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

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Dear Dad // No. 22

Dear Dad,

Three weeks ago, you moved out. Found yourself an apartment and moved your meager belongings into it, leaving GC behind. When I called her home, she informed me that you were gone. You have no phone, and thus, I have no way to reach you. We have not talked for three weeks.

I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t terrify me. That you being on your own isn’t a frightening thought, and that I’m not waiting for the time that my phone buzzes and I don’t recognize the number and it’s what I fear on the other end of the line. I feel this reality bearing down on me like a train I am powerless to stop. One day, I’m going to be fatherless, and I don’t know how to be that girl.

But I also try so, so, so hard to respect this decision you have made. You do not remember how to read, you don’t remember how to write, and you cannot cook for yourself. These are all skills that I believe are essential to living successfully on your own. And yet, you set off to do such a thing anyway.

Is this bravery, Dad? Stupidity? Stubbornness? Is it all of this in one? I don’t know what it is, but I know that your decision was not mine to make. You told me recently that you only have so much time left, and you want to spend it doing what you were put on God’s earth to do: You want to paint. You want to grow as an artist. And you are brave enough to do this no matter what it requires of you. As you constantly told me during my childhood, God would provide. No need to worry.

But still I did. I always worried. I never lost that ability, even as you continue to show me how fearless you are.

For some reason, I find myself fretting over your food situation most of all. What will you eat? Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is right around the corner, maybe it’s because some of my earliest memories are of our dinnertime traditions, but these thoughts occupy my mind. I want to ask if you remember them, but then there is no phone to call. So just I think about it, and imagine telling you.

When I was very young, and it was just you and me and Mom, you and I ate dinner together. I suppose Mom was at her waitressing job; I can’t remember. But you and I would sit next to the fireplace with our plates on the mantle and eat together. If I finished everything, we’d split a York peppermint patty. I was wild about peppermints, especially Yorks. This was all the motivation I needed to clear my plate.

I don’t remember the tradition continuing once J came along. It was a fleeting thing that was only ours. I’ve been tempted lately to mail you a big box of Yorks with nothing else in it. I imagined you opening it and the memory of these dinners bursting back to life inside you. But then I don’t. I think I’m afraid that you’ll open the box and nothing will happen, and how would I survive such a thing?

When I was older and we became a family of five, dinners were different. Mom often cooked two meals, one for the kids and one for the adults. J was exceedingly picky, something Mom blamed on you because at the time J was introduced to solid foods, Mom worked two jobs and you were in charge at home. You fed J what you knew how to make: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (creamy peanut butter and grape jelly only), spaghetti (red sauce, no meat), chicken nuggets, and pizza. Until J was in middle school, he survived solely off of these meals alone, without exaggeration. C grew up eating much of the same, simply out of habit and ease. I was the odd one. Not as young as my siblings yet not an adult, I flitted between the “grow-up” dinners Mom would make for you and the “kid” dinners she made for C and J, depending on which meal had more abundance. Some nights I pitied C and J for missing out on Mom’s white sauce pasta or three-bean soup. Other nights I burned with jealousy, stuck eating a meal I had no interest in because there wasn’t enough of the “kid” meal to feed three.

We never ate together either, except for holidays. Most nights, C, J and I took our plates into the living room (or later, when we didn’t have a living room, into the master bedroom, where the TV was) so that we could entertain ourselves with reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air while we ate. Unless we were helping assemble work for the coming art show, we weren’t supposed to be in the kitchen, under Mom’s feet and interrupting your philosophical musings with our “peanut gallery” comments. Children were meant to be seen, not heard.

I guess it’s no surprise that by the time I reached high school I ate out with my friends as much as possible. Sitting in the red booths of a Bojangles’ with my friends around me, I found what I didn’t have at home. We passed plates of fries and blueberry biscuits from person to person, laughing and joking and teasing. None of us had any money; we were high schoolers. And yet, that didn’t stop us from pooling our funds, helping one another find another dollar and afford a meal. Looking back on it, we were all running. Running from something or to something. We pieced it together in the time we had, found a sense of camaraderie and home that we didn’t have in quite the same way within the four walls where we rested our heads. To put it simply, we broke bread together.

You hated when I ate out. You lectured me as soon as I walked through the door, asking me what I’d eaten and telling me how bad it was for me. You didn’t believe in eating out. Food fed the soul, and you couldn’t do that if you weren’t making the food yourself. In fact, it wasn’t until I left for college that you and Mom started taking C and J out to dinner some nights. Before that, I could count the number of times we’d been to a restaurant as a family on one hand.

All of this makes me wonder what you will do now, Dad. What will you eat? Will you give up your prejudice against restaurant food in order to survive? Is living on your own worth such a thing, that you would change how you have felt about something for as long as I have known you?

