tales of a girl in the city

décembre 20, 2007

This year. This black, dark year.

I moved to this city in love, part of a partnership. I remember walking through Rittenhouse Square in August of 2006 and feeling as though I was on the verge. At the crest. Exciting things were beginning. My father was alive. Harvard was all the things I thought I wanted him to be.

Tonight, all I can do is shake my head, thinking back to all of the changes that came. So quickly, so quickly my father was gone. And Harvard, too: I remember standing at my father's funeral without him: The plane tickets aren't refundable. I wish I could be there. Me telling him, "It's ok. I understand."

And then, again, when he decided to throw a party for New Year's. A little over a week since my father had died, and I was expected to be a hostess. "It's fine, if we can just keep it small. Close friends," I asked. Of course, he said.

There were people at that party I had never seen before.

When I fell in love with Harvard, I fell in love with the calendar we made together: my vision of our days and years. We functioned, I thought. We hosted dinners and did the shopping and decided things as a couple and laughed some and loved some, and I suppose, looking at it now, it was tablespoons and wine glasses and thank you notes and he was handsome and a prince, really. On paper.

The whole thing was paper. Wedding invitations, birthday cards, sympathy notes: the way all of those are perfect, squared up, neat representations for things that are, in truth, deeper and more joyous and more jagged than paper can convey. Invitations are gorgeous, with velum and pristine, creamy card stock, but the reality of the party is that the hem of the bride's dress will be filthy by the end of the night. Someone will drink too much. Someone else will sit in the corner and feel jealous of the dancers.

I did not know it then, but I know it now: Harvard and I were paper. And you cannot build the life I want--cannot support the life I have--with paper.

And so.

Let it all go. Let go clean, easy sentiments and choreographed, precise calendar days. Let them drop into crumpled bunches, soar away in paper-airplane arches, smolder into dust and clouds of ash.

Bring in what happened: Harvard offered a delivery of white flowers and a note instead of himself, and I stood in the greeting line, thanking strangers for coming, and knowing that my boyfriend had lost his last chance to ever know my father.

Harvard was a coward and a cut-out, and I left my New York life and lost my father before I realized it.

Bring in what happened: my father was a vital man with a throw-his-head-back laugh who loved October cold snaps, and would let me eat the olives in his glass of brandy every time. People drove six hours and stood outside in Wisconsin December to tell me and my family that they would miss him in remarkable ways: miss his hands, his early-morning rises. How he had made them notice their own lives.

My father was a good and smart and loving man, and he died anyway, too early, and with too much pain. But my father's death and my father's pain were a pause, not an ending. And the way I miss him is blood, not paper.

The rest: let it go.

December 19th was the one year anniversary of the day he died. I had been waiting for it, scratching off the days from the prison of my last year. All of the fear. The last-time's. The loss. The whole of 2007 was lived by comparison--what was he doing this time one year ago.

And then on the 20th of December, there was no him to remember.

Today, I am sitting in a coffee shop in San Francisco. My father was dead when my brother moved here. I have no memories of our family spending Christmas in a place where there was still so much green, so many flowers. Today--every moment since I woke up--has been entirely new.

The landscape of my grief is changing. Let it change.

I am leaving the grid of last year's calendar days, moving off the page. Let me move.

I can see, in my mind, the dates and their disconsolate record. But I ask them now to be finite, bounded things.

I fold each one, carefully. They honor a great man. They honor a dark year.

I send them out as boats into a current.

It brings me to my knees, this terrible blessing.

novembre 12, 2007

The End of Days

Tonight I will let go of this memory. And this one. I will be a great, dark tree. I will let fall the days like leaves. Let fall each sad, dead moment. This one. This one. My father crying and crying. My mother laying across his body. The black bag they zipped closed in front of our Christmas tree.

So many people in my life would say, "Shhhhh." Would ask me to keep the secret. "Shhhh, don't talk about it."

But it happened.

