The Flight Home

This has always been my worst fear. Dad Dying. When my guinea pig Little Red died and Isaiah made him a tiny cross and wood-burned it with the fourth grade letters “R.I.P.” I realized that one day my parents would die too. That whole summer, maybe that whole year, I cried myself to sleep each night with the worry thought that Dad would die. Once he came into my bedroom and found me crying and I had to tearfully explain my anxiety.

It’s happened. Somehow, miraculously, I’m able to handle it. My worst grief happened in January and February, when I first found out he was having heart problems caused by his cancer, and then when I visited him and he was so helpless. On January 7th right after Mary had left I scream-cried into the blankets and fell asleep spent and dehydrated waiting for Tony to get home. I don’t even remember him coming home that night. The next night I slept on the divan so I could continue to scream-sob into the pillows I’d piled around myself.

The night I arrived in New York and saw him sitting in my brother’s apartment, he told us he was feeling fine but ready to face his maker. Neither of us doubted that he didn’t have much longer to live. Isaiah and I went out to a bar because Dad told us it was fine - he was just going to sleep anyway - and I started to cry while we drank our nasty cocktails and he looked at me, pitying me, like he wished he could cry too. He confided that he hated the thought that soon he would be having to make a speech at Dad’s funeral. His worst nightmare was people coming up to him at the funeral and telling him that Dad was in a better place and that he should place his trust in Jesus. “I just don’t know how to respond to them,” he said. “I’ll freeze. Because they’re so well-meaning that it hurts.” I agreed that I hated that thought also. I hated the faithful words I knew people would give. “He’s in a better place.” “He’s finally with Jesus.”

Mom believed so fervently that the treatments would work, and yet she also knew exactly what was going on. If there was a 1% chance, she was going to make it a 100% chance. She is someone with a will that can bend iron. Break iron. Stiff, scrappy, sometimes mean. She told us the truth on the phone as the doctors told it, and yet also led us to believe that there was a chance of survival. She was doing it because that was the only way. Believe until you can’t believe anymore. What else would she have done? Accepted his inevitable death?

“If I get five more years, I’ll take them,” Dad said, and my soul rose. Five more years. Five more Thanksgivings. Five more Christmases. I wouldn’t be ready for his death at that point, but I would be readier. It was still a long way off. Maybe he could live forever.

When he died the thoughts came, but my brain didn’t have to work hard to push out the painful ones. “You broke his heart. He died of a broken heart.” Not true. Next. “You should have called him on his last day when Mom told you to call.” It would have been too late - he was already wearing an oxygen mask and couldn’t talk. And it would have been too distressing. I’m glad I facetimed with him two days before and remembered him healthy looking and smiling. I know he’s not mad at me for not calling. He’s dead so all his pain is past. “If only you had made more money you could have found a cure for him.” That is an insult to the amazing doctors who worked with him, and to my Mom. He had the best care and the best treatment. He would have died five years ago without them. I would still like to get rich enough to find a cure for death though. “You should reread every email he ever sent you on the plane home.” Nope. Not ready to do that. Maybe not ready ever. “Dad, I miss you.” No. Don’t address him as you. You can’t communicate with him. He was here and he’s not here anymore. Don’t hurt yourself like that. Pay attention to the people who are still alive. “When I get home I can’t wait to tell Dad about…” He’s not there. The reason that you’re flying home on the middle seat of this miserable red eye is that he’s not there anymore. Again, pay attention to the people who are still alive. “Mungo will be so sad. She’ll never see Dad again.” I dwelt on this one for a half-second to long and started bawling. There’s something so heartbreaking about the innocent, unspoken grief of a pet. “Dad will never see you grow up and have your own kids. He wanted grandkids so bad.” I don’t even want kids, so this is less pressure to have them.

I feel like I can deflect each of these thoughts as they come and live inside my bubble of semi-shock until I’m ready to come out and feel. I don’t ever have to think these thoughts though. They’re too sad, too hopeless, to useless. Just live and try to be happy.

Even being home, in his house, next to the garden he tended, my emotions aren’t taking over me. I’m still afraid for tomorrow. I’m scared of mornings. I’m scared of dreams where I resurrect him, only to wake up and relive his death. But I’m not scream-crying into pillows. I’m not waking up and feeling empty. I’m waking up and feeling full of love. So many people loved him and so many people love me. I can’t watch home videos yet. That would hurt too much. I can’t look at photos, or listen to tape-recordings of his voice. I don’t want to.

I feel like I have emotional antenna that I feather out around me, searching for signs of his presence and finding both too many and too few. Every plant whose name he told me reminds me of him. May apples. Sassafrass and spruce. Every drawing of mine that he took pride in. Music by Bob Dylan. Playing Guantanamera on the guitar. That’s one of the only songs he knew how to play.

I want to show Dad all the kind people who are standing by us. I want him to see their multicultural outpouring of love. But he’ll never see it. Instead I try to be gracious like he would be. Put others first.