Or perhaps you simply don’t remember. Perhaps this opinion you’d long held is gone now, and you’re starting fresh. Perhaps you have found the bravery to do this, to move out on your own and live how you want to live, not in spite of these contradictions but because, to you, they no longer exist. Your mind has lost them, one more thing swirling in the abyss.

So now, I carry them along with me, in my thoughts of you. I fret over your situation the same way I fretted over each of our moves. My old habit was to lie in bed at night and conjure stories of people breaking into the house in search of something. I imagined as many scenarios as I could, and then I solved them. What if the robbers came in through the kitchen door? How would we get out? Would there be enough time to race down the hall to C’s room and back to your and Mom’s room, grabbing J on the way? Where could we hide if we couldn’t reach the back door? In the attic! The bad guys would never find us in the attic, I always thought. Every time we moved, this is how I spent the first night at our new house. I kept myself up for hours, scheming and imagining and working it all out, developing escape plans that I committed to memory, preparing for when some unknown Bad struck. Someone had to be prepared, I thought. Someone needed to think about all the things that I didn’t think anyone else thought about. So I did.

And yet here I am now, unable to devise an escape plan for your current situation. It’s not mine to create. This is your journey, and I can’t write it for you. I cannot seek out the hidden doors and fling them open, spilling light onto the encroaching darkness. I can only fill a cardboard box with things I think you need (a cell phone, Dad, is at the top of that list, preprogrammed with our phone numbers on it). I will mail it to GC and hope that she gives it to you. I will wait with as much patience as I can manage for you to call me, and only then will I be able to fret a little less. It won’t be easy, but it will have to do.

After all, this is part of love too. Acceptance of a decision that is not mine to make, and is not made in the way I would make it. I must find it within myself to live without an escape plan, without knowing how this will turn out, without knowing what in the world you will eat. I can only send you this package and hope that you receive it. Hope that when you open it, you will call me, and I can say hello and listen as you say, “Oh, hello, Ash,” as the sound of  my voice pulls your newly formed memory of who I am from the crevice where I live inside you. I can only ask what you need on this journey you’ve embarked upon, and open my hands to help.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 21

Rally sons of Notre Dame: Sing her glory and sound her fame,
Raise her Gold and Blue
And cheer with voices true:
Rah, rah, for Notre Dame
We will fight in ev-ry game,
Strong of heart and true to her name
We will ne’er forget her
And will cheer her ever
Loyal to Notre Dame.

Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name.
Send the volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky.
What though the odds be great or small,
Old Notre Dame will win over all,
While her loyal sons are marching
Onward to victory.

Dear Dad,

You remember something! One year and 80 days after your stroke erased every memory you had, you finally remember something with certainty. And that something is the last thing I would’ve ever expected.

You remember college football. And not just college football. You remember Notre Dame. You remember that you have cheered for the Irish since you were a child, your deeply Catholic Italian family latching onto the prestige of a Catholic institution as it tried to set down roots on American soil. (Your grandmother was a first-generation immigrant fresh off the boat from Naples, a feisty woman who once tossed a potful of boiling pasta water out the window of her Bronx apartment onto the passing head of a Portuguese man who’d been sleeping around on her sister. As the shocked, scalded man leaned back and stared at the heavens, your grandmother leaned forward, straight out the window, and shouted down every Italian curse word in existence. Smartly, the man high-tailed it down the sidewalk and never returned.)

You remember who the quarterback is, though pronouncing his name befuddles you. You remember that Lou Holtz was once the coach, and that he used to grab players who towered over him and yank them down level with his beady eyes, hidden behind thick glasses, to scream at them before slapping their behinds and sending them back onto the field to “win one for the Gipper.” You know that the school has been involved in academic scandal, something that filled you with surprise and shame and confusion. You remember the song…

Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame, wake up the echoes cheering her name…

But you do not remember you and me and football. You do not remember that for the longest time it was all that we shared. That I adopted your love of that school, and that together we would remember the song every week when I called to tell you what channel to tune your television to for the game. You depended on me for this, to tell you the channel and figure out the time, because you were ever confused by shifty time zones.

After your stroke, I couldn’t watch anymore. My husband, B, tuned in for me. He would find me upstairs in the bedroom after the game, and tell me how it went. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I just couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t find it within myself to cheer for them when you were 15 hours away, lying in a hospital bed on a respirator, fighting for your life. I wanted them to win, but I couldn’t watch. Their win was your win, their loss, your loss, and there just wasn’t room in my heart for all of that winning and losing and fighting.

But this season is different. You’re here, and you’re cheering, and so I cheer again too now. We talk on Fridays about how we think we’ll do on Saturday (it’s always “we,” Dad, even though we aren’t the ones donning those gold-painted helmets). When we lost to Florida State a few weeks ago, I called you to commiserate.

“We played so well, Dad,” I said. “We were really in it until the very end.”

