter the cremains.”

Cremains? Is that really what they’re called? I hate all these words, Dad. But then again, I don’t know what else to say. Maybe the problem is that I simply don’t want to use any of them.

I thank her and hesitate. Then I pick up the bag and walk to the car. It doesn’t feel possible, that you are inside these two boxes. I feel detached again, far away, unable to process what’s happening. The boxes are so light and this grief so heavy, and it feels like everything should be the opposite of what it is.

The boxes should be heavy and I should be light. The boxes should be empty and you should be alive.

#

It is 9 p.m. when your neighbors call. They want to meet, and I put them off, but they call again. “Please,” they say. “We need to see you again.”

B and I get in the car and head back to your neighborhood. We park and go inside a bar, and find a table in the back. For two hours we sit with them as they tell us stories of you. I’m exhausted, but I understand why I must be here. I’m not the only one grieving.

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, they ask, “Did you get the Star of David?”

I sit up straight. “Yes. It was in Dad’s wallet. Do you know what it means?”

“It was his father’s. He told us his dad used to carry it around, but he couldn’t remember why. It was really special to him, though. I’m glad you have it.”

I was meant to come here tonight, wasn’t I, Dad? To find the answer to this little mystery.

Saturday, March 25

How is it, Dad, that our hearts hold such a thing as grief inside our frail bodies, and still we go on with the business of existing? It has only been days since you passed, and yet, grief feels like a sharp-tipped creature inside my heart. One moment I’m fine, the next, I’ve moved in the wrong way, blinked, heard a snippet of something that triggers a memory, and there it is, stabbing into me. Only time will dull these edges.

Today feels like this. Dull with pain. After B and I settle the arrangements for the service at your church, B and I go to Gl’s house to drop off her half of the cremains. She invites us inside and serves us coffee, and you are everywhere inside her home. Every place on her wall is filled with your paintings. There is a large piece that takes up almost half of an entire wall. It’s a girl sitting on a chair, and the entire painting was done in shades of gold. You did this one during your time at Yale, and I want to take it home and put it in my house so that I can look at it every single day. But it doesn’t belong to me, and Gl is asking me something important.

She wants the cremains to stay together, Dad. As she asks, worry takes root inside my chest. I don’t know what to do. For days now, I’ve tried to navigate the divide that exists between your children’s faiths. Atheist and Catholic and non-denominational Christian and spiritual-without-a-label. That’s why I asked for everyone’s opinions on cremation versus burial without telling them what the others had answered. So that everyone would speak from their hearts. At the time, the answer was unanimous. But what to do now is not.

Gl is a small woman with shoulder-length silver hair and a softness that belies a fierce determination to gain the upper hand. In a way, I admire this about her, the way she’s able to tug the flow of the world to her wishes by manipulating only heartstrings. But I have Mom, C, and J to think about.

As she speaks, I learn that in some ways, Gl always considered you hers. Even now, she says, she was considering “getting back together” with you, though she never let on to you about it. I sit in her living room, surrounded by pieces of you, and remind myself that she is important to you, that you shared a life and years and children together. But you did the same with Mom and all of us. Surely one half of your life is no more important than the other.

When Gl is done, she leans in to better hear my answer, and I try to think of what to say. Your family in the South is expecting half of the cremains. I’ve promised them. I don’t know what to do.

The truth is, your faith was a complicated thing, Dad. You went to mass six days a week but didn’t join the church. You also spent time at a Buddhist monastery and threw the I Ching every day for most of your life. You kept your beliefs close to your heart, fed them with a continued drive to explore new opinions and directions, and raised us outside a church but inside your faith. You left no instructions on what to do when you passed, spoke only in fleeting terms about death, and believed that we should live simply and honestly in every way possible. I cannot reconcile Gl’s request—that your cremains be kept together at the church—alongside C and J and Mom’s desire to scatter their portion. We will have to find it in our hearts to compromise.

This is what I ask Gl to do. I tell her that I respect her faith and her wishes, and I ask gently if she can find a place in her heart for C and J and Mom’s wishes too.

