Your father, still a young man, talks to you. His mouth moves plainly. Words float slowly from his lips; their sounds softly enter your ears, but they do not make any sense to you. It’s liver cancer. Terminal. Both bodily and psychologically, it’s going to be some hellish exit.
Still, he is remarkably calm. Death is sticking his fiendish fingertips in his liver, and yet he is unnervingly serene as he describes his options.
I’m going to fight it, he says. See how far I can go.
Good, you reply, staring a thousand yards away at nothing. You’re thinking, or trying to. Sense is so far away. Good, you say again.
Three swift months later, his demise surprises you. It is expected, yet somehow implausible. What happened? Inevitable and relentless progression of cancerous cells. How? Quickly.
Oh yes, it is progress, as inelegant as ever, destroying as it creates. Here is death for the man who has an answer to every inquiry of your childhood and every indiscretion of your teenage youth, however tame it seemed to you.
Here is death, silent and cold. Death is it.
It is undeniably hard; it is stunning in its lack of edge, its blur, its wobble; it is something you cannot quite recall now, his final words to you, the light growing dim in his eyes. His face will not float back to you, but if you could see its earnest hunger for a little more, it would only demonstrate that his mouth could not move or mumble, as was often his way; it could not utter its final utterance.
If you could see his sunken cheeks, the almost hollowed out sockets of his eyes, his face would demonstrate a lack of radiance evident even in those destroyed beings that somehow go on living. It could not, would not, illuminate the dark finale of life.
Yet it is his deep sleep, his final rest, that finally affords you rest of your own, however false it proves to be. It is three months of weariness diminished in a day, replaced with something else entirely. It is a substitute, a grief that literally destroys your gut for an entire year. It emaciates you and condemns you to never be too far from the refuge of a restroom where you can vomit just enough for a brief reprieve. It is where you can wash your face in an attempt to cleanse or drown—either will do. It is where you will remain for months, maybe years, wading in the waters of grief.
Death is an answer, so do not inquire.
It is ignorance, attempting to ignore it, a kind of false management that gets you where you need to go for some time. It is “magical thinking,” according to the writer Joan Didion, a pleasant euphemism for a sort of momentary insanity, but also a testament of imagination intermingling with the aching throb of the human heart.
Perhaps it should be deemed majestic thinking, the way it transforms the humble reality of an object into something superb. It is noticing that your grocery market keeps its peanut butter across the aisle from its bread. It is that sensible coincidence that allows the aroma of burnt toast and peanut butter to fill your nose, and all of a sudden, it is morning, and your father is no longer deceased, but eating his favorite breakfast of burnt toast smothered in peanut butter while reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. He is sipping his black coffee from his black mug, but you are not there. Yet you will see him later because it is as real as the grocery cart you’re handling, your knuckles gripping tight and holding on as your mind careens between the real and unreal. Your brain, that callous beast of habit and circuitry, that beautiful mass of matter, is working wonders, yet it still won’t let you see his face with any exactitude, even though he is warm and living, an intangible being in a tangible body that is sitting in your kitchen one final time.
It is excusable, your imagination, your magical and majestic thinking. It is nothing if not a means to let you survive. Sanity is overrated when sense is so far away and his death so unreal.
And your own death, too, suddenly so real, so close, only a few decades away and now destroying your concept of time. Whatever it is, this death, it is indistinct, hard to hold, yet it is being held all the time within your hands, which with age start to resemble his—slow, callused, steadfast. It’s the finest line that lingers between breath and death, its limits and lines contained within a couple of letters.
Death is an answer, so do not inquire.
An answer, an abstraction, hard to pin to the paper, yet with you. Its absence is impossible, even years later. It is hard to understand, for yourself and for others. It is quiet, but there, where it will stay, much closer than any sense you seek.
For another personal meditation on death, see Emma Kempsell’s The Waves on the Sea from thisrecording.com.