“Yeah, but we lost,” you replied. “We still lost.”

You were really sad about that one, Dad. And it kind of surprised me, how much the loss meant to you. I wasn’t with you when you watched it, but I could tell from the sound of your voice that you’d needed that win, wanted it, and cheered for it.

Wake up the echoes cheering her name…

I would be lying if I said that it didn’t make me sad that you don’t remember that we watched games together. That we cheered and commiserated the Irish together. But more than anything, I’m happy that you have something back. And so I watch again, and I cheer again, and I find myself wanting every win a little more than I did in the past. Before, I wanted it for the win. Now I want it for you.

I used to think that one day we’d get to visit the campus together. I was going to buy Mom a house and take you to a game. Those were my goals. Then I grew up and realized that every ounce of cash I have leftover after bills goes to student loans, and those dreams drifted into the haze of adulthood. I don’t know if we’ll ever see campus, Dad, but I know that every Saturday we travel there together in one small way, shrinking the hundreds of miles that separate us until we meet under the outstretched arms of Touchdown Jesus and look up at the scoreboard together. We stomp our feet on the stands and sing into the crisp fall air, and we cheer so loud…

Send the volley cheer on high…

And that is the great thing about college football. It has given you and me something to cheer for again.

Every time we chat now, we talk about our Irish, and in our talking, we wake the echoes of your mind just a little more, golden layer by golden layer. We cheer together for the future and never forget the past, strong of heart and true to our name. The journey may be long and we must fight for every inch that we earn, but onward we’ll march. Onward to victory.

I’ll see you on Saturday, Dad.

Love you,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 20

Dear Dad,

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.

Love,
Ash

Dear Dad // No. 19

Dear Dad,

Sometimes in life we have to talk about things we don’t want to talk about. The way I see it, we have two options. We can either pretend it never happened, or we can try to find the sliver of elusive light amid the crowding darkness. I told you I would be honest with you, and that I would tell you the good with the bad. So here I go.

By the time I was fourteen, Mom and I had been doing art shows together just the two of us for five years solid. We were as close as two people could be. We even had our own little saying, something we’d made up between the two of us. One person always began it the same way, and the other person continued it:

“I love you,” one of us would say.

“I love you more,” the other would say back.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Mom and I were the only people who told each other this. It wasn’t just an expression of love. It was a proclamation of everything she and I did for each other every day when we prepped your prints and framed your drawings for the coming art show, and every weekend when we left the family behind to sell your work. It was a challenge, because love can be hard, and we lived a hard life that needed a strong love to survive it.

One day, you pulled me aside and gave me a bit of advice of your own. It was not enough, you told me, just to tell Mom that I loved her like this. I had to show her. Love is a verb.

I can still picture it, the two of us standing in the kitchen, which doubled as our living room because the house was too small for Mom to have a framing studio and the family to have a living room too. We’d set up the TV in your master bedroom and put the couch in the kitchen, and I remember at first I thought this was just about as looney as it could be—except then I discovered that the kitchen got the best sunlight there ever was, pouring through the wide glass windows right over the couch. That became my favorite place to read. I used to drape my legs over the couch and let the sun warm my calves as I lost myself in A Wrinkle in Time and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, over and over and over again. That’s where you told me about love, one day in the golden sunlight of the kitchen. And I never forgot it.

A lot happened in that kitchen after that lesson. A lot of experience piled onto this one single lesson that you’d given me. It all started with Disneyland.

Out of everything I’d given up to travel to art shows with Mom, the greatest disappointment to me involved dance. Because I was gone every weekend, I couldn’t take weekend classes or travel with the other students to the competitions that they did. Competing was a form of pride in the studio, a marker of the level you’d achieved, and you could only move up so far until there was nowhere else to go but into competition-level classes. I used to sit outside the studio door and watch these classes with envy leaking out of my pores. I wanted so badly to be able to travel with them, to attain this level of achievement. But I couldn’t, because I wasn’t available to travel to competitions on the weekends.

But eventually, Mom worked it out so that I could move up into the classes that I so desperately wanted. She arranged the art show schedule so that I could attend the majority of the competitions, and she traveled with me and watched me compete in front of the judges. Dance became not only mine, but yet another activity that Mom and I shared. When I won, so did she.

So when it was time for the largest dance competition that our studio attended, I begged and begged to be able to attend. It was held every year at Disneyland in Anaheim, a two-hour drive from San Diego and a multi-night hotel stay. It would be an expensive trip. The dancers were required to wear matching purple jackets with our studio’s logo on them and our names embroidered on the front, right over the heart. I didn’t have a jacket yet. They were expensive and unnecessary up until this point. But now, with competitions, they were required.

