My father is frozen in space, iced over, and I wonder what happens inside of him, where the blood still runs warm. I dreamt about him the other night. He was as he once was – robust, vigorous, with a river surging below his surface. He was driving a van, as he always did on our vacation trips to some graceful nowhere.
“I want to go to the nursing home to visit you,” I told him as he drove.
”No,” he said, still driving, “I don’t want you to see me now. I want you to see me as I was, before.”
My brother can’t understand how I can just sit with my father for hours. His visits with him are brief, a tense fifteen minutes, in and out.
“What’s to get?” I finally ask. “Before this we couldn’t sit together in a room for more than ten minutes. It’s one of those backward blessings.”
For as long as I can remember, my father was a man of consistent anger, always quick to snap, with a disdain for anything out of place, lacking in order. Only rigidity gave him comfort, and when he was first diagnosed with illness, I often thought maybe he had short-circuited himself in his own way, all of the bitterness battling with his brain. Looking at him now, I see a shell of the man he was, frozen in the mystery space of Parkinson’s disease. But once in a while, as I sit with him, he pokes out, and I hear a phrase or see a grin that I remember from the past – his past, my past. I know he is stuck inside, his words and actions no longer able to escape the flesh. His body has become a prison of tremors and drooling, legs that collapse, and arms that hang helplessly in the air. But I know that he is in there. I know he can hear and even somehow understand, in between the weavings of dementia.
For the first time in his life, my father can voice no opinion, challenge no idea, conjure no command. His mouth reshapes and gnarls as he tries to push words out, shove them into the land of sound, but they end in murmurs and whispers, vowels and consonants that no longer connect, that drift and fade in the air. He himself thinks he is audible, understandable. I finally figured that out when I replied wrongly to one of his moanings one day. He sat, struggled to swing his bobbing head my way, lifted his lazy glazed eyes, and gathered all of his energies to blurt just above the surface, “What are you talking about?” Startled, I said, “I don’t know; I guess I misunderstood.” I knew then that he is still there, simply stuck, trying to be heard, struggling to return, for lagging seconds, brief moments.
* * *
I found myself at Saint Stephen’s cemetery on a sweaty but sweet smelling summer day last year, fulfilling a request my mom had made. The request was that I examine and, in the end, approve of my dad’s gravestone. According to my sister, no one else had yet been willing to perform the task. I walked over crackling grass between headstones that had rooted into earth, worrying about the thirsty grass and the flowers in urns that had long since wilted from the humidity and heat, serving only to add to the cemetery gloom.
After all of the years that had passed since I’d last been there, I automatically navigated toward the family plot, as if the memory was stored in my feet. I first spotted the gravestone of my younger brother – a tender pink square of granite with a shiny finish, bearing his name, the dates of his birth and death, such a very short life. The other stones circle around his – grandmothers and grandfathers, great uncles and great aunts, and then uncles and aunts …
I rested my eyes on the newest addition – the gravestone for my parents. Eerie, to have it already in place, settling into the ground while they both are still alive. My dad’s doing – always organized and prepared, always in control: If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. Their stone is arched and stands about two feet high. The granite is a sleek polished silver-gray with tiny specks of flashing ebony. Centered in the arch is a careful etching of a sailboat bouncing on wavy waters, a wide sun sitting in the background, over a patch of land with pine trees. Two sailing phrases are etched above my parents’ names. Over my dad’s name is the phrase Hard Alee, and over my mom’s, Coming About. Their birth dates simply serve to remind any onlooker that at any time an end date can be added.
In sailing terminology, hard alee is a command given by the captain to the mates to duck or risk getting whacked in the head by the boom. To come about is to change direction by turning through the eye of the wind, so that the sail flies on the opposite side. Their relationship had been like that in many ways, a sailing dance of staying afloat, sometimes on rough waters, sometimes on waters as smooth as silk. Occasionally they had to anchor the boat, to regroup, but they never abandoned it. They never jumped ship.
The gravestone is admirable. The boat does seem to bob, somehow, on that granite surface of waves. The stone is smooth and cool if you press your palms against it, the boat slanting through the waves, the sun beginning to set. I know the stone is a symbol of journeys and stories I know nothing of, can only speculate upon. I know that it is in many ways a symbol of trials and triumphs, of daily life lived. I know it is a rock of honor.
* * *
His life is nothing now, I think when I sit with him, watch him, feed him, wait as nurses change diapers, hoisting him up and down. He can do nothing on his own. He can do nothing –he hasn’t walked in years, traveling only from bed to wheelchair. He has become a man of no movement, no voice. He now must have help with every task of daily living, and this is a new reality for a man who lived life, accepting help from no one. I think he had decided very young to create his own destiny, to do it all on his own, to never owe anyone. Now, everything in his life is a dependency. He is a cocoon of vulnerability, powerlessness, helplessness. To me his life has become nothingness, and yet I know he wouldn’t see it that way, would never give up, would never let it go.
I sit with him now and hold his hand. He never was a demonstrative man. He was not a man who cuddled and charmed. He was stuck inside then, not because of disease, but because of habit and history. I remember when we were children, and every night before bed my mother would have us line up next to him in his rocking chair, telling us to kiss him goodnight and tell him that we loved him. We dutifully filed by, placing a peck on his cheek, telling him we loved him. He would rattle his newspaper a bit, quietly grunt.
I hold his hand now, and I tell him I love him, and I watch as he struggles with lips that won’t move and a tongue that won’t roll right, I watch as he tries now to say what he never could say then. I watch as he tries to say he loves me, too. I sit with him, and I love him just for trying.
I want to see inside his brain, into the mind matter where neurons have died and the dopamine has disappeared. I want to see what he sees now inside, where his thoughts go, what he envisions, which memories rise and fall. Does he see the beautiful sights he delivered us to for weeks every summer as children? He was a seeker of nature’s finest offerings. He took us to Aspen when the only other people in town were hippies in old school buses, and he found us a spot beside a pristine river, where the trees parted to display the majestic Maroon Bells, their silent toll ringing all around us. He took us to Bryce Canyon when the lace-like rocks painted the color of sunrises and sunsets had only a few footprints woven into the paths. He found us mountain snow on summer days, and he banged pots and pans at night if bears strayed too close to our tents.
I wonder if he can still smell the leaves in fall, as they crisp on the ground, their colors fading into brittle brown. I wonder if he still can feel the cool kiss of snowflakes, their designs dissolving on his face. I wonder if inside now, where he is stuck, he is still transforming, thriving somehow, in a new realm, like a frozen river in the wintertime, solid and motionless atop, with a bounty of life flowing below. I’ll never stop wanting to know. I’ll never stop wondering. But I never will know, and that is the mystery that makes me cry.
Jane Hoppen lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she works as a technical and fiction writer. She has had fiction and essays published in various literary magazines, including Story Quarterly, Feminist Studies, Room of One’s Own, The Dirty Goat, PANK, Western Humanities Review, Gertrude Journal, Platte Valley Review, The New Sound, Superstition Review, Forge Journal, and Rio Grande Review. Her first novel, In Between, is being published by Bold Strokes Books in 2013.