It could be said that the best thing about my father is my mother. Some Sunday night in high school, I gave up on trying to understand the man. We’re different people. He’s a Capricorn; I’m a Cancer. He’s a man; I’m something like a woman. He’s a Christian; I’m faithless and worse, I’m a liberal. He claims to be straight; I’m as queer as they come. On a dark January Sunday, I stood in my kitchen, crying, my mother at the table. “I can’t even have a conversation with him.”
My father has a glioblastoma, incurable, stage 4. It’s actually grade 4, because they measure brain tumors differently than tumors in other parts of the body, something about the difference in treatment. But I’ve found that stage 4 registers more immediately when you’re telling people about it. Grade 4 is lighthearted like maple syrup, or elementary school. But stage 4 is universal. A sympathetic tilt of the head, an overly meaningful smile of the mouth. “Oh, dear…I’m so sorry to hear that.” This kind of reaction is inevitable, so it’s more painless to get it over with at the beginning. That way, I can cut straight to the mincing shoulder pats, the nonconsensual hugs, the poorly-masked look of apprehension in the eyes that somehow leads to me doing the consoling. That way, I can leave sooner.
We, my father and I, are different people. He has spent the last 30-some years working, providing a home for me, my four siblings, my mother, our cats, the chickens. That kind of commitment is baffling to me. I’m not good for anything but leaving, and daydreaming about the next time I will leave. He conceived a talented escape artist.
Some week every April, my family used to make the drive to a nearby national forest, about two hours north of our house. It had to be in late April because my father, the accountant, was in the throes of tax season until the same date each year. The van, filled to overflowing with books, pillows, blankets, popcorn and trail mix and marshmallows, smaller versions of me and my 3 sisters and a brother, my father, and mother taking point, lumbered up the side of the pass. Glory be, the clunker made it over to the other side, where our tiny log cabin lay. No electricity, no cell service, no running water. Just a woodstove, an outhouse, and 7 mattresses that had been there since my grandfather and his father once came over the pass to build this cabin. There, at night, we would sit in silence and read. From sunup to sundown, my parents dragged the 5 of us up a mountain of their choosing, woeful requests for a trip to a candy store or amusement park be damned. I loathed hiking. I tried to pretend I was a spy, running from enemy captors through a dangerous terrain, but mother would grab me and make me slow down. “Look, over there you can see Jefferson, and behind us is Adams.” Between her words she told me other things, her own eyes cast out over panoramic blue and brown, God’s breath swelling and sighing around our ankles, then climbing up, up into the atmosphere and driving clouds overhead so quickly that, if you looked up and focused on the gray vortex, you’d almost feel as though all you had to do to open heaven’s gate was reach out one fist, and knock.
We don’t scale the sides of mountains together anymore, a tangled mass of twenty-eight limbs. The oldest is 32, and for that matter we’ve spread out all over the country. Virginia, Louisiana, California, Illinois; all but me. For a little while at least, I’m defined by all the places I’m not. Being the youngest, not to mention living in a one-bathroom with 7 people, I’m familiar with being suffocated by an absolute lack of growing space. Under the shadows of not one, but six extremely quick, driven, well-read people, I absorbed every minutia of behavior, belief, dialect. At first, when everyone gradually, though it felt abrupt, left home, an inner voice begged and pleaded for some kind of superior figure, some authoritative shape to present itself. Please, define me. Tell me who to be, what to do. And above all: Please—don’t leave me here with my father. My father, who inadvertently, or perhaps with complete intention, created the breeding grounds for my insecurities, anxieties, fear of abandonment and commitment, inability to feel or an overabundance of feeling. My father, who either with calculated movements or entirely by accident, spearheaded an environment of anger, repression, bitterness, self-loathing. My father, who is tone-deaf and nevertheless hums along to Fleetwood and Joni Mitchell while he does the dishes. Who once gave my stuffed animals voices, and taught me how to swish a basketball until it was pitch-black out and time for dinner.
I help my father tie his boots. I help him out to the car. Since his brain surgery, he has trouble walking in a straight line and he’s not allowed to drive. Dear God, help me find the beautiful irony in that this man, who once filled me with such great fear, who once pounded his fists on the table in anger, is now completely at my mercy. Where is the redemption in my position as his helper? Watching him struggle to open the car door as I walk around the side to open it for him, I’m sure it exists. The peace bubbles up inside my stomach and I can stay there, for a moment. Ravens scream and pick at the perimeter of our property. One even tries to land on the car, just where my father is getting in, so I make myself very big, yelling and cawing and flapping my arms. They’ve taken a new interest in our house, becoming bolder with each passing day.