Again, Mom found a way to make it work. She talked the studio owner into letting us pay half-price for an old jacket that someone had purchased and never picked up. I remember bringing it home with me and showing it to you. I couldn’t help my expression. This jacket was from a couple seasons ago, before the studio had changed their official color from blue to purple. You didn’t understand why I cared so much about the color. All I could see is that it was blue when it was supposed to be purple, and how much I would stand out amid a crowd I was supposed to blend into. You rolled your eyes. It was just a jacket.

Before Mom and I left for the trip, I thought long and hard about putting a piece of duct tape over the name embroidered onto the front of the jacket. Lorraine, it read. What would be worse, having the wrong name on the wrong-colored jacket, or having a piece of duct tape on the wrong-colored jacket? Eventually I decided to let it be. What was one more name that I didn’t understand amid all my other names?

The competition was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was three times the size of the other competitions we did, performances taking place in multiple rooms at the same time. When I wasn’t performing, I’d sneak into the room with the ballet soloists and snag a chair in the corner so that I could watch. It was round-the-clock stimulation. Glitter and sequins and parents wound so tight it was like their bodies were pressure cookers about to explode. My studio did well, and by the final night, everyone was in jovial spirits. The kids packed into a big rec room attached to the suites we’d booked while the parents headed out to a restaurant nearby for celebratory drinks. You could practically see the steam trickle from the parents’ ears as the pressure of the past three days released. We kids were thrilled that they wanted to go off on their own. We ordered pizzas and played Truth or Dare and told ghost stories with all the lights off. It was a party like I had never been to, and suddenly, because I had survived it right alongside the other dancers, I was in. It didn’t matter what color my jacket was or what the name on the front said. I was one of them now.

When the parents came back, they mingled with the kids in the rec room. Everyone shared stories of their favorite performances and dance companies, soloists who had wowed us and routines that we did or didn’t think had deserved to win.

At this point in my life, I had learned what the various levels of inebriation sounded like. I could recognize the difference between tipsy and drunk and beyond drunk in about half a minute based on the sound of someone’s voice. This was the education you never thought you’d given me. All those nights sitting quietly at the kitchen table assembling prints while you sang and lectured Mom on the various theories of your favorite philosophers had taught me something I’m sure you’d never intended. So that night, when Mom walked into the rec room, I could tell from across the room that she wasn’t drunk. She was tipsy enough to be happy, to smile wide and laugh freely. I walked across the room and stood next to her, and we listened to people tell stories of the weekend, and we laughed with everyone.

Then Mom took a step back, stumbled, and fell. Her head hit the corner of the wall. It happened so fast that she was on her feet again before I’d really registered that she’d fallen. Her cheeks flushed and she brushed everyone’s concern off, and we went back to laughing, all in the span of just a few minutes. But then I saw the blood.

“Mom, you’re bleeding,” I told her.

“What? Where?”

The trickle of red oozed down her neck from under her short brown hair, stark against her tanned skin. “On your neck. You’re bleeding.”

People noticed now. Two of the other parents were nurses, and they ushered Mom to a couch and began separating strands of her hair, trying to pinpoint where the blood came from. I stood on the periphery of the crowd of adults and held my breath, my heart hammering.

A gash had opened across Mom’s head where she’d hit the wall. She needed stitches. But she was upset by now, embarrassed and eager to return to the buoyant energy filling the room just a few short minutes ago. She began to fight with them, pushing and struggling. The adults held her down. One of the nurses brought in an emergency kit and said that they would have to shave part of her hair off in order to close the wound, and that’s when Mom started yelling.

I couldn’t do it, Dad. I couldn’t take the look on her face and the blood on her neck and the way she fought and yelled at the adults holding her in place in the couch. My heart couldn’t process all of this pain and anguish and torment, and I flew out of the room before they’d started stitching Mom together again, flew down the hall into a bathroom and locked the door behind me.

Three of the other kids sat outside the door and begged for me to come out. But I refused. I couldn’t watch them stitch my beloved mother together again while she fought against them. Eventually though, I had to come out. They were done stitching Mom’s head, and I wanted to be with her.

Mom and I slept on the floor that night, bundled beside one another in blankets. I don’t remember why we slept on the floor, but I remember watching Mom cry beside me, the heavy weight of her sobs crushing into me.

We’d carpooled to Anaheim with another family, a mom and her three girls. The next morning, as my mom and the other mom loaded the car with all our costumes and makeup and dance bags and luggage, the four of us girls stood around near the automatic sliding glass doors that led in and out of the hotel. One of the girls, who was a few years younger than me, leaned back against the glass just as someone walked up. Reacting to the motion sensor, the door slid open, right over the girl’s left arm.

I’ll never forget the sound of her scream. Her arm was pressed like a dried flower between the thick panes of glass. Her mother raced from the car and lifted that big glass door right off its hinges, freeing her daughter’s arm. I’d never seen anything like it.

