I remember the last time I saw his face, the way his eyes could speak to me, even when words failed. And they did fail, in the end.
I remember our last conversations--ephemeral, touching on deepness, a dragonfly lighting on black water. Regret. Sadness. His. Mine. I watched the paper of his chest, veins of blue tracing a lived experience, 73 years of sacred geometry played out on his skin. I held my breath, fearful the air inside my lungs would blow away his spirit. I swallowed the silent prayer, my fear, and anger.
The space between us felt right to make amends. His health was failing day by day, and I could feel the clammy prickle of death in the air. Soon. We knew it wouldn’t be long.
One night, in the dreamspace between worlds, I felt dark, desperate fingers press a bone key into the palm of my left hand, my receiving hand. This master spiritkey, I was told, would unlock the heavy door to my father, the dying man. This door for most of my life had been locked tight. Locked by his own right hand, the dominant one. For years, this door had been guarded and reinforced to let no intruders inside.
Intruders like me. Intruders like his daughters.
So I stood at the gate of his heart and counted. Breaths. Yellow blossoms of his favorite plumeria. The low bong--bong of windchimes on his deck, groaning against a light breeze.
One. Two. Three. a wheeze. One. Two. Three. blossoms. One. Two. Three. a bird sings. chimes bong. the timer set soft to a harp sound reminds us it’s time for afternoon meds. One. Two. Three. three hearts breaking. death doula daughters. all three of us. One. Two. Three.
On the back deck of his home, the home he shared with a woman who was not our mother. We have wheeled this man outdoors, this man who helped give each of us life. We granted his request to feel the last of an autumn sun. He smiles. Tell me, father. I try to reach him with my mind, with my heart. Can he see my eyes searching his? His own are strangely vacant, shiny disks, distant, as if he has a foot in each world now. He is slipping, free-falling, and I have lost my patience. I have waited too long.
Tell me all you can, you tight-lipped bastard. Time is short. Can’t you feel it? I speak to him tersely but silently in my mind. In person and out loud, I speak in short, loving sentences. Other people listen. I don’t know which message he hears, and I don’t understand why there is a difference.
“My girls,” he keeps saying. Again and again. “My girls.”
My sisters and I kept vigil. We coordinated meds, talked to home and hospice nurses, picked up ringers of intravenous Vitamin C (for him), and cans of Coke (for my step-mother). We made food, and sometimes we laughed. We tried to be helpful. We fluffed pillows, reassured cats, and wiped my father’s butt. We tried to pretend these wouldn’t be our last memories of the man who had left us in childhood.
But they were.
The space between us felt right, but I was mistaken. It might have been a forced intimacy that comes in caring for the dying. I know this truth because when Death handed me the bone key to my father's heart, I still felt unwelcome there. I still felt unwelcome. Even during his final curtain call, “Take a bow, Dr. Wyatt,” I could feel the door of him held firmly shut, a sour and rank uncertainty seeping underneath. What was there to see? What darkness had I not already felt?
Neither one of us knew what would come next. After life. After death.
I knew the bone key would turn and grant me access, if nothing than for the shared blueprint of our genes, a security code of sorts. I knew him. I knew he was ready to die. I knew he would grant me access.
Of course, I'm lying. I didn't know him at all. Not really. And I was a stranger in his deepest heart. I might be allowed into the foyer, but like all company, that’s where I would stay. Key or not. “Wait here, please. Someone will be right with you.”
His leaving the first time, when I was a young girl, marked me. The wounds I made myself are not visible with the naked eye. I scratched them inside my heartspace, long ragged tears along the fabric of trust and love. It has taken most of my adult life to weave these shreds into something not only functional, but beautiful because of its brokenness and my care of it.
It’s a painful kind of longing of loss and abandonment. We write stories and build altars to the undead inside us. We stuff it down, bury it, pretend it's something else. It felt as though my heart would leave me, searching for months for his face in crowds. I wanted to see his face, see his smile, hear his voice, read his words. One. Last. Time. Why I wanted is something I don't understand. He wasn't here for me when he was living. Why would he want so in the afterlife. But you never know... The heart is a strange and puzzling thing. It remembers, and in doing so, I remember.