The last time we spoke, it didn’t go well. I asked how you were and you launched into a diatribe about how horrible everything was, about how you’d been to see an apartment on your own. It was four floors up with no elevator and the only bathroom was on the bottom floor. The hall didn’t have any lights, so at night you’d have to walk up and down four flights in the dark. It wasn’t great, but you told the guy you’d take it. Then the super came out, took one look at you, and refused.
“I can’t let an old man walk up four flights of stairs in the dark,” he said, as if you weren’t standing right there.
You were furious. Still furious the next day, when I called you. What right did they have to decide what was suitable for you? you asked. It was an affront to your dignity, the fact that they didn’t think you could do fine on your own. What did they know about it? Then you said something I never expected.
“Might as well die.”
You didn’t hear the breath I sucked in. “Dad, don’t say that.”
“What? There’s nothing left. What do I have left to do? Just to die. That’s all.”
They don’t tell you in school what you should say in situations like that, Dad. They don’t teach you what to say to help those you love when they feel this way. I was so stunned I didn’t know how to respond.
The only real lesson I remember learning about death, before I’d experienced loss for myself when my grandmothers passed away in college, was something you told me when I was in middle school. One of the teachers at school passed away suddenly, and a lot of the kids struggled with it. I didn’t know the teacher personally, but some of my friends did, and when they cried at recess, an aching I couldn’t soothe filled me, helplessness knotted with sympathy and frustration at my inability to think of the words they needed to hear.
When I told you about this, you did something I hadn’t expected. You gave me the words. So the next time my friends teared up at recess, I knew what to say, and I told them what you had told me: Look into the sky. Do you see the way the sunlight streams through the clouds in those long beams? Do you know what that means? It means that someone’s soul has been accepted into Heaven.
I think of this, Dad, as I drive down the road and the sky breaks open above me, spilling its sunbeams across the hills. I wonder if you have done what you said on the phone. If yours is the soul being accepted. If you are gone and the sky is telling me so before anyone has had time to dial my number.
There is nothing I can tell you to make you accept that you need help living now, Dad. I’ve tried, and you don’t want to speak to me about it. In this way, you are still the same as you have always been. You think what you think and know what you know, and everyone else is wrong. Plain and simple. I struggle now to find the words that you need, Dad. You don’t have them for me this time. I’m on my own. I watch the light slip through the clouds as I drive and I try to think of what I should say to you when I call.
I want to tell you that life is so hard sometimes. That it gives us struggles we don’t want when we don’t feel ready for them. That even when we have lived a full life, we are not immune to life’s challenges, and that isn’t fair. But it is the way of things, all the same. I want to tell you that this is part of what makes life beautiful. That we struggle together and in that toiling something magical happens. That we find the good in the hardship and in each other, and that makes everything worthwhile.
But I’m afraid you won’t want to hear any of this, Dad. You’re in your rut, and sometimes all someone wants is to wallow for a little bit. To feel sorry for himself and have a good pout and let his tea go cold even though he knows deep down he should go on and drink it. Sometimes we all need a moment like that. To acknowledge the pain head-on.
But there’s a step after that, Dad. That isn’t the end, and you can’t think that it is. There is so much left to do, so much more than dying. You might not know what it is yet, but that’s okay. In time, you will. I know it feels like the clouds are thick and nothing can get through, but that isn’t true. There’s light behind the layers of life’s struggles, and soon enough, it’s going to break free.