Not a soul spoke in the car on the way home. I don’t know if the other girls and their mom didn’t speak because they were so shocked by what had happened with the door, or if they were shocked over what had happened with Mom, but it didn’t matter. I had never before and have never since heard silence like that. Silence made loud by such an incredible amount of pain and fear. Pain at what had passed and fear at what was to come.

When I got home from school the next day, Mom was waiting on me. She led me into her bathroom and sat down on the toilet. I remember the frisson on fear that shot through me when she told me what she needed me to do. Earlier that day, while C, J and I were at school, she’d told you what had happened at the hotel. She’d asked you to change her bandage, and you’d refused. She needed me to do it now instead.

I was so angry with you, Dad. Angry beyond words. You didn’t believe Mom about what had happened. You accused her of going off to have an affair, of getting hurt while she was away being unfaithful. Out of everything that had happened, out of all the shame and embarrassment and pain that I had experienced with Mom over the past 24 hours, I never in my dreams expected you to react like that. And now, because you refused to help, here I stood in the bathroom with Mom, her head bent back so that I could see the area that had been shaved around the gash.

I changed Mom’s bandage for her until she no longer needed me to. Her hair grew back, and no one at the dance studio ever spoke to me about what had happened ever again. But I remembered it all, like a stop-motion movie playing on repeat in my head.

Now when I woke in the morning and shuffled into the kitchen, I noticed the empty and half-empty bottles of wine sitting on the sun-drenched kitchen counter. I counted the beer cans. When we stood in the aisle at the grocery store and I read you the alcohol percentage on the wine labels, I thought about how you wouldn’t help Mom when she needed it. How you refused to believe her story, even after I found the bravery enough to knock on your studio door one day and tell you that Mom wasn’t lying.

Love was supposed to be a verb, Dad. Love was supposed to mean that you opened your arms to Mom when she got home, broken inside and out. Love was supposed to mean that you comforted her, because it was an unfortunate accident that had caused her and I both pain. But you didn’t do that. And try as I might, I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive you for that for a long, long time.

When I think back on my youth now, I know that this was the moment that things changed for me. I started keeping track of how much you and Mom drank each night, a mental tally that I never consciously decided to start doing but somehow did anyways, every morning before I left for school. And gradually, so gradually I can’t pinpoint exactly when, I developed a deep loathing of alcohol. I couldn’t stand it. I blamed it for how you had reacted to Mom’s accident, and for Mom’s accident happening at all.

Why did you and Mom have to drink each night? What was it about our lives that made you seek out solace in something else, something that caused you so much pain? Why was this event, which loomed so great in my life, not enough to change things? Where was I supposed to find forgiveness inside myself when all I felt was anger?

I don’t remember you and Mom ever speaking of this event again. Like all of your other arguments, it slipped away into the void, the place where you put everything you didn’t want to say to each other. The place that filled and filled with each passing year with all your disappointment and sadness and anger. There are some events in life that are so painful and so disturbing that people never speak of them again, and for our family, this was one of those moments. You never perched on the edge of my bed and asked me if I was okay, if I wanted to talk about what had happened. I changed Mom’s bandages until her head healed, and then the whole thing faded away, just like Mom’s wound. Over the years, when something would cause me to think back on this, I wondered if Mom had a scar on her scalp. Because this subject felt taboo—just as taboo as asking questions about my biological father—I gave up my curiosity to the void, right alongside the pain.

Everything that happened between us, Dad, everything that came next, it was all predicated on this event. Everything changed after this, because now it wasn’t just you and Mom in the void. I was there with you, and I didn’t want to be. I would spend the next four years struggling to find my way out, and not caring what I gave up in the process.

I’m sorry I have to tell you about this, Dad, and I’m sorry that forgiveness was so hard to find. Eventually, your lesson came back to me, and I tried with all my might to apply it to you. I had to, because it’s like you said. Love is a verb.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 17

Dear Dad,

When we spoke on August 3, 2014, you broke my heart.

You were upset when I called. There was no laughter during this conversation. Only the same strain in your voice that became so familiar from my childhood. You told me a story I had never heard. It was hard to understand everything, because you lose words when you’re upset. But I tried to understand. And I knew it was true, because I had heard snippets of things growing up. Only now did you connect all the pieces.

When you were young, one of your family members (grandmother? aunt?) got sick. You were sent to stay at a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. You spoke very little English, because your grandmother refused anything but Italian in the house while you were growing up. English at school, Italian at home. Words were always hard for you to keep straight, even before the stroke.

You were terrified. This was the word you used, over and over, to describe it to me. The children at the boarding school were all afraid of the monsters in a room in the hospital wing, the place the nuns sent you when you misbehaved. All of the children at this place were sent here by their families, and you didn’t understand why someone would send you away to a place like that. To be with other children who all were sent away by their families. To a place with monsters.

