Saturday, December 20, 2008

still, still, still

This morning I had breakfast at Scarlett's new house. She has taken to calling me up and inviting me over in the mornings. She knows I won't eat breakfast unless someone reminds me, and she knows that breakfast is one of the things that anchors me to the earth at times when I would like to float away.

I have not been writing much lately, but it's not because nothing is happening. On the contrary, lots of things are happening, good and bad. I'm just not writing about them right now. For months now -- every since Boing Boing, really -- I've felt like I only had one or two more entries left in me, but then I think of something else I want to say. I can only see ahead of me a little at a time, like driving at night when the headlights only light up the next few yards of road. But that's all you need to keep going.

Anyway, Scarlett feeds me breakfast and then her friend Jason calls to tell us there are twenty harpists playing in the rotunda of the capitol building and we need to get down there right away. So we get on our bikes and go.

The rotunda is full of people and even though everyone is trying to be quiet, any rustle or cough fills up the space with whispers and echoes of whispers. Twenty harps are in a circle in the middle of the rotunda, played by twenty girls of various sizes, wearing twenty red dresses. "Greensleeves" floats up and away to the roof of the building four stories up and people are crowded around all three balconies, listening, trying to be quiet enough.

The music seems to have no beginning and no end, delicate vibratos bleeding into and out of the endless echoes of the space. The smallest harpers are very small, six or seven maybe, and they are very serious. Their hands move like seaweed in a current. I shut my eyes.

Listening to music is never easy for me, requiring a certain kind of concentration I cannot maintain very long. There are too many voices in my head competing for a hearing. With my eyes shut, I try to force myself to follow the notes of this music that washes up and down like small, soft waves rising over my head. The song ends and we all clap and the clapping is so much louder than the music. Another song begins, notes hanging on the air, persisting when they should fade. Like bells. The tune is familiar but I cannot place it and then the words come to me. Still, still, still, I can hear the falling snow.

Honestly, I don't like Christmas music. This song is better than some of the others because you don't hear it as much, not as much, unlike, say, The Little Drummer Boy, which is like a nasty virus. You hear it once at the grocery store and its in your head all day. I'm so glad I'm leaving town tomorrow, getting away from the awful Christmasiness of everything.

And yet, it's pretty. It's a pretty song, and it's being played by little girls with hands like seaweed, and the words are about stillness, which there can never be too much of. I feel something rising like a bubble in my throat and then I lean over and kiss Scarlett on the cheek because it's a beautiful world after all and sometimes you have to kiss someone.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

in the flesh

I love to fly. I love the ritual of checking in, getting the boarding pass, going through the security line and the scanner and being released into the airport, which I can't help seeing as a place of temporarily relaxed responsibilities.

Airports are the only places one earth where I let myself stop at the newsstand and buy an armful of glossy magazines. The flight home to see my family is not as long as it seems, but it's one small airport to another and there is usually at least one long layover in Dallas or Houston, so it can take all day, a day I spend leafing voluptuously through pictures of luxury goods I will never own.

I don't go home often. My dad had hip surgery three weeks ago, which is why I'm going now. He turned seventy this year, my dad, his birthday ten days after mine. He is still built like a bull, a thick yoke of muscle and fat around his shoulders, legs like the girders of a bridge. But he is stiff. He can hardly move any more for pain, and spend the last year mostly sitting in his chair.

My brother's wife, the hospitalist, oversaw his recovery after the surgery. I called her a few days after the operation to ask how he was doing. She tsked down the phone line. "Your father is a terrible patient," she said. "He won't take his blood thinners and he won't let us draw his blood because he says he's afraid of needles. This morning he kicked the physical therapist out of the room. He keeps saying the surgery was a mistake because he's going to die any time anyway."

We agree that somebody should do something right away. Except. "Your mom won't say anything to him," she says. "And your brother won't either."

That leaves me.

I won't go to the ranch. My brother will pick me up at the airport and I'll stay at his house with him, his wife, and my niece. My mother will drive my father up to meet us tomorrow and we will go to his follow-up appointment with the doctor. I will work with my father to find a few simple yoga stretches that will help his hip regain mobility as it heals. I will do this because I wish I were a good daughter, and I hope this will make me one.

Suspended above a patchwork earth, I flip through pages of models walking on white-sand beaches in jewel-encrusted sandals and I learn that something called "the ethnic look" will be big this winter. We fly over trees that look like broccoli and mountains that look like rumpled sheets. We will never land. And then we land.