She leans back in her chair and says, “Father P said that it would be okay if you divide them up, because Jesus knows what to do in situations like this.”

I want to touch her hand, but I can’t reach her across the table.

Later, I leave feeling conflicted. I cannot make everyone happy, Dad. All I can do is be as respectful as I can, and hope that it is enough.

#

There is not a way to end this letter, Dad, and that’s because this is not an ending. It is the beginning of a beginning, of my life without you. I honestly never thought this would come. Your death was an abstract thought, a fleeting breath of truth I never wanted to confront. But time is a wicked thing that always has her way, and once again, she has won.

All week, as I go about the motions of settling your life, I look at the clouds and am disappointed. When I was around twelve, you told me an Irish saying about death. When someone has passed away and you look at the clouds, watch for the sun. When it pours through the parting clouds in long golden beams, it means someone’s soul has been accepted into Heaven. I’ve tried to find this saying and never been able to, so I’ve no idea if you made it up or if I remember it incorrectly. But this is what I remember you telling me. I also know that it’s a silly thing, unprovable, a game of chance and luck to look upward at just the right moment. I cannot explain why I need to see it so badly. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at the clouds whenever I go outside.

It is only when I’ve finally settled all the details and head home that I see it. Somewhere amid the hours of the long drive, the clouds part. The sun pours itself over the road ahead, and guides us home.

Love always,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 30 Terrible Things Happened

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
– Frederick Buechner

Note: Trigger warnings, dear friends. Read with care.

Dear Dad,

I’ve written you three times now, and never posted it here. I can’t. The words are there, and after all these years, I think they’d like to be free, but I’m too afraid for anyone to know them. Mom reads these too. I don’t want her to know. So, I never post them.

But time’s passing now and I think I’ve realized why I won’t post any of them, and why none of them feel quite right. If you’ll allow me to, Dad, I need to use this space to write another letter. A letter to someone else, to a secret I’ve never told anyone about. A letter to my past.

Forgive me.

-Ash

 

***

Dear You,

When I’m 20 years old, you write me an email. It’s been two years since we’ve spoken, since graduating high school and going separate ways. I’d never felt more relief than in that moment. Everyone tossing their caps upwards, the air filled with the swelling chorus of jubilant teenagers free of the torment of high school. We all entered adulthood in what felt like a sudden, aching half of a second. Everything awful that had transpired was in the past. We were adults. We could move on. Or at least, that’s how it felt.

I don’t remember saying goodbye to you. I only remember feeling free. What had happened between us was in the past. I could forget it, and I could forget you. That’s how one heals, isn’t it? Forget, I thought. And that’s what I tried to do.

But two years later, you emailed me.

I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?

***

I met you after my family moved to Columbia in the middle of freshman year. You were bookish and nerdy, quiet and reserved. You seemed to listen when people spoke, and I liked that. I liked that you and I could stand outside before the first bell and debate a topic we disagreed on and come back the next morning to chat about anime and novels because disagreement didn’t have to break our friendship. I liked that you were smart, in all honors classes, and you went to church twice a week and sang in the choir and went on mission trips. You were a Good Boy.

We didn’t start dating until junior year. We’d been friends for a while and I knew you well by then. We got Bo-Berry biscuits at Bojangles and went to the movies. You took me to church with you twice a week. I’d never been to church before. My family was religious, but because we traveled to art shows every weekend, we didn’t attend church. God doesn’t need a floor plan, the saying goes, and I suppose, because of the way we made a living, this applied to us.

So, you took me to church and we did our homework together and you treated me respectfully and kindly and I was happy. I was young and naïve and I’d been kissed, but not really anything else.

To this day it confuses me. How very, very wrong I was about you.

***

The first time it happened, I wasn’t expecting it. It was a very pretty day, with a beautiful blue sky. Why do I remember such a thing? I don’t know, but I do. I remember it was very pretty and clear and normal, and we were on our way to school. Only, we didn’t go to school.

You picked me up from home and we went to a parking lot. I was confused, but I trusted you, and you were a Good Boy, and maybe we just needed to talk about something important before we were surrounded by other students.