One day, you were put in the closet in the hospital wing. Where the monsters were, in the dark. And when you said this to me, I could picture it so, so clearly. Because I have been in the closet in the dark too.

It happened when I was young, maybe two or three years old. I went to daycare at a woman’s home each day while Mom worked. My strongest memory of the place is of all the children everywhere. Kids in all the rooms and out in the yard. The woman who ran it kept us divided by age, in rooms with toys and shut doors. Sometimes we were locked in the rooms for so long that kids would wet themselves. No one every wanted to do that, because we knew what it meant. It meant a trip to the closet with the lights off. I don’t remember why I was sent to the closet that day, but I remember the darkness. The sounds of the other children breathing beside me. The sliver of light that snuck in under the door. We sat in the dark and whispered to one another, watching the shadows move through the light, and waited on the woman to let us out.

It took Mom a while to figure out what I kept talking about. Like you, I didn’t have the words. When I finally found them, Mom understood. I never went back to that place.

You told me your story of the boarding school because the person you are living with now, your first wife, GC, doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. I always found it funny, in an interesting life-goes-full-circle kind of way, that GC volunteered for you to live with her once you were released from the hospital last November. You and GC had rebuilt a friendship over the past few years, brought together by your first grandchild. So when GC volunteered, it made sense. Because she’s retired, she could bring you to the many therapy sessions you needed. She lives where you live and where your doctors are located. She had the space and the time to give to you. It seemed like the perfect solution.

But something has changed all that now, Dad. You’ve found an old friend again, a monster that has been with you most of your life, whispering into your ear. You drink because it is a part of who you are. Even after the months of detox in the hospital and your doctor’s warnings, you will not deny this monster. It exists not in a closet or hospital wing, but deep inside, where it can wrap itself around your heart and burrow into your veins. Where it can take you down that road again, the one you had finally escaped.

When I spoke with GC last, she told me a story about you and your monster. She’d come home one day recently, and you were nowhere to be found. You don’t have a cell phone, so she could not call you. She waited, and waited, and waited. You finally returned home at 3 a.m. You were in a jovial mood. When she asked where you’d been, you told her the hospital. She was mortified, and asked why, to which you produced your discharge paperwork for her to read.

After a rousing night at a bar, you had begun the walk home, stumbling down the street. A passerby saw you and stopped. They were so concerned about you that they picked you up and dropped you off at the nearest hospital, where the doctor’s kept you for a bit while you gathered your senses again. Then you walked home, discharge paperwork in hand.

GC was beside herself. She asked why you thought it was so funny. You shrugged. “I don’t know why the person was so worried about me,” you told her. “I’m not even hurt.”

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it, Dad? You can’t see the hurt, because it isn’t outside of you, a mark on your skin for you to see with your eyes. This hurt is inside, invisible, where it can pain you and everyone around you the most. This is why GC doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. Because she cannot take the stress you are causing her, the worry and fear and anger and arguments over you and the monster you will not give up.

I want so badly, Dad, to have you live with us. But this….The idea of moving you in with us scares me. I work full time, I run a business, and my husband, B, works long hours. You would be alone all day in our home. You cannot cook. You cannot read. You cannot write. You cannot dial a telephone. You could not call me for help. You would wander away in search of something to fill your aching void and soothe your monster, and where would I find you? All of this terrifies me. It keeps me from bringing you to me. And this, in turn, makes me cry.

When I asked you if you would like to live with me, months ago now, you said, “Are you near a bar?”

Sometimes there are things spoken that hurt more than we could ever anticipate, Dad. The answer is no, I do not live near a bar. I live in suburbia. Short of the YMCA and an elementary school, I do not live near enough for you to walk anywhere. And upon hearing this, you did not want to live with me. Me, who would take care of you. Me, who cries as I type this because deep down I cannot shake the feeling that you have rejected me somehow, because I do not live near a bar.

In my heart of hearts, I know that my home is not the right place for you. I am not home for 8 to 10 hours a day. You could not call me for help. You would be so, so lonely. I don’t want to subject you to that. But you have no retirement savings. You have no income other than your Social Security check once a month. You are not a veteran. You have everything against you. We have everything against us.

I don’t know how this will work out, Dad. GC has found an assisted living community that will accept your Social Security. You would have your own room, space to paint, a doctor and nurse on call, three hot meals a day. You could come and go as you pleased during the day. It seems like something good when you write it all down. But when we talk about it, you tell me the story of the boarding school in NY, and I am transported back to the closet as your voice hitches and you whisper about the darkness.

“I won’t go back there. I’ve been once.” Your mind  confuses the boarding school for assisted living as we talk, melding the two together. “I won’t go back. I’d rather live in a box on the street. How can I go to a place where people go to die?”

