"Not My Father"


A famine-shriveled child. This can’t be my father. An ivory carved sculpture of a head, pressed to the side of the pillow. Who is this man, lying, dying in his hospital bed? I want to disown him. This can’t be my father.

. . .

My father was always quiet, but not still. Not voiceless. Even in his earlier years of senility, there were still “Nays” and nods of his head. No words. But he still looked into my eyes and knew who I was. His older daughter. The one who sat with him on the porch and looked toward a hole in a catalpa tree waiting for the birds to nest or a squirrel to scramble up the tree. I could still hold his hand. I could still feel the warmth in his fingers. I could still kiss the top of his bald head and he would nod. We still could be father and daughter even as the dementia took him farther and farther away from me.

But the final year was different. He sat in his wheelchair, eyes closed. He no longer grasped my hand. No longer nodded. No longer knew who I was. His arms and legs thin as stilts. His flesh blotched with blue bruises, blossoming like a Rorschach. His body all bone, blood spots, and blue black wounds.

As I stroked his arm during those last days, I found myself searching in the past for my father. I wanted to bring back the father I knew. I loved.

. . .

The man who caught monarchs in his cupped hands, who held his arched fingers over mine, who let the monarchs fly into a breeze, be taken up by a wind. Who brushed orange and black dust off the tips of our fingers, the residue dusting the lifelines on their palms.

. . .

The father who taught a child to skip flat stones in a creek, showed her how to flick her wrist and send the stones jumping across the surface of water, sparking in the sun. Bring back the father who taught a little girl, of 4 or 5 perhaps, to float on her back in a pond, to trust her body to hold her up, to measure the surety of her spine against the weight of water. Floating, she sometimes jerked a bit, afraid of going under, of gulping water and not being able to breathe, and at the moment when she would have flailed her arms, she felt the steady presence of his forearms under her back, reassuring her that she wasn’t going to drown.

Bring back that father.

. . .

Not the ancient man whose mouth is half open. A deep rattling and gurgling echoing in his chest. He is two days before dying, the death I had known was coming at 100, 101, 102, 103, but that never seemed possible or real. He had lived beyond his diagnoses of terminal dementia, beyond the six months that they had given him when we brought him home from a nursing home to die. Even a week before his cheeks were flushed. His skin pink stained with life

. . .

Bring back the father who before her bedtime taught a young girl to listen to the sounds of poetry, taste them as luscious gum drops or the lime, orange, lemon Dots in the box of candies at the movie theater. She relished the sounds of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” who sailed onto “a river of crystal light/into a sea of dew” or the delicious fruits that dropped from the “Sugar Plum Tree.” She saw the gingham dog and the calico cat fighting each other into shreds. She lived in this technicolor world right b