The last time my father hit me I was seventeen. I had been living and going to school in the city for nearly two years. My parents were coming to pick me up for a visit home. I don't remember what I said that set him off. Some stupid thing. I remember I was carrying my stuff in a milk-crate and I dropped it when he grabbed me by the back of my jeans. My things spilled across the neat-cut lawn in front of the dorm. My dad spun me around to face him and his closed fist struck once across my mouth and then the back of his hand on my cheekbone as it swung back, bam, BAM. In the parking lot. At school. My friends and teachers everywhere. No one seems to be seeing anything. We are invisible in our fucked-up-ness, like always. It's the perfect crime.

He jerks open the passenger door of the pickup and throws me inside, into my mother's lap. She doesn't say a word. The whole ride home, all two hours of it, she silently comforts and then restrains me as I alternate between crying and screaming. I tell my father I'll never forget this. I tell him someday he will be old and he will look to me, and I will care for him if I have to, but I will never love him, never forgive him, this is it. I tell him if I ever loved him, it is over. I say it like a curse and a vow. My dad stares straight ahead, like nothing is happening. It's my mother who finally tells me to shut up.

She doesn't remember this. Not any of it, apparently. Her memory, always selective, is becoming more so. I guess she has a right. I brought it up a few years ago, after it had finally dawned on me, in my 20's, that my father's manner of parenting was unusual, that most kids don't get spanked in the head with a fist.

I wondered what my mother would say about it now that we were both adults. I brought it up, of all times, in the basement of the church where my cousin was getting married, while she and I sat with our hand-work. I hoped there would be some explanation. There wasn't. She looked at me blankly, her hands loose around the sewing in her lap. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't remember. You know I don't like to think about things like that."

She must have seen my disappointment because next she offered brightly, "Did I ever tell you how he tried to break my arm? We had some guests over and he thought I didn't get dinner ready in time. You wouldn't remember. You were tiny." She giggled softly.

I don't remember, but now I see it flash right in my face: my father's face twists in anger as my mother's face twists in pain. I don't want to see it. I grieve. I wanted to think he took it all out on me because I was strong, because I was the one who could take it just like a man. I do remember sitting at the top of the stairs, folding the hem of my nightgown in my hand like a letter, listening to their voices spiral up and up, my father in anger, my mother in pain. Saying to myself, if it gets any louder. If it gets any worse, any worse than this, I'll go down. I'll do something. Something, anything. I don't remember if I went down. I want to think I did. So now we both have things we'd rather not remember.

My mother looked down at the sewing in her lap. "Well, you two could never get along," she said. "You were a difficult child."

I guess. I know was a willful kid. No one could ever get my head. And I was tender; anyone could hurt me just like that. I hated working on the farm, too, and that was the kiss of death as far as me and my dad were concerned. He couldn't never stand a shirker and meanwhile all I wanted to do was grow up and move away and never again run alongside a hay trailer in the dust in the 100 degree weather and 80 percent humidity throwing up forty-pound bales while the sweat ran stinging into the scratches on my face and my arms. Not ever again.

My parents get to my brother's house in the evening. We go out for supper at one of those horrible family-restuarant chains in one of the endless strip malls out of which the city of my brother's choice seems to be entirely constructed. My father asks me about the project, and I tell him, but I must sound cocky because he cuts me off quickly. "You think you've got the world on a string," he says. "I know. I thought the same thing. Just don't forget you're half me. That means you're half stupid."

In the morning, I drive my father to the doctor's office and sit with him while the nurse comes in and takes his vital signs and then she walks him down the hall for an X-ray. Later the doctor comes in and together we stare at shadowy pictures of my father's bones inside his wounded flesh. The doctor is an Indian kid, barely my age. He is breezy. He says everything looks as good as can be expected, although that means nothing and everything could still go horribly wrong. Have a nice day. Dismissed.

Back at my brother's house I kneel down in front of my father's chair and take the weight of his leg in my arms, cradling it as I ask him to move it this way and that. His large muscles are strong, but the small rotators inside the hip joint are so stiff and weak with disuse that he can barely use them. These last years my father's body has become a cage, tightening on him bit by bit, shutting him in closer and closer. I remember when he could chase a run-away bull five times around the little seventy-acre farm we lived on then, barely losing breath. I remember my father as a hurricane, and now he is old.

Touching my father's body quickly makes me tired, makes me hurt in the small of my back like I've lifted something too heavy. Because I'm trained now to see pain, I see it in him everywhere. I see how he props himself up, forever falling both forward and backward, held up by nothing but will. Oh, Dad.