Oh, God, Dad, there is no answer to this. And so, the conversation ends. There are no solutions, no answers, no decisions. I try to hold it together until we hang up. Then I sit in my chair and cry as the memory of the closet swirls in my mind, and we are there together, trying to fight our way through your monsters, searching for the answers hidden in the darkness.

Love,

Ash

 

Dear Dad // No. 16

Dear Dad,

I don’t think any of us knew what a profound effect it would have on our family when you quit going to art shows. It changed everything.

By the time I entered the fifth grade, we had lived in San Diego for a year. You and Mom traveled to art shows most weekends across Southern California and into Arizona on occasion. Outdoor art shows on the West Coast happen on a schedule that follows the pretty weather: Heavy rotation April through October, with slim to nothing happening in the cold months of winter. This meant that our income fluctuated too. There were times that we went all month without an art show. In the age before there was an Internet to market to, this meant no income. This meant more fights at night. More loosening of the thin, fragile thread that bound us to one another.

One of your favorite sayings was, “You can’t eat the paintings.” You were a horrible salesman, Dad. You’d give your paintings away if it meant a sale. Mom was the one who got us through. She could sell rocks to Mother Earth if she needed to, in order to feed her children. Before you grew tired of art shows and the manual labor that they involved, I had no idea what a warrior Mom was. But you changed all that the day you quit.

There are things you learn at an art show as a kid. You learn, first, that there are not many kids at art shows. This came in handy. I befriended some of the artists, and when they needed lunch, something to drink, or a trip to the bathroom, they would ask me to watch their booths for them. In exchange, I got an odd assortment of things: a Coke here and there, a screen-printed T-shirt with Dalmatians on the front and back, a Disney Pocahontas charm necklace. I learned how to listen to what sports games were happening in the towns where we had shows scheduled, because it meant lower attendance at the show. I learned how to weave unnoticed through a thick crowd of bodies, snaking past elbows and strollers with my hands full of gyros and barbecue sandwiches en route to hungry artists. I learned to calculate sales tax and what it meant to earn back the financial investment we had made on the show before we could make a profit. I learned what it felt like to be hungry, wishing for a sale so that Mom and I could split something to eat.

When an art show is busy, time flies. When it’s slow, it feels like watching yourself age, which, to an eleven year old, takes a really long time. It was neither of those things on the first day of my first show, because on that day, it rained.

Rain at an art show is a four-letter curse word. The word hangs around all day, buzzing in people’s ears. Potters don’t have to worry unless there’s wind, because the water won’t hurt their work. Sculptors care. Weavers care. And painters care.

The moment the first drop hit, all the artists went running. They dashed to their booths no matter where they were—in line at a food stand, talking to a buddy four booths down, in the Port-o-Potty. Everything stopped when the heavens opened.

This was the kind of storm that threatened from afar and then roared in on you, the sky turning dark in minutes and pouring out everything it had at once. Whatever customers we had in our booth vanished. Mom yelled orders to me over the wind, both of us soaked to the bone. It didn’t matter though. There’s only one thing that matters in the rain, and it isn’t your clothes. It’s the paintings.

Mom always kept a box full of ratty plastic sheets behind the booth for rain events. She was behind and back before I’d even known she was gone, a stack of stained plastic in her arms so tall I couldn’t see her face. She threw it on the ground and barked out commands to me: Hold this end up, clip this end here. We blanketed the booth with the plastic from end to end. Not an inch of it wasn’t covered by the time we finished—except us. We didn’t have a fancy canopy to stand under like some people did, so Mom and I clung to one another under an umbrella, and we waited it out.

That was the moment I realized the amazingness of my mother. As I looked up at her, the rain pouring down around us, I realized what she did every weekend when she left us with Grandma B. She gave up everything when we moved to San Diego and started doing shows. Gone were the days of cuddling on the couch watching Who’s the Boss. Gone were the days of a steady income and security. In the year since we’d moved, my mother had blossomed into this mysterious thing that I was only now learning about. She was a warrior, fighting in the way you had asked her to fight. By spending every waking moment dedicated to the very thing you were dedicated to: your art. And she did so without a second thought.

I had always loved Mom, but I fell in love with her that day, as the sky poured down around us. I looked into her eyes and knew everything I wanted to be. I could not be the brave that you wanted me to be, but this…this dedication and sacrifice and sheer determination of will. This was the bravery that I had inside me, Dad. This bravery, I could do.

The next day the sun shone so bright it was like it was making up for past mistakes. I watched Mom sell your work, and slowly, I memorized her sales pitch. I learned about you, through her.

Yale, William and Mary, paintings owned by Rodney Dangerfield, the vice-president of Disney, and the Walter Chrysler Estate. I didn’t know who these people were, but the customers who came into the booth did. One guy liked my spiel about you so much he bought an $80 framed print. That was my very first sale. Not bad, for a rookie.

