And even though this is your last chance to see us, you can barely look. But this is nothing unusual. You’ve always had trouble seeing us, your daughters who, in spite of you, are here.
The hospital is deserted, as if no one else in the city is dying today. Instead, they’re at homes that smell of yeast rolls, turkey roasting since dawn, sugared almonds, coffee. Last year, I had you to my table, saving the invitation until the last minute in hopes of catching you sober and present. It turned into a fine day, notwithstanding the familiar awkwardness between family members who don’t know each other the way they wish to be known.
When we took you home it looked like your life had reached a point of relative stability. You had a thrift store bed, a makeshift shelf, a borrowed card table, two chairs. When a man of sixty-seven with three degrees and a genius I.Q. is reduced to a household consisting of items worth a total of a few hundred dollars, he might be considered a failure. We recognized progress in the colorful throw rug and the wicker basket for mail, marks of home and order.
I used to wonder if our relationship would be helped by us getting drunk together, me entering into your world since you couldn’t seem to enter into mine. Maybe I could catch you in your golden moment, when you’d had enough to feel vital and sharp and passionate but before you had so much that you saw yourself.
Maybe that would have been the perfect time to ask you who you were, how you experienced being a father, if you did, and why you believed you deserved the flashflood walls of self-hatred that you let batter you to death. To death, where we are now in the lonely Thanksgiving hospital…
…the TV on. The half-eaten tray of food hardly a feast. You in a robe with your pale, hairy knees showing and I remember: when I was a child, how capable and masculine you looked with your legs crossed, right foot resting on left knee and an ashtray balanced on your ankle, a Pall Mall between your fingers. (The pack they came in was red, and after you left I stole one, and smoked in the closet wondering what it felt like to be you.)
Now, you’re small and afraid, a man who stubbornly refused invitation after invitation to life. You breathe shallow. Do you want me to pray with you? I’m afraid to ask. Embarrassed to do it. Too shy to take your hand. We all look at the TV.
The call will come in the dawn hours. My sister, Liz, will crawl into bed with me and we’ll each let out a few dry and confused sobs, fast breaths in and out. We won’t weep. We’ve been mourning you our whole lives.
But we want and need to mark the day, even though later we’ll find out from the funeral home you didn’t want a service of any kind. Emails are sent and phone calls are made, and within hours my pastor and his wife come over, bearing an urn of coffee and a plate of cookies. Liz and I set out what little memorabilia we have—the vinyl record of you conducting at a prestigious music school, your framed PhD, a few black and white pictures of you and our mother together early in your marriage, your college portrait. Liz and I can see our eyes in yours.
Friends arrive. Nobody you’ve met, and some people I barely know myself, but they are present. We make a small procession to the nearby cemetery and find a spot overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. It’s a beautiful day—the world green and cold and moving toward winter. I read from Psalm 107, a passage Liz and I picked out together, including the verses:
Some sat in darkness and deepest gloom,
imprisoned in iron chains of misery.
They rebelled against the words of God,
scorning the counsel of the Most High.
That is why he broke them with hard labor;
they fell, and no one was there to help them.
“LORD, help!” they cried in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He led them from the darkness and deepest gloom;
he snapped their chains.
Let them praise the LORD for his great love
and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
For he broke down their prison gates of bronze;
he cut apart their bars of iron.
I think about your life. I wonder if you’re with God, if you cried out in the end. If you experienced the flash of light, the chains falling off, the door creaking open on long-rusted hinges.
I don’t know. I wonder how, five years later, your death might feel different if I’d been able to ask, Can I pray for you?
By our human clock, it’s too late. But if there’s one thing the slow unfolding of life with God has taught me, it’s that I can never say the words “too late” and be sure. Again and again, Lazarus has stumbled out of the various tombs that I have sealed and walked away from, bereft.
So I will pray for you, without asking and, finally, without fear, shame, or the specter of rejection.
Peace be with you. The Lord bless you and keep you. May He make his face shine upon you until we meet again.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.