But we didn’t talk. In fact, this is what I remember most. More than the sky or the clouds or the emptiness of the parking lot around us. I remember the silence.

I struggled, but it didn’t matter.

I didn’t make a single sound.

***

Afterward, we drove to school and I walked through the halls with my pain etched on my skin. It connected my freckles like lines drawn between points on a map. Here was the first second, and the next, and the third. My dad once told me my freckles were constellations, and I had never been so proud. To walk the earth with the universe dancing on my skin. Now all I saw was a map of pain. How could no one see it as they passed me in the halls?

Where was my voice? I needed to scream.

***

I blamed myself. I excused you from your deeds, and I buried my voice so deeply inside that my howling pain devoured it.

***

It happened again.

***

I was afraid. How could I speak, with your temper the way it was—and where was your temper hiding all these years? How had I never noticed it before?

I couldn’t tell anyone. How could I look at my parents and speak this shame? How could I find the strength to hold the pain they’d feel next to mine when mine was already so overwhelming? How could I live with the disappointment I had brought to them?

I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear their pain and mine. I could only bear mine, and only just.

The sacrifice for holding this secret inside me was my voice.

***

It happened again. I shook my head back and forth—nononononononono—unable to speak the word aloud. But you only held your finger to your lips and whispered softly, gently, “Shhhhhhhh.”

I closed my eyes. I don’t remember any more.

***

It happened so many times I lost count. Never counted. Never wanted to know. It felt endless and endless and when you took me to church and we sat beside each other in the pew I wondered what God thought when your prayers appeared on his doorstep. I wondered how I was supposed to forgive you for this, and what God would think of me if I couldn’t.

***

When it finally ended a few months later and we broke up, I remember the relief, but it was nothing compared to how it felt to graduate high school and get away from you. I needed distance and space to feel safe.

Two years passed. And then, you emailed me.

I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?

***

You were a Good Boy. You were soft-spoken and polite and smart and angry and cruel and controlling and abusive and a thief.

You stole my innocence. My pride in myself. My confidence. My childhood. My body. My voice. You stole my life from me, and it’s taken me until now to realize everything you broke inside me.

***

Over the years, I thought about telling someone this. The only person I ever managed to tell was B, and he’s probably the only reason I’ve survived it. Every time I considered telling someone else, I thought about how society silences victims of assault.

The judge in the Stanford rape case said that society shouldn’t punish Mr. Turner too harshly. After all, he’s young, with his whole life ahead of him. Yes, the jury found him guilty, but think of how awful it would be to ruin this poor boy’s life with a tough sentence.

I wondered if, by protecting your life with my silence, I had ruined mine instead.

But mainly I worried when people looked at me it’s all they would see. A girl, now a woman, with a map of pain on her skin she couldn’t seem to wash clean. When I thought about telling my family, I thought of a saying I was raised with: Children are meant to be seen and not heard. If my endometriosis ever lets me have a child, I’ll tell them every night, Speak up, child. Your voice is meant to be heard. And if they’re afraid, I’ll say, Do you need to scream? Here, stand beside me. We’ll do it together. Ready? One, two, three—

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

***

I’m sorry. Can we be friends again? Can I take you to lunch?

I emailed you back.

Thank you, but no.

***

It’s not until recently that I realized I’d kept this pain so buried I’d never worked through it. It’s not until I felt the utter shock of an election cycle that talked about sexual assault day in and day out so casually, as if it was nothing—Let’s play that recording again, shall we? The one where he talks about grabbing anything he wants, just grab them! Play it again. It’s not causing someone to stand in the bathroom at work and hyperventilate—that I realized I had never gotten over what you did to me. What’s worse, I’ve never forgiven myself and, at the rate I’m going, it might take me the rest of my life to do so.

Do I forgive you? I think about that sometimes. I hear you have a daughter now. I think about her more than you. I wonder how she makes you feel about your past. I wonder if you take her to church and sit her beside you on the pew. I wonder if you pray for boys to be kind to her, for her to be brave enough to tell them “no” if she’s not ready for something. I wonder if you treat your wife well.

