Crying here it feels like strength
"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, March 2007
When my mother finally arrives to pick me up, it finally feels okay. She wants to know if I got her message, the one explaining that I can’t be alone with my father because he might have a stroke. I say I got your message, and I would like to be alone with him. She says: that's not going to be possible.
I don't know what's possible, driving through pitch-dark suburbs that I don't even recognize until we get right near their house -- did they always have those same lights at the end of the driveway? The trees are even bigger than I remember, driveway cracked in even more places.
Inside their house, everything looks nicer and more well-kept than I remember. I can't go past the newly-renovated cobalt blue kitchen, to that bed in the family room on the other side where my sister Lauren sits with her boyfriend Alex and the attendant, talking to my father. I walk around the other way, through the living room with a small marble café table in the corner that was my teenage dream for the room, next to the piano and a newer rug with a smaller, more elegant sofa. The hallways also look brighter, wood floors almost pulsating, except that the bathroom is identical: pink and green tiles, green tub, now it almost looks vintage in a claustrophobic sort of way.
Back in the other part of the house, Lauren and Alex come in the kitchen to hug hello and then I'm accidentally looking right at my father, so I go in the family room to stand there kind of frozen with my hand on my right hip I can see myself seeing him, looking at him like I'm daring everything. Helen, the attendant, looks tense. Lauren isn’t breathing, Alex looking up then down. My father opens his eyes, closes them. Opens them, closes them. After it's clear that he's not going to say anything, I sit in one of the chairs, a leather lean-back recliner with a wooden pedestal that I guess is an updated version of the one they used to have. It's actually comfortable.
The knotted pine walls have been painted a gray color that my grandmother Rose called putty, the color she saw as the magic neutral-yet-sophisticated answer to too much white. The room looks more contemporary, the ceilings higher and I realize that it's because the track lighting has been replaced with recessed lighting, and actually that's one of the reasons why all the rooms look better. I'm studying my father, gray hair receding somewhat but not tremendously considering his age and condition. He has the same pillow I have -- the extra-soft foam one my mother got me -- his even has a black pillowcase like the one I borrowed on my last book tour. Every now and then, my father gets agitated and his hands move around like they're part of a different person, Lauren asks: are you okay? Do you need something to drink?
Lauren and Helen are watching Survivor and I glance over occasionally to glimpse various almost-naked athletic male bodies and women in bikinis -- someone just lost something, and I guess people like this show because it's like porn. Then Lauren switches the station and it’s Deal or No Deal, she says have you seen this? A bald-headed guy with a diamond earring says something and then 20 or maybe 30 smiling plastic model-type women in identical blue dresses and heels give serious synchronized runway with silver medal briefcases down a flight of stairs and the announcer says Hi ladies. Hi Howie, they all say at the same time, modeling pin-up compliance for a new generation. My sister's talking about how some show came on earlier about end-of-life issues and she didn't know whether to change the channel but she didn't want to be too obvious even though it was totally insensitive, they were talking about pulling the plug, but she just left the show on. As if on cue, a bald woman flashes on screen, something about how cancer is beautiful.
My mother comes in and brushes my father's hair back with her hand, then she's standing at the foot of the bed rubbing my father's legs and his hands are moving around, his face looks pained and Lauren says what are you doing? He likes this, my mother says – I’m massaging his legs to stimulate him. Then she says to my father: Matthew’s here and he looks around more animated: oh hi Matthew, how are you?
How am I? I don't know if I start crying right then or if it's later, but really everything is crying and I'm glad I can do it instead of holding everything in-- I'm sobbing softly then loudly than softly again, another burst and then my mother comes over as if to comfort me, I say please don't touch me, she goes away. Later, somewhere in this sobbing, Lauren comes over to and I hold her hands and say thank you, but please don't touch me. I'm alone here, crying it feels like defiance and beauty rolled into something more transformative than power.
If I'm trying to establish some form of narrative here, crying is that narrative and everything else is around it, elemental is the word I'm thinking of -- crying is elemental, the rest is important too but I can’t reestablish the order with all this crying. I say what did you think of my letter? He says I don't think I got it. I say would you like me to read it to you now? He says yes.
Can I say something about my father's voice? Feeble is not the word I would use, though I can see others' invoking it. Can I possibly choose innocent? Softer and more childish than before. I say to my mother: could you go get the letter?
My mother: that is not possible. Me: Karin thinks I'm going to give you a stroke. My mother: There are other things to talk about besides the letter. Me: well, I remember it -- I can talk. Is this when I start sobbing? It makes more sense here, if here is about sense. My mother is standing on my father's left side with her eyes set in angry determination and this is the moment made for the movies, I can feel my body arching back -- this is the fight-or-flight reflex, I mean the fight part. I say: you're just trying to control his death because you couldn't control your life with him. And the tears are pouring down my face like armor. This is the moment when I'm cold like the way I survived them except that I'm also crying -- it's both at the same time and my father says: is that true, Karin?