Everything is about eating and sleeping now: making lunch, dinner, snacks, getting him a nap, putting him to bed at night. In rare bouts of empathy, I’ll go out of my way to fix him a meal but when mother isn’t there, I mostly make him do it himself. His moments of self-service are increasingly few and far between; I grow increasingly bitter. Mother only increases in magnanimity. I haven’t heard the words “How are you?” leave his mouth, directed at anyone, since his diagnosis. He and mother have a therapist visit and they talk, or mother talks, in the living room. It is here where my father realizes that mother has been having a difficult time dealing with it all—this hadn’t occurred to him before. I had the disturbing thought the other day that if I had cancer, I could do it better than him. What kind of person thinks that? You set up a scarecrow in the front corner of the lawn, by the garden, to ward off the ravens. They’re completely covering our car now.
Mother, dear, who carried me for 18 years and 9. Who still carries me, makes unpalatable black coffee, forgives and forgets. Mother, who, like me, is the youngest of seven. Whose face like mine contorts and reddens when laughing, arguing, discussing some impassioned topic. Mother of a messy house. You bring me out to that parched and hardened plot of land by the side of the house and tell me we will make a garden there. Use the rototiller to loosen the earth, hoe, rake for rocks. Bring heaps of chicken manure in wheelbarrows from the coop to the plot. Our chickens make the best fertilizer. This is what our work is: planting seeds, small bits of things, watering them and giving them room to breathe. This is why we have hands: to scoop out small valleys in the dirt where new life will sprout, to care for a thing that will never reciprocate equally or fairly what we have done for it. Is this why God created women, mothers? Here, nourish everything that gets destroyed. When will the payout be? I am small and insignificant, I made no choice to exist, but here you plant me, water me, make sure I’m breathing. Not to shield me from suffering, but to carve out for me my own small valley in this moment of pain, where I might lay a weary head. Won’t you lay yours, too?
Out on the front lawn, my father falls to his knees, releasing his grip on a pair of shears. Mother and I—we often finding ourselves watching him doing menial tasks: eating, washing his hands, flossing, trying to read—are standing by the window and we see his body crumple. The screen door flies out of its frame. She is out on the lawn there, next to him, checking his breathing, his pulse, finding his eyes and looking deep into them. I watch them from the empty door frame and think about how long it will take me to reattach the door. I wonder why I’m not out there too. I barely reacted, except for an almost imperceptible flash of the voice in my head. Oh, well, so this is the end. It turned out, he had just taken a poor step into a small pothole in the yard, and worsening motor skills and coordination caused him to topple over. Mother wouldn’t have a problem saving my father from certain death if the almighty hand of God stood in her way. She’s a force, tidal, seismic, like gravity or compound interest. Me, I just freeze.
Let us climb the mountain, then, as we’ve climbed many like it. This trail is unfamiliar, but you’ve packed enough water for many days journey. Gradually, as we climb, we’ll shed our skin. We’ll let the sun bake our backs.
I go out into the garden on the side of the house, by the fence. I kneel down in the dirt and plunge my hands down under. The ground is open, just tilled, and my fingers dive deep into the warmth. Worms traversed here— ugly little creatures but we would be nothing without them. Without them the soil would harden and become impenetrable. No new trees or plants could grow, and the surplus of carbon dioxide would soon suffocate us. Not every good thing can be beautiful, you know? Thank god for worms.
If I kneel here long enough, digging my hands and sinking deeper, I wonder if the earth might eventually consume me. Passers-by would hurry uncomfortably past the house but their children would notice and stop to point. “Mommy, is that a statue? It looks like a girl but it’s in the ground.” The soft dirt swallows up all but my torso, seemingly bisected from my lower half and placed there in the garden, mingling with the cherry tomatoes, swiss chard, beet greens, arugula. A carrot seed of its own burrows in my belly and its top comes sprouting up through the crown of my head, leaves out my mouth and ears. “That can’t be a girl. Why, she’s orange!” I blink slowly back at them. The child yelps and they rush away, down the road.
The joints in my knees start to ache from kneeling for that long, so I shift my weight back onto my heels. Dirt finds its way between my toes. I tilt my head to the side to listen for the Northern cardinal’s siren song, and I hear it, faintly and far away. It calls out into the great beyond: no response, no encouragement, no greater purpose. The bird and the song converge. They’re wrapped up in a spiral of wind and breath and light in which all living things play a part, and at the center of this swirl of matter, cells, organic fabrics—nothing. It is completely still. Looking closer into that center, I see myself there, kneeling in my garden. Without opening my eyes, I know that a light rain is passing through the yellow afternoon sun. I don’t look, but I know the prism of colors being created. Fall down, loosen this dry earth. Today, all of heaven’s good and ugly takes a drink. Creatures split apart and multiply into newer, better forms. Somewhere inside the house, my father lays his head down on his pillow to rest. Can I then rest, too? I know that my mother is also somewhere inside, either rushing around on the phone or sending emails or discovering new medications to pick up. So I do not rest yet. She and I are there in the center of the swirl—our house, cats, the chickens, our vegetable plot, the birds; we are all tied together in the fabric of things. Somewhere in the distance, a raven cries. May grace and mercy wash me down, down under.