All the squatting, plastic machines in our living room, the tubes across our rugs. A hospital bed between the bay window and the sofa. We watched The West Wing because we could not speak. Shhhhh. We could not say what was coming.

We could not tell it. Not a single word was big enough. I stopped listening to music. There wasn't a note--not strummed or beaten or sung--that could put sound to it. He asked me to help him: "Girl," he asked me, "do you have any words of wisdom for your dad?"

And I, who have so many words, who copies Faulkner passages for the love of those beautiful words...a myriad of immolation and abnegation and time.... I, who have poem upon is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life....

If my boundary stops here
I have children to draw new maps on the world....

...and we and the words and the world are emptied into a dream--

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow....

I shook my head and looked down at his hands. I have no words for you. I have no words.

I felt how soft his skin was--skin that had never been soft, getting thin now, thinner and thinner. Thin enough to see the universe inside him, all the destruction and decay. Life gone berserk...blood and heart and lungs. Cells, like planets, exploding.

...rendering death and forever with each breathing....

Father, all the words I could not muster. I had none. I have none still. It can't be written. I couldn't have known or told and loss and sorrow...they are the color of water...they are the taste of snow...impossible. Impossible.

Larger than I can carry.

novembre 08, 2007


As the year marches forward, I track the days like this:

What was happening last year? In the beginning of October I remembered the day we had to put my father's dog to sleep. And the anniversary of the day he called me, crying. Last year, around this time, he had pneumonia.

And soon the harder days will come. The day before Thanksgiving when he sat in his chair by the fireplace and told me the results of the tests. That nothing had worked. That he had six months.

In reality on this day last year (we did not know it then) he had 42 days.

Forty-two days. Til I would get the phone call at work. Til I would feel that strange sense of relief. It is over. Thank God. It is over.

I recognize now that the relief was just temporary--a small feeling. One that could actually be processed. Unlike so many of the others that were (and still are) as big as planets. Taking up so much room inside me there is not space for anything else.

septembre 17, 2007

The last thing my father said to me was, "I love you, Girl." He said it as I left my home in Wisconsin. Through the medication that by then had left him slumping in his chair, barely able to lift his head, he looked at me from the living room, clear and sharp and strong for one last second, and told me that he loved me.

I wish I had my father's eyes.

That night they were like razors.

Soon after that, he stopped talking altogether. I would call anyway, and we would sit on either end of a phone line and listen to each other breath. Sometimes I would tell him that I loved him or tell him about my day, but mostly I would just clutch the phone and know that it was the last thing that would anchor me to him in this lifetime.

I have not yet reached the stage where I feel he is with me after death.

I seek him out whenever I look at the ceiling or the sky. I do catch him in moments of clarity: a goose gliding across the water. A sparrow that hops across my path unexpectedly. Birds give me hints of him, but nothing makes me feel like he is always here.

I am hoping that changes, but I'm afraid it will not. I am not religious: I have no sense of where he is now. I guess I feel he is part of everything, but then I become selfish. I don't want him as a blade of grass in an Alaskan meadow or a speck of dust on the foot of a cow in India. I want him here. I want him only in the things that I touch, that I see. I don't want to share him with the universe.

So then I'm back to square one.

I tried to fall in love this summer, and I failed miserably. I saw the whole episode from a distance. When we had sex, I floated above or stared past or emptied out or became as still as a blade of grass, as far away as dust in a foreign land. I told him about my father and he tried to take my mind off of it, to make me laugh. It doesn't work like that I wanted to tell him. I did tell him.

My summer boyfriend was a doctor and he told me about a new experiment. Some study they did on patients who were dying to test the life-after-death hypothesis. If you do truly start to rise above your body, he explained, then you should be able to see things in the ceiling. So the scientists hid shapes in the ceiling above the almost-dying patient's beds. Whenever they began to die, and the physicians brought them back, they would quiz the patients. Did you see anything, they would ask. Was there anything unusual about the ceiling?