I wonder if I’ll run into you in the grocery store when I’m in Columbia visiting family and how I’ll react. If I’ll drop the gallon of milk in the middle of the aisle and sprint for the door as everyone looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. If I’ll race to the car with my heart pounding in my ears and huddle in the seat with my head on the steering wheel and slip back to a different parking lot in my mind and lose my voice all over again.

I wonder how someone can break someone’s soul the way you broke mine and still be the one society wants to protect. No one will ever convince me we don’t prize our boys more than our girls.

***

Last weekend I went to my local Women’s March. There was a lot of talk about why some women didn’t attend a March, and I respect their reasons. I’d never marched for anything in my life, and I was a little scared to go. But I believed in much of what the March was about, and I needed to go for reasons entirely my own.

I was overwhelmed by the number of people there, and by the incredible feeling that permeated the grassy park: joy. How happy everyone was, smiling and laughing and singing. I expected angry screams, hoarse voices cutting through the air. I never expected the soft sound of a folk song to float around me. I didn’t know the words, so all I could do was listen.

Keep on singing proudly. Keep on moving proudly. Keep on moving forward. Never turning back.

As I walked around, reading signs and shirts, I noticed a man sitting quietly by himself, watching everything unfold. His arms rested on a sign that read, “Touching without consent is rape.”

I stopped in my tracks.

In hindsight, I think he might know what happened to me, based on what transpired next. I don’t know how long it was—one second, two, three—but I read his sign and I looked at him, and there was an understanding there. Maybe something happened to him years ago, and he, too, couldn’t find the strength to scream.

I wanted to hug him, this stranger I’d never seen before. Instead, I asked him if it would be okay for me to take his picture. He said yes, and I did. I walked away knowing I was meant to be there that day, and so was he.

When we marched, the sun abnormally warm atop our heads, I thought about you, about how what happened between us has shaped my feelings on certain things. About how I have known what it feels like to have someone else control my body, and how, no matter what my personal beliefs are, I’ll never take away another woman’s autonomy.

After a while, I tilted my chin to the sunlight, and lent my voice to the crowd.

***

It’s hard to put into words how often I think of you now. I used to go months without remembering. Months and months. Since the election, it’s daily, as if the place I’d once hidden you has broken and I can’t fit you back inside it. Sometimes I hear jokes alluding to grabbing things without permission—innocuous, playful, not meaning any harm. People don’t realize they’re normalizing assault with their jests, that hearing it makes me think of standing in the shower as a teenager, letting the steaming water pool around my feet, never feeling clean. People don’t realize how words cut open the past and sear it onto the present. I wish you would leave me alone. I wish you would stop tormenting me. I wish I could forget again.

I don’t forgive you, and I feel very guilty about that. I’d like to be able to end this by saying those words and meaning them, but I hold truth to be sacred, and I won’t lie to you.

I don’t forgive you. But this year, I’d like to try to forgive myself, and for the first time, that feels far more important.

 

womensmarchbirminghamal2017

Thank you, whoever you are. – Women’s March sister march in Birmingham, AL, 2017

Dear Dad // No. 29 You Know This Now

Dear Dad,

Three weeks ago, you turned 80 years old. You celebrated by giving away the shipment of food I’d sent you, and calling to ask that I not be mad at you about it.

“It was for the children,” you explained, mentioning the children of an orphanage your church cares for.

“I’m not mad, Dad. I can send more.”

“They didn’t have anything, and I don’t eat a lot anymore. It’s just me.”

I know, Dad. I never forget.

Our conversations since then have grown more urgent. You tell me stories with a fierceness, relentless, never pausing for me respond other than to laugh at your jokes and mmm-hmm when appropriate. I’ve wondered if this is what happens when we near the end. I hate myself for it. I wonder it all the same.

Two days ago, you spoke for twenty minutes solid. You told me a story about a putrid woman you knew who once wrote on an official document of some sort that you weren’t intelligent. Years later, you both ended up teaching at the same college. When she asked you if you’d gone to school and gotten an education for yourself, you took the opportunity to issue a long-awaited jab.