On the drive home, we tuned the radio to a soft-rock station and belted out Whitney Houston and Sheryl Crow at the top of our lungs as Mom drove, the windows down so that the cold air helped keep us awake. We couldn’t sing for anything, Dad, not like you could. But that’s what made it that much better. We didn’t have to be embarrassed. We were free to like what we liked and sing until our chests ached. We both liked this song Sheryl Crowd had released at the time. About how all she wanted to do is have fun. You hated this kind of music, but you weren’t there. So we cranked up the volume, and sang.

From the time I was eleven years old until high school, I spent the vast majority of the weekends in a year alone with Mom at an art show. During the summer, she and I could pack the van and leave Saturday morning at five a.m., return Sunday night after C and J were already fast asleep, and do it all again, weekend after weekend.

As the years ticked by, Mom and I grew closer than I would’ve ever imagined. We spent all our time together. During the week, I sat at the kitchen table after I got back from my dance lessons and helped assemble prints while Mom cooked you dinner and you sang along to Frank Sinatra and Julio Eglesias at a volume so loud you had to shout to have any sort of conversation. Sometimes, when we had to travel to a show that was especially far away, I would get out of school on Thursday and take Friday and Monday’s schoolwork with me to do at the show.

Art shows were hard, exhausting work, physically demanding, and simultaneously rewarding and demeaning at the same time. I learned what it felt like when adults attempted to hide the judgment and pity on their faces as I struggled to sell something to them. I loved the camaraderie of the artists at the shows, but I hated selling. I hated talking to strangers and the looks in there eyes, the judgment too strong for them to hide. I hated those faces, because I didn’t want their pity. I wanted their money. I had a family to help feed.

And in every moment I spent at shows, growing closer and closer to Mom, you and I drifted.

Sometimes, when the afternoon was slow and the heat bore down on me to the point that I wet a washcloth and draped it over my forehead as I sagged into the Director’s chair behind the booth, I wondered what you and C and J were doing right then. You didn’t have a car, because the van was with Mom and me. Were you walking to the park behind the elementary school so that C and J could play on the swings? What did you cook for dinner? Did the three of you sit on the couch and watch movies together? Did you make breakfast for them? It all seemed so mystical, a far away reality that I couldn’t relate to.

What did I lose while I was off gaining something else?

This was the time that made our family what it went on to be. These years spent separated from one another, weekend after weekend. As you, C and J bonded, so did Mom and I. We became two teams, each playing our part in this life we had built, separate and together in the same breath. I knew everything about you on paper, but in reality the only way we spent any time as just the two of us was when you picked me up from my dance classes on weekdays. We drove to the grocery store, and I stood in the wine aisle with you and helped you pick out what you and Mom would drink during dinner that night. This was our ritual. Our Sheryl Crow. You told me what vintage you wanted and we scanned the aisle until we found it. Then you held the bottle while I found the alcohol content and read it aloud to you.

“How about this one?” you’d ask.

I’d squint at the tiny numbers on the corner of the label. “Thirteen percent,” I’d say.

“Good, good.”

How must we have looked, Dad, as we stood in that aisle, appraising wine together? You in your straw hat and torn jeans, and me in my pink tights and black leotard, reading aloud from a wine label as you considered the price. You drove home and we went our separate ways, only to repeat the cycle the very next day.

This was the cycle of our lives. Mom and me at art shows, and you, C and J at home. You and I existed in our own spheres, orbiting one another like moons. When we argued, it was over inconsequential things, like my determination for grass to grow in our barren front yard. You didn’t understand my constant desire to appear normal. Why, why, why did I constantly strive to blend in? It was so opposite of everything you believed. Yet I came home from school every day and watered the dirt in front of our house, and every afternoon you told me I was wasting my time. Nothing would grow where there was nothing to nurture. But still, I persisted.

And slowly…slowly…over time, slivers of green broke through the nothingness.

These were the years of our nurturing, Dad. The years we spent planting and harvesting on opposite sides of one another. They were the years that I gave up my childhood in exchange for lessons and life. I did it because you asked me to. Because we needed me to. Because I could give Mom what she didn’t get from you each night as you screamed at one another: laughter so great your sides ached and Sheryl Crow’s voice blaring from the van speakers on high as the night air raced through the open windows. Love so strong that it could endure whatever the week brought us, no matter the alcohol percentage.

I did it because C and J needed a home and food and whatever ounce of normalcy I had to give them. Because I could help Mom take the tangled threads of our life and mold them into something stronger. I could do all of this because this was my family and you were everything I had, and I loved you with such a fierceness that I would spring life from dead earth if it would to make us survive.

We were a family, and I did not care what my name was or what I gave up or whether you hugged me the same way you did C and J. I would do it. Because I am my mother’s daughter, and because this was the kind of brave that I could be. The quiet kind who smooths the seams of fraying thread while no one is looking.

Love,

Ash