My Father is Dying – Sarah Sandman
My father is dying. And not in the existential way that we are all dying, day by day losing parts of ourselves each time we take a breath. He is not dying a noble death, or a death from a heroic battle with cancer. He is dying though.
Each time my mother updates me on his health status, I am shocked as if I’ve forgotten that he has a chronic illness that even the best doctors aren’t able to fix. At some point, a person’s damaged heart muscle, no matter the pace maker, or western medicine, becomes so weak that it cannot keep fluid out of the lungs. My father has congestive heart failure, and his lungs are filling. His voice is just above a whisper and his frail frame is wrecked with fits and seizure when he coughs. He coughs often, and with such fervor he must move slowly and methodically so as not to cause a fit.
And yet, he refuses to wear the oxygen mask that would help him breathe more easily, and he refuses to alter his life any more than he has to. I would like to think that this desire to maintain his life as it has been is a normal reaction to prolonged illness for a person. I can’t bring myself to actually believe that though. Instead, I know that my father is vain, and stubborn. So much so that he is unwillingly to let anyone know that he can’t do what he used to do. What he doesn’t realize is how obvious it is to the rest of us that he isn’t who he used to be. He will be 78 years old in June if he makes it that long.
For as long as I can remember, he has been searching for a miracle drug that would prolong his life—a fountain of youth. He tried fad diets, facial exercises, hair dye, acai berry drinks, exercise routines, and bottle upon bottle of water. He invested in more pyramid schemes than I know about, plenty of which promised “fountain of youth” benefits. For years, people told him that he did not look his age. That platitude is no longer true. He looks every bit his age, with paper-thin skin and age spots, broken blood vessels, mottled hands, and a sunken face. In his prime, my father was 5’11 and 220 pounds of muscle—forearms as big as a toddler’s thigh. He was not huge, but he was sturdy, strong, and in good shape. In his less prime days, he weighed more, carrying a section of fat around his abdomen, but still, his hands and arms were strong. I will always remember the strength of his hands.
Now, I cannot look at him without cringing, without turning away. He is dying, but doing it so slowly. He is fading away—able to only eat every now and then. He has shrunken to under 150 pounds, and sometimes, he falls under 140. He looks emaciated. He wishes he were thin and robust like his high school football picture. However, now, this is the end of his life—and there is nothing robust about this man.
I have four half-siblings. We have different mothers, but share our father. While my life with my father may have been different than my siblings, we have all learned rules of how to exist with him. First, do not ever imagine a life without him. Second, recognize that he is immortal.
First: daddy will never die. Second: daddy will never die.
At Thanksgiving this year, I found myself in the living room—a once formal space with a once formal couch, hidden away from the more comfortable, filled-to-capacity family room. I was standing in the dark with my brother’s partner. He and my brother have been together for a number of years, and William, the partner, has witnessed the dysfunctional communication within my family. He was feeling overwhelmed by my family, feeling as if they keep secrets, keep a certain status quo, and function with a façade. He said to me, “I don’t know what your brother will do when your father dies. I don’t know how he will deal with his emotions.” William had no idea how validating his words were to me.
I don’t know what I will do when my father is no longer in my life. I’m not sure I will know how to function without this larger-than-life man serving as the sun to my earth. I have orbited him for thirty three years, and his gravity is overwhelming.
And then my voice trails off. I get lost out the bay window, the bay window I’ve known for a long time. There’s a squirrel or something. Something. Fucking squirrel. Why can’t I just tell her, my therapist Janie, who I’ve seen every week for eighteen months?
She says, “go on,” as if that somehow makes this easier, or better.
Before I know it, I’m saying things I think I shouldn’t be. I start detaching from my body, allowing the tingling sensation to take over—maybe if I don’t feel this again, maybe if I let my voice soften. I’m curled up in the corner of her couch. My feet are not on the ground.
I say, “Because of what I’ve done, and what has been done to me, I feel . . .”
She corrects me. Reminds me that I didn’t do anything wrong. That these things were forced upon me.
“What they did—I feel less than human.”
She sighs looking at me with eyes that say I can’t save you from what they did—only your misinterpretation. Saying I can’t take away this pain. Saying I can see in your hunched body that this is difficult to share. She says “I’m sorry” like it’s her job.
I want to vomit. I want to vomit it all up and out—make it go away. But I don’t—I can’t.
So I don’t tell her that my roommate’s 13-year-old son rides his bike to the store two blocks away to buy me Listerine. I convinced myself that I needed it, that the Listerine would somehow rinse away the memories. He was willing. He knows none of the stories except that my father is a “bad” man. He saw the pain on me, followed behind me like a small little boy, said in a quiet voice, “I need something to do. I’ll go.”
I handed him a ten-dollar-bill—told him to get something for himself too. I felt guilty—unable to contain the memory any longer.