He told me this, and I began to sob. He told me because he thought, as a scientist, it was interesting. All I could think about was those people, being tricked in their last moments. Feeling peaceful as they saw themselves begin to rise. Suddenly shocked back into the present world. Did you see anything? The doctors scrambling around them with notepads. Any shapes in the ceiling? Later, the patients would understand that they had failed the test. That there had been no peace. They had not seen the purple triangle, the red square, the yellow diamond. There was nothing to rise toward or to.

Then I thought of my father. Of how I had wanted to believe that he had felt himself rise upward. Had felt himself expand toward peace, becoming larger and greater and everywhere, including within me. Beneath my skin and curled inside my ear. In my eyes, my heart. That he had seen and known. Had risen and flew.

I sobbed and sobbed. My doctor boyfriend said things: Let it out. You've never let me see this before. I wanted to hit him. I can't let it out. Still, now. If I start, I will never stop. It can only come out drop by drop by slow drop. Time will not heal it, but it will give me the lifetime I need to drain the resevoir. If I let it out in gushes, I will drown.

mars 25, 2007

The History of Loss

I have done this thing before. If I want to remind myself of all the times I've said the words, asked the questions, made the phone calls and taken the walks, all I need to do is scroll down the list of dates next to this entry. There they will be:

The night in Riverside Park. October and Dan. The end of my first relationship with a grown-up (read: someone who had more than ketchup and beer in his fridge). Struggling for weeks to identify what it was I was feeling. Why it was that, suddenly, I was back to college and sitting by my phone, waiting for Dan's call, when, for all the months before, I had felt so confident. So certain I was cared about. And then this odd change in his behavior, taking me from my happy role in my new adult relationship, to memories of dorm rooms and confusion and smoky bars and Left Behind.

I remember when I realized The Talk with Dan was necessary. I remember understanding all at once that he had introduced me to a new way of being loved: to dinner parties and dates arranged ahead of time and this lovely thing called Intimacy that went along--like an unbelievable wine pairing!--with Sex. It hit me so hard that I picked up the phone almost immediately. He had raised my expectations, and now I could not go back.

"We need to meet," I told him. Riverside Park in October and good-bye to Dan.

There have been so many others since then. Train station (David). Via email (M the time he cheated). Silently (Aron). Gradually (M the time he loved me back).

I have stood on street corners and felt the moment brand me, knowing from then on that His will be the face I will look for--on purpose, on accident--in every crowd. I've stared at my feet and mumbled the difficult words, knowing as I've said them, that they are fossils already, hieroglyphs and cave drawings, on the walls of my mind. I will return to them a thousand times. Holding up my sputtering candle, I will attempt translation. I will unearth. Then bury. Then unearth again.

décembre 24, 2006

Died December 19, Age 63

Daddy, I will think of you every time I see a bird. A goose, a red-wing blackbird, a mallard, a goldfinch: I will know the difference because of you. I will notice the colors of their wings--the blues or reds or greys or blacks and think of you at our kitchen table painting those colors with so much care.

I will be the only girl in New York City who knows that you mount a wood-duck house at an angle so that the babies can get out of it easily.

Fall will always be my favorite season. Because the ducks are flying, yes, but also because I will marvel at the changes in the trees, and love the crispness of the air and its smell.

It has been my honor to have you as my role model, my teacher, and my friend.

You and I walked down our driveway once after a snowstorm and you told me to listen to how quiet the world was. We held hands and enjoyed it together. Wherever you are now, know that I will love you every day. And every day, I will wish you the peace and beauty of that snowy night.

décembre 14, 2006

Acherontia atropos

Spreads like a cancer.

I understand that now.

It means speed. Real life clipping along like time-lapse photography. Watching the x-rays as the dark moths spread. As they flit from lung to rib. From rib to spine. And from there to kidney, to brain, to liver, leaving every recognizeable organ swarming with black shadows.

Next, they rise to the surface, drinking deeply from the bruises that grow now, like flowers, on the backs of my father's hands.