Essay: The Day My Father Died
Sixteen years ago, on Dec. 10, 2000, my father quit breathing. I was fifteen. He was seventy-four. You did read that right, and I was his biological son, born to a mother thirty years his junior, his second wife, his second life. I was an uncle the minute I entered the world, with a brother and a sister more than twice my age. The Cook family patriarch died on a Sunday, some time in the morning. The sun was up but it was overcast and cold, at least cold for East Tennessee. I had yet to experience a New York City winter, much less one in Connecticut, and couldn't have imagined then that I ever would.
He passed away at home in Kingston, Tennessee, in the spare room where we'd set up his bed for hospice care. He'd been living on a ventilator at the hospital for a week, ever since he stumbled off a sidewalk and smacked his head on the concrete after leaving my high school basketball game. My father's brain had hemorrhaged profusely because of the blood thinner he took to keep a clot from hitting his mechanical valve. With your ear to his chest, you could hear his heart click...click...click. My family finally decided to pull the plug, and the valve continued to click for two more nights.
I grew up in a modest house, one story, about 1,300 square feet. It was even smaller when my father had it built in the 1950s, back before I was even a thought, when what would one day be my bedroom was still a one-car garage. The spare room where my father died was also where we kept our first and only computer, a makeshift office for my father, who was retired but did freelance writing for the local newspaper. He'd actually co-founded the paper the same decade he'd built the house, back when a man without a college degree and no formal training could do such a thing.
It was the only house I'd ever known—red brick with white vinyl siding trim, atop a steep yard that once had a weeping willow tree in the middle of it. The tree was magical to me, like something out of a children's book, enormous and neon green, the branches drooping from the mossy weight. My father would rock with me in our white front-porch swing and sing an old folk song, "Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow." We couldn't see them beneath the soil, but the willow's roots were as vast as its branches and had begun to overtake the city water lines. So that tree was cut down when I was four, and I cried. That was the first time I experienced what it is to lose a part of yourself—no consolation, no regeneration, just a gaping hole in your universe.
I have now been on this Earth more years without my father than with him. I have written several thousand words this week, many of them to try and recount for you the final days of his life through my fifteen-year-old eyes. I deleted most of them. Perhaps I'll write them some day, but not now. I might need sixteen more years before I can do my fifteen-year-old self justice. I can't explain to you the chasm that opens after a loss like that, a chasm between who I might've been and who I became. I can't make sense for you how I was able to start stitching up my heart the minute it'd been broken, to be so stoic, to not miss a day of school or a basketball practice while my mother helped bathe my father with a sponge and slept in a recliner next to him in the ICU. I can't fathom how it was that the same day I watched my father be lowered into the ground I also took a Chemistry final, in a room by myself, just me and the teacher, who'd allowed me to finish it during lunch. I made an A, by a point.
I don't have it in me, not in the wee hours of this morning, to describe for you the antiseptic ER room, or the slack-jawed expression on my father's blank face as I stood over him prior to brain surgery. I could comprehend, even at that age, that his spirit was already lifted, that the angels had already taken their share.
I guess I felt the need to write as a simple acknowledgement of the thing occurring, in a way I never have. I felt the need to acknowledge the walling off I've done, the cliche coping mechanism I've created, the digging of a hole without even knowing the shovel was in my hands. I miss my father, I do. But he exists, for now, in a place I can't exorcise, any more than I can replicate the care-free smile of that blond-headed fifteen-year-old, the light in his blue eyes.
As humans, we have two voices, I am a firm believer—the id one, the one of instinct, the one that whispers someone's eyes are on you. And then a voice that emanates, that must learn to operate in this society we've created, a voice that must appease its bosses, a voice that must respect authority and the laws we've created, lest that voice not be able to return home, to a place where our id, our inner voice, can be itself, can laugh and cry. My id went into hiding when my father left this world. It told my outer voice to survive for it, that it couldn't take the pain it had encountered. And so my outer voice, the one that has no use for emotions, the one that must endure to survive, took over, while the stitches in my heart were healed and removed. My heart was scarred but still whole, impenetrable even. My heart was mine and mine alone, for the id knew that it couldn't suffer more stitches, knew that if my heart were ripped open again, certain pieces would be irreplaceable.
I picked up a Catholic priest recently, who was taking an Uber on a Sunday to a bar after he'd given his sermons and made his rounds. He told me of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot who wrote On Loving God, which dissects the stages of human love for the Christian God. I read it. The cycle begins out of selfish love, out of literal hunger for a mother's milk, a love for the one who assuages hunger. And then comes the love of an earthly father, a love of free will, of recognition, a love that is a choice. I'd never considered it, but my father was my friend, a man I didn't need to survive, but one I wanted to be a part of my survival. And then he was gone.
This is an apology, really, to my mother first and foremost, but also to the women who've had to suffer through with me, hoping to see that smile or that light reappear, only to be inevitably disappointed. I've hurt people in ways that would be self-serving to admit here, selfish confessions that would lack their approval or enough context for any sort of realization. But on every anniversary of my father's death, I consider the collateral damage that I've created, when really the war has always been between me and my God, who took my father, my only true love.
In the scheme of existence, human life is fleeting. That is an unequivocal fact. But when you are faced with life's tangibleness at such an early yet formative age, you reexamine your own shelf life. You reexamine the need for love, which can bring pain. You reexamine the need to breed new life, which can bring pain. You reexamine the need to even exist, which in essence is only an earthly endeavor, a fleeting endeavor, one that you've now seen come and you've seen go—one that, with sixteen years of hindsight, you have seen be relatively erased with the passage of time.
That smile of mine might be lost to history, but the light in my eyes is flickering again. I can see how I might justify my fleeting existence. As for my heart, I'm putting it into these words I write to you. And while my heart might never belong to anyone but that man who is buried off the Lawnville Road exit in Kingston, Tennessee, I'm doing my damnedest to use what remains of it for good these next sixteen years, or until it stops beating.
My father, God rest, had his own sins, I'm sure. I know this because he raised me to appreciate a redemption story. That's one thing I still believe in—forgiveness. I'd bet a lot of folks are going to need it, too, before this is all said and done.