“Why, yes, I did,” you said. “Where did you go to school?”

“The University of North Carolina.” You inflected your voice in a rather good impression of a hoity-toity woman, and I laughed, already wincing at where this was headed.

“Oh,” you said in your own hoity-toity way, “Well, I went to Yale.” To me, you added, “And everyone knows Yale’s the best! Not like that North Carolina! They’re just as good as anybody, but no one’s better than Yale!”

With that, you burst into great, heaping laughter.

I chuckled along with you. What else was there to do? Three days ago, you’d remembered that I went to UNC and loved it. Now, you’d forgotten.

Loving you is a constant lesson in grace, Dad. You told me this story for twenty minutes, forgetting each time you reached the end that you’d told it to me at all, and starting over again at the beginning. I laughed each time. I winced each time. I was thankful you were in such good spirits.

And then you stopped. You grew very serious, and I know exactly what you said because I won’t ever forget it.

“You know, none of them understand about you. My relatives. My family. They don’t know who you are or why I took you in.”

My heart beat out of my chest. I’ve never told you that I wasn’t your biological daughter. I never had the courage. I didn’t understand how to explain it to you or how to broker that conversation, and deep, deep inside, I was afraid it would change things between us. All these years, all I’ve wanted is someone to want to be my father, and here you were. I couldn’t risk it. So I kept it locked away and hoped that our blood didn’t matter. We were father and daughter because we chose to be, and in the end, that had to be enough.

All this time, you’ve known. Or at least today, you knew.

“None of them understand,” you continued, “because you aren’t Italian. But I always knew that didn’t matter, because you’re special. You hear? You’re special, and you’re smart, and I knew that. It didn’t matter to me.”

“I’m going to have to go soon. I’ll die. But you know this now. I love you, and you’re special. And I always knew it was worth it. You. I knew it, even then.”

I couldn’t say anything, Dad. Sometimes words can’t form around all that joy and pain and truth and love and fear. It takes up too much inside, and everything gets sucked in around it, a black hole of wordless wonders inside of a heart.

All that’s still inside me as I type this, Dad. One day I’ll unearth the words from the deep places they’re stuck in now, wedged in the crevices of these emotions. I hope you’re wrong, Dad. I hope you have a long while more to call me and tell me stories that may or may not be figments of your imagination. I’m not ready to stop listening.

Thank you for knowing the truth without my needing to speak it. Thank you for saying the words you did. Thank you for defying your family to love me. Thank you for knowing I’m worth it.

You are too.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 28: A Storm Off Course

Dear Dad,

It’s raining here where I am, and whenever it rains, I’m guaranteed one thing: a call from you.

You’ve become quite the weatherman this past year. You watch the news every morning and every night, and sometimes, when time permits and the paintings aren’t calling for your attention, you wander over to The Weather Channel. That’s when I get a call. Normally they’re short conversations. You just need to check that I’m okay, that my house hasn’t blown away in some freak gust of wind, that I haven’t drowned in flooding. It doesn’t help that you can never remember where exactly I live, so you call me for all manner of weather-related concerns: tornadoes in the Mid-West, flooding in California, torrential rains in South Carolina. But you do have an uncanny knack for knowing when it’s raining around me.

Tonight, it’s raining, and tonight, you called.

The conversation went just as it normally does when there’s weather involved. You consulted with me about the volume of rain, whether we were safe from flooding, if it would last a long time. When you were satisfied that I was dry and safe, you said, “Oh, and there was one more thing we needed to talk about.”

I would’ve never guessed what came out of your mouth.

The thing is, Dad, you’re not well off. You live off your Social Security income. G and I supplement things—your food, your phone and cable bills, etc.—but to be honest about it, you don’t live in the grandest of circumstances.

And you’re the most content, happy person I’ve ever met.