Her voice brings me back to her office, back from my thoughts. She says, “don’t let your child-self carry this belief. Don’t make her hold this.”
So. I say it again. I’m less than human.
I was raised as an only child. All four older siblings were either already grown by the time I was born, or lived with their mother, visiting every other weekend of my childhood. I rarely remember any of the times either my brother or sister visited. It was like having aunts and uncles instead of siblings, and I was always “baby Sarah” to them anyway—the baby that came from their father’s affair, after their parents’ divorce—a baby who was too innocent to hold any of their anger, but also clearly “other.”
Because of this pseudo-only status, I had a close relationship with my parents. We did most things together, as a party of three. My mother, a first-time mother, usually took me everywhere with her—even to adult parties. I spent much of my childhood conversing with adults, sitting primly in a chair near my father as my mother moved around the room. I remember being well behaved, and docile—specifically intent on following all rules given to me.
And then I actually remembered that our “closeness” was a fiction.
I was 27 years old, and the hot July heat surrounded my car as I drove across town to meet my father at my parents’ home. I can’t remember now why I was going to his house. But I do remember the sinking feeling when the hazy memories converged and I saw his face raping me. For the first time, I could see my abuser. I didn’t stop driving. My panic level rose, as I neared my parents’ condo, and I can’t believe that I went inside. I don’t remember much of that day, but I do remember wanting to flee. I kept thinking: I just have to get home. I just have to survive this one time.
This was the last time my father raped me. I still haven’t processed the psychic break that happened that day. I walked in knowing that the horrible memories I had been having were actually of my father. My segmented life, the repressed, and the conscious, had merged into one. This was a collision of great magnitude.
As I stood at the kitchen counter, I attempted to be “normal,” acting as if nothing were wrong. We talked about normal things, and I tended to his computer, or database, or printer. Then we did another unfortunately normal act as well. By this point in my life, I was a master at reading my father’s signals—one gentle movement of his hand could mean it was time for me to be submissive. A look in his eye. Anything, really. I was adept at reading his wants before he even knew he wanted something. Still. I knew what he wanted this afternoon—and I knew he was raping me, and had been my whole life. After, I was so disgusted with myself. It’s been six-and-a-half years now, and I haven’t forgiven myself for not saying no.
I lay with my sternum facing the ceiling, and my arms wide open. I haven’t laid this open in maybe forever. I let my arms dangle, noticing the pillow under my back. The unnatural arch forces my chest to break free from the safety I normally hold it in. And so, I lay here with my sternum facing the ceiling. I take a few breaths—amazed at how wonderfully simple air is, amazed at the inflowing of the divine that rushes to my heart center. I take a few more breaths and pull my knees upward, placing my feet flat on the cushioned table. She says, do you want your knees like that? I instinctively try to put them back down. I wonder what the problem is. She says, I know this is a vulnerable position. I want my knees. I want my knees.
She says, I know you want your knees—it’s about protection—you’re safe here. I put my knees down and ever so gently she takes my right arm and stretches it, massaging the trigger points, grazing my fingers with hers. I wonder how she can be so gentle with my pain, so wise with my seeping emotions. I keep my focus on each of her fingers—reminding myself, this is now. Eventually, I feel the urge, the internal shake that always begins in the largest muscle of my leg, twitch, twitch, like the silent second hand pacing from the clock near my head. Eventually, I feel her hands, placed strategically over that large muscle, waiting, waiting. I try to remember to breathe. When she finishes, she says, you’ve made so much progress—you’ve come so far. I can still feel the twitching—still hoping I won’t turn into a convulsion. I say, but my legs, and the shaking. Her eyes understand something about my soul. But my legs. But the shaking.
She says, don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll wait.
I’m five years old and my father has come into my room. A familiar ritual ensues. I can see the open closet door, fake 1986 wood. The carpet must be beige or brown or white. Stare at the wall. I am obsessed with the pattern of his breath, calm, and then—not calm. I am obsessed with the shape of his hands—later I will hate my thumbs because the wide, flat thumbnail resembles his. I am obsessed with his mood—trained to respond to his every whim. After so much physical trauma already in my young life, I am obsessed with the underwear on the closet floor. I will never remember if they were colored or patterned. They were, however, colored with my father’s lust. That day, my five year old brain couldn’t understand the consequences for the choice I would make. He says clean yourself up. And so, I put on the purple shorts and purple shirt, leave the wet-spotted underwear behind. I think about their placement with each step I take away from the house. We walk to the back-of-the-church park, my father and I. As I hold his hand halfway between home and the red rubber swing, he asks if I am wearing panties. Five-year-old brains are capable of obsession and love and forgiveness—not always logic. I do not look at him. I see the wet underwear behind my eye lid and want to run home. Instead we walk on. I, knowing that I made a dangerous error, and he, knowing that he would teach me never to be so un-lady-like again.
