Published on The Manifest-Station, On Being Human (Mar. 24, 2015)
“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.” ― Salman Rushdie
Serenity House, Room 114. Hidden on a hillside among Santa Barbara’s majestic coastal oaks. The slick ad reads like a vacation destination. It is not. Serenity House is a hospice facility, a place people go when they can no longer live at home. It’s a place people go to die.
In my mind’s eye, the door to Room 114 is closed because I wasn’t there when you died, when they blessed your body and anointed it with oils. When the ghost of you didn’t haunt me.
In my deepest dream-space, you are still alive in that room. Heart pounding, I know my biggest fear is beyond the heavy oak door, and I must enter alone. I press the cold metal handle and walk inside.
You are there, propped in bed and shirtless, not dressed in a jewel-toned silk shirt, like the ones you used to wear. I place blessed salt on your chest. You, for purifying, salt of the earth, my father. And me, for salting the dark field of my childhood. I don’t want to go back. I can’t.
Enough salt, enough tears. We’re free to love and forgive now in new spirit bodies.
My father was a board-certified physician and practiced medicine for 50 years. Although my sisters and I didn’t grow up with him, we knew of him and his traveling medical adventures. He was a small-town Oklahoma boy, who found work at an inner-city hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the civil rights and MLK riots in 1968, the year I was born. During the Vietnam years, my father took us to a post in Kotzebue, a small coastal town in arctic Alaska, where he treated both in-town locals and out-of-town villagers, often arriving by bush plane and dogsled. After two years below zero, our family moved south to the “lower 48,” and settled in Spokane, Washington.
After the betrayal and my parent’s divorce, my father moved with his “new and improved” family, first to Texas and then to California, where he would make his home with them and live out the rest of his days. I can count the number of times we visited his home on a single hand.
In my early twenties, I sought out an adult relationship with my father, wanting to reconnect and establish more meaningful ties. To fill the suddenly awkward space between us—space formed by years of estrangement with only birthday cards and a blue moon call—he would tell stories of his practice: memorable patients, far-off locations, and interesting cases. I did not go into medicine or nursing, as was his dream for me. Neither did any of my sisters. His other daughter did that, the younger one who was held at arm’s length, the one who grew up with a flesh and bone dad, not just the stories of one. It was through his storytelling, in those early years, that he instilled in me a curiosity about the human body and its workings. The human body was and still remains as mysterious as my father.
I know, for example, the structures of the brain. I took a course at the university and had the curious distinction of being the only non-science major in the room. My student peers were baffled by me, an English major with completed credits in the sciences—more than enough to graduate—and an unexplainable interest in human anatomy. “What’s the point?” they would ask. “If you’re not going to do anything with it.” I couldn’t tell them that to know and study science was to connect with my father through shared interest. I didn’t want to be a doctor; I wanted to be loved by one. It was easier to shrug my shoulders and dive back into my textbook.
The brain. I took it all in with hours of reading and careful study, thinking that if I better understood the intricate structure, along with its neural and chemical processes, I might gain insight into an even deeper mystery: human emotion. What is still of interest to me are the early brains–two of the three brains that take up real estate in the human skull. Did you know humans have three brains? We have a lizard, animal, and human brain, each with specialized functions.
Brains have evolved over time. Lizards developed brains a few hundred million years ago. These are small organs that control vital body systems, fight or flight, and mating instinct. In humans, the lizard brain is commonly called the brainstem. Motor-sensory regulation happens there–the sparks that tell us to breathe and our hearts to beat, as well as attention, sensory analysis, and arousal.
Sitting atop the brainstem, about the mid-brain, is a more developed organ: the animal brain or limbic system. And on top of the limbic is the human brain or neocortex. In essence, the animal and human brains are larger structures that evolved and grew on top of the simpler lizard brain, like second and third stories of a building. Mother Nature is an efficient builder, so instead of a complete brain rebuild for updates, newer additions were added. The original functions of each brain remain housed there: the lizard brain with its body systems and functions in brainstem; the newer animal brain with more complex emotional attachments on the second limbic story; and finally, a third story human brain for reasoning and consciousness updates in the neocortex.
Poetry and art aside, my curiosity is with the lower lizard and animal brains, the early brains, particularly the limbic system. Limbic is such a strange-sounding word, but it refers to the limbus, the border or edge to the newer brain structures. And the home of the limbic system is located in the brainstem penthouse. This is where emotion lives: fear, pleasure, and grief. Behavior and memory also make their home in the limbic system, as does the sense of smell. I know that if I were to walk into the limbic home, mine would smell of roasted turkey and feel like great loss.
My father left on Thursday, November 28th, 1978. Right after Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, divorce, mashed potatoes, I’m leaving, pass the green beans, tonight, gravy in which to drown, pumpkin pie, now.
We ate quietly and deliberately, I remember. Or was that another me, a memory misremembered? I watched the front door, from my seat at the dinner table, worried that someone or something might throw it open and spill the essence of home into the chill night air. Nothing would be left but the empty shell of house. And nothing could replace home, replace him, replace the family that died that night. 10909 E. Boone Street, the physical address is burned into my brain, the address of my limbic lizard brain. 10909 E. Boone Street, the red pear tree and my mother’s garden. It is a fractured mirror and the idea of home that broke that night, the ladder I must have walked under, that black cat of 10909 E. Boone Street.
You are a ghost now, but in many ways I have been preparing for that my whole life. You have always been something between real and not, man and myth. Or maybe we were the ghosts in your life–shades of a previous, less perfect life.
Today I mourn. And I have made peace with your death. Mostly. I do not know where you are buried, Father, or even if you were. Perhaps you were laid out to the elements, in a ritual some native cultures observe. Or you might have been cremated, your ashes scattered in a public or private ceremony. Your invisible daughters weren’t privy to the intimate details of your life. Even in death, we continue to be held at arm’s length.
Dad, if you can hear me from beyond the veil, please know that I always loved you. But I cannot continue to hide myself in the shadows. Your friends didn’t know who we were when we visited Serenity House, Room 114. “We didn’t know he had other daughters,” they would say, referring to our step-sister as the known child. We didn’t fit in the perfect family picture, so maybe it was easiest not to mention us at all. You have no pictures of us in your home. That makes sense now.
Just know that despite the distance, you were loved by us. You were loved by me. And now that you are equipped with what I imagine to be the most evolved of all the brains–the ghost brain–you know the real reason I stopped eating turkey.