At close to 80 years old and unable to read, you found the apartment yourself, rented it yourself, and live by yourself. You cook for yourself, paint every single day without fail, and go to Mass every day except Sundays (which is too crowded for your tastes). You walk your neighborhood rain, snow, and shine, spilling your wisdoms and kindnesses all over the sidewalk like treasures hidden in smog. One of the things I have the hardest time with is knowing that your living situation isn’t what I would give to you, and accepting your right to live how you’d like, not how I decide for you. (I’m working on it, Dad.)

So today, after you’d settled things with the rain, you surprised me when you said, “So you think when we sell another painting, you think maybe if we sell it for $150, we could give $24 to you—no, $25—$24 to you, and then another $25 we could give to the children?”

At first I thought you meant my children, of which I don’t have any. Every now and again you ask me, “Babies yet? No babies?” and I say, “No, no babies yet.” So at first, this is what I thought you meant. It wasn’t.

“I mean the poor children,” you clarified. “I think we can give $25 to you—”

“No, Dad—”

“Yes, and $25 to the poor children. Because there are poor children, you know, and they need food too. Can we do that? Can we give money to them? To help them out?”

I had to promise you many times that I’d do this. I’d take $25 for myself, for keeping your website up-to-date with the images of your work and answering your customers’ emails for you and relaying the messages, and that I’d be sure that a group who feeds and cares for poor children would get another $25. I promised to do this every time you sold a painting. Out of $150, you’d keep $100 for your own needs. I promised, I promised, and I promised, and finally, you believed I’d keep my word.

For some reason, as I stood in the kitchen and watched the steady rain come down outside the windows and listened to your request, I heard your doctor’s voice in my head. A warning, three years old, given to me as you lay unconscious in the Neuro ICU and I sat in the chair beside you. You need to prepare yourself, the doctor explained. Oftentimes, they’re mean after an event like this. There’s a lot of confusion and frustration from their new limitations. It’s unfortunate, but it seems to happen that way more often than not. 

I listened to the doctor, Dad. I prepared myself for your anger and your gruffness, your temper and bristling condescension. After three years, it’s yet to arrive. It’s a storm foretold, and blown off course.

How wonderful would it be if with every horrid prediction made in life, we simply puffed out our cheeks, let loose a great gust of breath, and cleared the thundering skies? Let’s start over, we’d say, just like you did three short years ago. We can do better. We might not have much, but look what we can do with a promise.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 27: Strange, Little Miracles

Dear Dad,

Something miraculous happened the other day. For the first time in years, you read a word.

You were never a great speller or reader. You grew up in an Italian family in New York in the forties. Your grandmother forbid English from being spoken in the home, and your public school forbid anything but English from being spoken in the classroom. Words spanned two languages, two households, and enough stubborn Italians and stubborn schoolteachers to halt any progressions you made in either direction. Your handwriting was a joke in our house, because it looked like unintelligible chicken scratch. You couldn’t spell and didn’t mind. None of it mattered so long as you could paint.

After your stroke in August 2013, you woke in the hospital after almost three months on various life-support machines. The first thing you did was mime for a pen and paper. When the nurses gave you a set, you promptly started to draw. And draw. And draw. Random letters and numbers made it into the drawings, which were at first nothing but squiggly lines. But this was as close as you got to reading.

The doctors encouraged you to attend rehabilitation for reading and writing, but you insisted that you didn’t need to fret over something like that with “the time I have left.” Every moment was devoted to painting and strengthening your muscles to walk again. When you were released from the hospital shortly before Thanksgiving 2013, you still refused the written word. My first love was needless to you, but I didn’t say anything. After everything you’d been through, who could argue with those five little words? “The time I have left” is a short sentence with a big punch.

I let the words go, and here we are. Years later, still without the knowledge of how to read and write. You manage well enough. I programmed your cell phone with speed dials and you memorized the numbers for each of us. Your bills are paid in cash and a walk down the street. When your health insurance comes in the mail, you call me and I pass the word to G to come by and read it over with you. You are amazingly, astoundingly, self-sufficient.

Sometimes I find myself sad that I can’t share a book with you. I can’t drop one in the mail and talk with you about it when it arrives. I’ve contemplated the best way to send you an e-reader and set you up on audio books, but how to explain an iPad to someone who can’t read? How will you know how to navigate it? What if you get confused? Who will help you with it?

