I knew when my father started to die, because I felt the morphine run through my own body, 3,000 miles away. Waves of nausea and that narcotic kind of calm came and went, covering over a rising panic one moment, and laying it bare the next. At the time, I was shopping at Target and found myself crouched low in the camping section, trying to get as close to the earth as I could. A prayer spoke from inside and outside me, both at once.
“Don’t be afraid, Dad. You are already forgiven. Don’t be afraid. You are already forgiven.”
I whispered this to myself as I tried to find my way out of the store, ending up twice on the loading dock and once at the door to the men’s bathroom before the sunlight beckoned from outside and led me to the exit.
“Don’t be afraid, Dad. You are already forgiven.” I said it over and over like each word was a bead on a rosary, one syllable joining with the next, and the next, until the circle started over again. When I got to my car, I crawled into the back seat and curled up like I was 5 years old and left sleeping in the station wagon while my mom was in the store. I used to wake up in the parking lot of Heartland and sit up to make room for the bags of groceries my mother would load into the car next to me.
“Did you have a good nap?” she would ask, refreshed from shopping by herself.
“Yes, but I have a headache,” I would say, hoping for a piece of aspirin gum from her purse, which was the closest thing my sisters and I ever got to candy. Nobody came with groceries this time. My cart full of groceries was still in the camping aisle where I’d left it. When I sat up, my head was pounding, and there was no aspirin in my purse. I drove home, whispering my prayer into the silence of the car, feeling more like an adult than I ever had in my life.
* * *
About a month before my father died, one of my sisters called him. She and my father had also been estranged for years.
“Why are you calling here?” he asked her when she called.
“I want you to know that I’m sorry you’re sick, and that I’m thinking about you,” she said.
He laughed his bitter laugh, and although I did not hear it that day, I hear it echo in my mind all the time. Sometimes, on days when I’m struggling to keep my head above water, I hear his laugh come through my own throat.
“Well,” he said, “I’m glad to hear you’re sorry.”
“I am, Dad,” she said.
“Well, you tell those other two, your mother and your sister, not to contact me. I don’t want to hear from them.”
He hung up before my sister could say goodbye. He took the chance they might have had for any kind of reconciliation or peace with him to the grave. My sister was haunted by that conversation for years, and even though neither of us was surprised by his response, it was still a shock to realize, one more time, that our father related to us like clingy ex-girlfriends whose pictures he’d burned decades before.
I considered whether to contact him anyway, in spite of his wishes. I had written him a letter that I had not sent, and I wanted to call him, too. In the end, I did neither. He had spent my childhood crossing my emotional and physical boundaries and I promised myself I would never do that to anyone else. He had laid down a clear boundary, and I chose not to cross it. I wanted to respect his wishes. I wanted our relationship to end with a kind of dignity and respect that neither of us could muster when we’d still had our whole lives ahead of us.
By the time my father died, I had neither seen him for 25 years nor spoken to him in 15. But I had felt captive every single day, energetically fused to him inside a membrane of shame that got tighter the more I struggled against it. In the beginning of my life, he and I were bound by the threat of a mutually assured destruction, should any of the secrets ever come out. By the end of his life, we were two halves left pinioned to one another, across miles and miles of silence. I was the half who forgave and longed for forgiveness. He was the half who could not bear to forgive or be forgiven. We both did our best, but our best was not very good.
* * *
After they started, the waves of nausea, and my prayers, continued for three days. It took me that long to realize I was praying to us–to my father and to me, and not to any version of God. That felt right—that he and I were the only two who could untangle ourselves from one another. We had no need for divine intervention. After those three days, I felt the membrane that was binding us start to loosen. My chest let go and it got easier to breathe. My stomach unclenched and I could sleep again. I continued to tell him that he was free–that he could leave this life unencumbered by me, and by the self that he had been here.
It was my way to show him love.
It was my way to say goodbye.
My father’s ashes were spread in the rose garden at his church. I’m not sure why he chose the Rose Garden. Roses, with their sweetness, their bloom, their reach toward the sun, their improbable birth from a thicket of thorns. I think that my own life—my survival, my bloom, my reach toward the sun, my improbable rebirth back to humanity—has been the same kind of impossible accident, rooted as it is in the tangle of thorns my father left me.