I know three things about my father.
The first he told me, maybe once a year, only after coming too close to a flapping bird, flinching, covering his head when the wing sounds filled his ear. He would describe being a small boy at his grandmother’s farm. I imagine him being five years old, and the year being 1942. I am obsessed with five years old. Maybe his grandmother had come outside to chop the head off the chicken to feed the large family. Then the boy cousins took the un-headed, flapping-winged chicken and threw it toward my father. He never got over it.
And sometimes he would tell me about his mother. My father used few words. He said she sat in a rocking chair for weeks on end, rocking. Doing nothing else. I imagine the much older woman I barely knew, aimlessly rocking, not even getting up to tend to her four children. It could have been post-partum depression. It could have been that her husband preferred bowling, fishing, and drinking. I never knew my grandfather. I am not even sure of his name.
I remember one other slip of the tongue that my father never meant to say, never meant to think. It seems my grandmother had her eldest son, my father, sleep in bed with her during her depressed years. His tone in the telling suggested more than just sleep. I have never been able to reconcile this fact.
January 5, 2015: It has been more than six years since the last time my father raped me. I am still haunted, carrying the weight of the abuse under my eyes like permanent bruises. I still wake in night sweats and accidentally roll away from my partner in the early morning hours. I still go to therapy once a week—for at least two hours—a practice I began six years ago. When I go more than seven days without seeing Janie, I feel upheaval and turmoil. She even mentioned recently that she tries never to vacation for longer than a week and a half at a time. In some ways, I feel validated by her seeing that I am affected by my abuse. I live with doubt—so much doubt. Any person in my inner circle would tell you that they have never doubted my story, and that they can see how my past wears on me despite my best efforts to move forward. And yet, I still wonder. I still torture myself with the “maybe it wasn’t really him. . .” or “maybe I’m just crazy.” The Courage to Heal, a healing tome for child sexual abuse survivors, says that doubting is a normal part of the healing process. I wonder if I will always have the doubt.
Janie and I talk about how I will feel when he dies. I tell her I don’t know—that I’d been thinking about it for the last week, and I don’t feel any closer to an answer. I tell her that I have been writing this piece—beginning with the phrase: my father is dying. As I continue to describe the beginnings of the writing, an image forms in my head. I can see Frida Kahlo’s work in my mind, a comingling of broken backs, corsets, and vines flowing through vertebrae. Then, I say: “It’s as if he has been my back bone, intertwined in my being, the support that holds me up. I don’t know how to live without him.” The image now burned into my consciousness—everywhere I focus, the wood floor, the fabric-tied rug, I see his face and his hands wrapped around my spine.
“And what if he were never there? Never the one holding your spine up? Never the bone of your body?”
I fidget with my hands. I stare into the printed fabric of the couch. I stare out the window. And then, “Oh. Right. I see. This is exactly what he had hoped for.”
She doesn’t say anything to me yet, but looks on with supportive eyes. I take a breath, not quite willing to push further.
“He wanted me to believe that I couldn’t exist without him, that I was only alive because of him, that he was like my bones holding me together. I didn’t realize I believed this anymore, or maybe ever. It’s like, in his dying, another, deeper layer of this programming of never believing I could live without him has surfaced.”
Dear rhinoceros, dear my love,
Maybe I will write a letter in reverse to you, my new love, a woman draped in a gentle tear with a face turned toward hope—my love, dear, I am the color of your nail bed. I will always be whiter than your foot, whiter than the tree-lined-circle of your iris. I come from decadent parties and accessories meant to cover and dazzle. Like a drooping dandelion, broken harp string. No, an ostrich in the sand. Hide. Hide. Dear my love, I am—hide. We curl near on the fuchsia-sheeted mattress. My eyes turn little and I disappear into the count. I stoically stroke your raised goose bump. Not one billion, no, 6000. And with this estimate, I am not hyperbolic. You cannot contain anymore. I tell you, dear rhinoceros, I survived. I touch your chocolate horn. And then you weep like I’ve never witnessed before. You weep. He still lives by the artificial machine that prompts his heart to beat. I curl closer to you—holding tight the soft underside of your naked arm.
I have accepted this life.
This is the story of learning to live on the other side of the illusion.
Sarah Sandman is the founding editor of The Dandelion Review. Sarah is a poet and essayist. Her work has been published most recently in Map Points and The Tavern Lantern. She is currently working on a book-length project of short essays. Her chapbooks I Speak Moan and The Sinew of 47 Years are available through Finishing Line Press.
Sarah is passionate about many things including making space for voices that are often not heard, or just not heard enough. She has always wanted to help people get their writing into the world, and spends much of her time in the classroom teaching creative writing at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne. She lives in Fort Wayne with her partner and her dog–she drinks too much coffee, and she has dandelions in her yard.