And then, a few weeks ago, you called me.

“Ash! Ash, you’ll never guess,” you began. “I was standing on this corner, on this street corner, you know?”

Already I’m picturing it. The cars racing past, the winter wind cutting through the buildings, horns blaring.

“And there was a bus coming, and I was waiting, and you know the front of them? With the things that scroll?”

I imagine the city bus pulling up to its stop, and you on the curb, waiting. Maybe you’re wearing a Steelers sweatshirt and your coat, a pair of faded jeans and your old loafers. Do you have on a baseball cap or a toboggan? Is there snow on the ground, caught in the curve of the curb and the road? These are the things that pester my mind while you speak.

“The things that scroll:” the electronic message boards announcing the bus route on the front of the bus, above the window.

“I know what you mean,” I say, and you plow on.

“Yeah, those things. Well, I was standing there on the corner and the bus was coming—”

And here I’m nervous, Dad, because I picture you so small on the street, with your cane, which I just found out for the first time that you use now, and it rocked my entire mental image of you. My Father, a man who never walked with a cane, an instrument of someone either injured or elderly. My mental image is still all askew—

“—and I looked up at the scrolling thing, and I knew the word!”

“Really?!”

“I know! Can you believe it? I knew the word…and then it was gone.” You laughed, thoroughly entertained. “Oh, well. But you know, they might come back. I told the doctor about it, and he said you never know. Stranger things have happened before.”

There it is, your wisdom. You find it in everything. And I can’t help but think that sometimes, stranger things aren’t strange at all. Maybe, if we pluck a slightly different word free, maybe they’re little miracles instead.

I hope that whenever your miracles happen, Dad, you’ll call me. I want to know about every word you find again, even if it’s just for a moment. I want to hear about the little seeds that spring to life, despite the fog that sometimes clouds your mind. And when the chill of the wind whips across my cheeks, too, I’ll think of you and your newfound words, your reminder of strange, miraculous things happening every day just out sight. The slow, slow progress of a seed, just about to bloom.

Stranger things have happened, Dad, and will again. Just wait and see.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 26: Slow Progressions of the Heart

Dear Dad,

Lately I find myself wondering about you. I can’t say why, but I feel you slipping. It’s little things, built upon one another as each day passes by in its slow progression.

Last night, I looked up your phone log to check the bill. My husband, B, and I pay your cell phone bill and mail you your groceries every month (thank God for the ability to do anything over the Internet). You’ve been complaining of a certain telemarketer recently, a man who calls and tries to convince you to buy airline tickets, to which you respond: “I don’t need an airplane! What would I do with an airplane?” As I glanced through the phone log, searching for the telemarketer’s number so that I could block it, I noticed our conversations recorded too. Six minutes here, ten minutes there…

As I scrolled over the page, I couldn’t help but feel how sad this was. It felt, even if it isn’t true, that our entire relationship had been boiled down to tiny increments of time that didn’t feel representative. Is that really how long we spoke? Only six minutes? Why did it feel like longer at the time?

Sometimes when we talk now, you don’t have much to say. You’re tired, and I can hear the wind in your voice, pulling at you from inside. It makes the back of my throat ache in that familiar way that happens when my emotions are about to get the better of me. On those days, I let you go sooner, not wanting to stress you. I hang up and wonder what you do after our call ends. If you sit in an empty apartment alone, or if you head to the coffee shop down the street for some company.

This is the image I have of you, Dad. The fact that you are alone consumes my thoughts of you. I picture you getting ready for bed at night in an empty apartment. I imagine you waking, tepid sunlight falling over your bed, and knowing that there isn’t another soul sharing your space with you.

I find your aloneness the most heartbreaking thing in the world. It crushes me. And yet, there is nothing I can do about it.

You speak often of how you would love to move in with J and C. You want nothing more than to see them again, and you tell me about this desire often. How much you miss your children. I listen to these things and try not to get emotional about it. I try to push the thoughts that plague me from my mind, and remind myself that my value is not predicated on anyone else but me. But inside I think: What about me? I’m your daughter too. Don’t you want to see me?