When my father was my age, his father killed himself. "Died of a broken heart" is what they told me when I was little, but I put the details together piece by piece, how my grandfather took his country doctor's little black bag out to the barn one afternoon, drew the careful overdose of morphine into a clean syringe, and died there in the sunlight and the hay.

He had been depressed for years, and there was no medication for him like there is for me, no 20 milligram tablet of complex molecules that make life livable. He self-medicated with single-malt scotch until they took his medical license away and then there was only the electro-shock therapy my Dad drove him to in the city once a week 80 miles on back roads through the dry country. My dad told me once that his father never remembered where they were going -- the electricity scrambled his brain too hard to make a memory of the pain -- but he remembered that he didn't want to go. My father took him anyway.

My father lives in pain, the bitterness in his head a slow feed into his blood. It will eat every cell in his body if he lets it, and he is letting it. If he were just the guy who used to hit me and yell at me and throw me out of the house at night like a Christmas puppy the family's gotten tired of, then I wouldn't care. then I would lock him in the closet with all the other scary things from childhood and I'd be free. But he's also the guy who taught me to swim and do my taxes. He's also the guy who wrote to me on my birthday and said, "You do things I would never be brave enough to do."

So I'm here holding my father's leg in my arms, aching with his lifetime of aches, whispering to his marrow, "Please don't die" and "Please just let me be."

Before my parents leave the city, my mother wants to go to the grocery store, and I go with her. Once she is back home at the back of the valley she may not see the inside of a grocery store for weeks. She buys big bags of beans, sacks of potatoes and rice. She asks me super-casually what I'm doing for Christmas and I tell her just as casually that I don't know. Nothing, probably.

"You're not thinking about coming to the ranch?"


Not since the Christmas Eve he took my bag out and threw it on the porch and said "I don't really care if I see you again or not." Anger lit my body like a flame then and I yelled without knowing what I was yelling, only seeing the fear in his face as he backed away down the steps of his own house and out into the yard, and liking it. Liking that he was weak now and I was strong.

Sooner or later I'll have to go back, and I will, but not this year. I don't know if my mother remembers that Christmas Eve battle or not. We don't mention it, like we don't mention so many things. Her forgetting accuses me of too much remembering. Her forgetting disappears me bit by bit. No wonder we don't know each other.

Pulling out of the parking lot she says, "You know your Dad really loves you a lot. He says you and your brother are the best thing he ever did with his life."

I nod. I feel as if this is supposed to mean more to me than it does. I know my father loves me. He's always loved me. But loving me never kept him from hurting me, so -- at least in that specific sense -- it doesn't matter if he loves me or not. I love him, too, for what it's worth.

I am beginning to realize that forgiveness is not a simple catharsis, one spasm that releases into peace. I forgave my father years ago, officially and full-heartedly, for everything he did -- everything he couldn't help but do, everything he could have helped but did anyway. But it seeps back up to the surface like one of those haunted bloodstains that marks the spot no matter how many times you scrub it away and it seems I will have to go on forgiving him for the rest of my life, which means, most likely, long after he is dead. He broke my heart a million times. I will wipe away a million layers of myself before it's gone.

The next morning I fly home. The plane is suspended from the sky by string. C. is waiting for me by the airport escalator as I come down. I watch him watching for me and when he sees me he lights up.

That night I can't sleep. At least, I think I'm not sleeping until I start up in the dark, groping wildly for the lamp. C. sits up beside me. "Baby?" he asks.

"Is it normal to think about killing your dad?"

He draws the back of his hand across his eyes. "You want to kill your dad?"

"Not now. When I was little."

"Oh." He lies back down. "Sweetie, every little kid wants to kill their dad sometimes. That's why there are myths about it."


I call my dad a few days later and ask him how he's doing. He says he feels better. He promises he's doing the excercises I showed him. He sounds a little brighter. I let myself feel hope. Maybe everything will be OK. Maybe the pain will go away now. Maybe there'll be one moment when we can just look at each other, one time before he dies.

At the end of the call I tell him I love him. I started doing this a few years ago. I know it makes him squirm. I don't care. Or maybe I do. Maybe I take pleasure in it, even. Maybe loving my father is my best revenge. The heart is a strange country.

There's an awkward pause, like there always is. I hear the strain. He has to think about it every time. And then he says, "I love you, too" all in one breath, like he's putting one burst of strength behind getting it out. And then he hangs up the phone, like he always does, fast.