Helen is the first one to excuse herself from the room and then Alex and then Lauren asks if I’d like her to leave, yes, and my mother is gone soon too but I can hear both her and my sister lurking in different places trying not to make any noise. I want to say that the words aren't important it's the feeling that matters, except that the words are important and the feeling matters.
But what are the words? I'm trying to recreate the letter, saying: when I first heard that you had cancer, the way I reacted surprised me, because for so long I had wanted any trace of you to disappear from my life, but I found myself wishing that I could save you, thinking about different healthcare modalities that I could suggest: acupuncture, guided visualization, meditation. I realized I still had some hope that you’d come to terms with sexually abusing me, that you would acknowledge it and then we could have some mundane conversation about publishers or something else from my life I thought you might be interested in.
I see his face tensen in a grimace when I say sexually abuse, but where I'm really crying, probably the most except for at the beginning, is when I'm saying I wish you could acknowledge sexually abusing me, because it would make it easier for me to go on living. That same place where I always cry, because I'm asking for something that he could give me. He's crying too, a few tears dripping down his face and he says thank you for sharing your letter and then there are so many layers to my sobbing: there’s holding the chest while spasming anyway; there's tears gliding smoothly down skin; there's speaking with tears in eyes, in face, inside vision, in everything.
What I want to do is to touch his arm, softly. It feels intimate and nurturing and dangerous and at this moment I'm okay with all of these sensations. At some point I say that I've learned there are other ways to be strong besides holding everything in-- I'm just trying to be honest, and no one can deal with it -- and of course here there is more sobbing, sobbing is the texture of the air, sobbing is the feeling of this room, sobbing here it feels like strength.
At some point he’s choking and I'm asking if he's okay and then my sister Lauren magically appears to ask him if he needs anything to drink. She's been in the kitchen the whole time, I've heard her trying not to breathe too loudly. He looks confused, hold his hand up and it swings in the air. Can you get something for Matthew, he says? Lauren says to him: do you want ginger ale? I ask for a bottle of water, if there's one that is warm, and Lauren returns with a glass of ginger ale and the water. My father pushes away the ginger ale -- Matthew, he says. Oh I have water, I say. My father pushes the ginger ale away again, Lauren says I'll just leave it here for you.
Did I mention that I can see my mother standing in the doorway of the dining room, eyes narrowed while drinking a beer, and at this point she emerges with the postcard from my new book in her hand, that's what she thought I should talk about earlier. I hand it to him -- why not? -- he reads the title, or part of it -- I can't tell which part -- I think he says that he likes the cover. I ask him if he wants me to read the blurb, since the print is so small and I think he's having difficulty seeing -- although I can't tell if he understands what I'm reading. At this point I'm talking softly -- I can't tell if it's because of intimacy or because everyone's listening -- I think they've moved further away now, but I'm not so sure.
There are moments of silence and then there are points when I'm talking about more mundane things, even though I'm not sure if I should, since it's not like my father has acknowledged anything. I'm talking about the gentrification in the neighborhood where he and my mother were buying a condo, how sad it is even if the neighborhood is busy with so much activity, because of all the displacement to make way for richer people's leisure activities. At one point he says something that I don't understand, it sounds like: you're a very compelling liar. But he doesn't look like that's what he's saying, I ask him to repeat himself but he doesn't -- talking is difficult for him, a lot of the time we're together his eyes are closed and I ask him if he’s tired, he says no. I say is it because of the drugs, and he doesn't say anything. I say your eyes are closed, but you're listening, right? He nods. This might be the first time he's ever listened to me.
At one point, his eyes are closed and there's a single tear dripping down his cheek -- I touch it with my finger, then brush his hand softly again. It's almost sexual in this moment, even if it's scary to say that. My mother enters the kitchen to ask Helen if it's time to give my father his meds, Helen comes in to ask him if that's what he wants and he tightens his face and hands, not yet. Even though earlier his whole body had tensened into one large spasm, he was fighting back against the pain and I asked him if he needed anything. I didn't expect to want to care for him, but I don't like seeing him in pain, seeing him dying, even after everything he’s done to me.
I tell my father I'm leaving, it's time for them to give him his medication -- or at least that's what they think, what the doctors think, even though the medication takes away his ability to express himself clearly, though it's hard to tell what is the medication and what is cancer. I say I'm glad that you asked me to share the letter, he says I'm glad too. He says will you be here when I wake up? I say no, but I will come back tomorrow night.
When I leave the room, I don't feel afraid of the house anymore, I can go downstairs where so much of everything horrible happened. His office looks much cleaner, the carpet is newer-- no stains of mold or come, images of the past or even fear really. The door to the rec room is scarier, especially when I can't find the light right away, but even behind the bar, in that moldy sink where I was a broken toy -- I don't know, it's harder to feel all that while also feeling everything now. Like the chimney where I'd imagine myself floating away, away from him splitting me open, right now it just looks like a chimney, I mean a fireplace leading to a chimney.