I cannot change your desire to live with J and C, and I wouldn’t want to. More than anything else, I want you to be happy. And if that happiness is not living with me, then I must work to accept that. In some ways, I wonder if this is how a parent feels when his or her child reaches adulthood and rushes out into the world. They aren’t the center of things. They’re on the sidelines, desperately waiting for their loved one to look back, wave, and say one more time, “I love you. I’m still here. I still want to be part of your life.”

You received an email recently from a woman who I didn’t know. I check your email for you and have for years now. (You don’t have a computer and don’t want one.) The email caught me by surprise. The subject read, For Signore C. Signore? Who has ever called you Signore? The letter was very brief, just a line or two, but the words were immensely intimate. Not in a romantic way, per se, but in a way that conveyed the thoughts of a conversation that had lingered in her mind long after you’d spoken with one another. Who is this woman? What did she mean by her words, so full of tenderness and hope? Her email felt like a secret I wasn’t supposed to know. I didn’t know whether to tell you about it, and admit that I’d read it, or let it go and pretend I’d never seen it. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I’d pressed my ear to a door and overheard something not meant for my ears.

And then, over the course of the next few days, I began to feel something else about the letter. Happy. After all this time, I’d been picturing you alone and empty. And maybe for a certain extent of your day you are alone, but the email is proof that at least for some portion, you aren’t. You have the company of this mysterious woman. Though I have no idea what your relationship is with her, it makes my chest swell with joy to think that you are not as alone as I had feared.

I cannot fix every problem, Dad. I cannot promise the telemarketer won’t call you back and try to sell a 79-year-old man with no money a set of plane tickets for a trip he doesn’t want to take. I cannot make J and C rent an apartment and move in with you. I cannot fit together all the pieces of our lives so that you never have to experience any pain or fear, and that fact breaks my heart.

Loving you right now feels like parenthood must feel. Like opening up the stitchings of my heart and holding myself open to the world, taking in the joyful and the painful in equal measure. It’s the little things that get to me, built upon one another as the day spans on, a slow progression of the head and the heart. But no matter how far away you roam—mentally, physically, all of the above—I will always be a short phone call away.

Love,

Ash

The Memory Letters Turns 1

Dear reader,

Today marks the one-year anniversary of this little experiment. One year ago, I was lost, in search of a way to understand the pain I couldn’t shake surrounding my dad’s stroke and the feelings it revived within me. I wanted to understand. To process. To move forward.

I never thought a single other person would read these words. I put them online solely because I thought that if I made a devoted space “out there” I would be pressured to maintain it, and thus, to write. But I honestly never pictured anyone else reading, and the thought of someone else reading really scared me. These were private thoughts, some of which I was ashamed to have, much less share with others. It was an immense leap to put them out in the world, but I’ve always believed that if something scares you, you should try it. Follow the impulse tugging at your heart and shed the fearful inhibition of habit. It’s not always easy, and it was not easy to do in this case either.

But one day I did it, and here you are.

If the counter on the sidebar is to be trusted, there are over 200 of you reading this journey. This blows my mind. That there are other people who have stopped to read a website without any pictures on it—in this day and age—is truly striking. So today I wanted to say:

Thank You. Really. From the bottom of my heart.

Writing about my family and our wild, twisting journey has been a painful, purifying joy. A year later, I am ever so grateful that I leapt when I was afraid to. I’m also thankful for the outpouring I’ve received. Comments, tweets, emails, messages. You have responded to my words with words of your own, and each time they have touched me. That you take time to respond to me, to ask how Dad is, and to tell me your own stories, is amazing. I know you could read and move on. Click the window closed and turn your attention back to work or the kids or that coffee you’re nursing, but you haven’t. You’ve reached out to me, and I want you to know that it’s meant the world to me.

I have learned a great deal about myself from this experience, and I’m sure that as I continue to write, I will learn a great deal more. Thank you for journeying with me. Let’s keep going, together.

– Ashley