On the 10th Anniversary of My Father's Death


Ten years ago, I was sixteen.
Ten years ago, my mother and I went to the hospital where we were led to a small white room lined with chairs. We sat. A doctor came in and said my father was dead.

At first, I did not cry. No tears. Nothing was real, but, at the same time, reality was intensified. My mother screamed. A sensation beyond words.

A story I've always wanted to write: The moments before someone is told their loved one is dead. The fear, the drive to the hospital, the bargaining with a god they don't believe in. Just let him be okay and I'll do anything.

Another story I want to write: The aftermath of loss, the moments after you're told someone is dead. This new terrible knowledge that you can't unknow.

I was no longer solid. It was a dissolving of the self that gave birth to a deeper desire to disappear. Here was this new world, after death, without him, and in the first seconds of existing in this world I longed to escape. I have ached to escape ever since.

In “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath wrote about the death of her father, or not her father exactly but the looming figure of the dead father, of the longing for a reunion:

I was ten when they buried you.   
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

"I'll never speak to God again," her mother, Aurelia, reports her saying after she was told of his death. Plath was only 8 years old. He haunts her work, like a black ink stain spreading across the page, like a swarm of bees in the distance.

In "Sheep in Fog," Plath describes a horrible heaven that is "starless and fatherless, a dark water." To know that even death will not bring closure, that death promises another absence, a nothingness.

I will die without my father. I will live the rest of my life without my father. It takes my breath away. The finality. The pain I didn't know could exist.

I need to write this, or do I? I'm torn between speech and silence. I know this can't be written, that any attempt is fated to fail. I keep thinking if I write it then I can transform it, bear it, it can be more than just my tragedy. Writing is the justification for my life, my living, my survival.

But this wound resists words.

After her mother committed suicide, the Pop artist Marisol went mute for a year. She was eleven years old. Later in life, when she became a famous painter, she refused to answer the questions of reporters. Silence was her shield.

There are so many grief memoirs. So many works of art that seek to explain and express loss. They testify to our need to make sense of the senseless. Many of the memoirs emphasize a narrative of healing. They want to provide hope that grief can be survived, that grief is painful but necessary and even temporary. You'll move on. It will get easier with time.

But I prefer a different narrative that subverts the idea of healing and a return to normalcy. I write of the mutilation of loss, the permanence of it, how it lingers in the blood. I voice what is unsettling and unacceptable to some people: that grief is forever, grief destroys you, you're undone and ruined by loss.

If there is any hope to be found perhaps it is in the possibility of rebuilding with what is left after loss.

In The Gleaners and I, Agn├Ęs Varda profiled people in France who lived off leftovers. They haunted street markets after the crowds dispersed, sorting through the bruised fruit and random clothing that remained; they picked up stray apples off the ground in orchards. They were poor, living on the margins, ignored and dismissed, but they fought against modern waste, against a society that throws so much away, including people. They gathered the discarded in their arms. They found a use for the bits and pieces left behind.

Maybe that's all you can do after loss. Stoop over the refuse left behind and glean what you can. Keep what's worth having and make some kind of life with it.

Years before The Gleaners and I, Varda used her camera to memorialize her dying husband, the director Jacques Demy. She meticulously, lovingly, filmed his face, capturing extreme close-ups of his hair, eyes, and skin. As his body decayed, she sought to preserve him on film.

The artist has only her art. She may have children and lovers and parents, but her art is her true companion, how she makes herself real and alive and comprehensible. It is her weapon against death.

After the doctor told us my father was dead, we were allowed into the hospital room to be with his body for the last time. The room was luminous white, awash in spring sunlight. He lay there, silent and motionless, as though he would wake from a nap. He was still warm, still my father, but not. Something else, unknowable and frightening and far away. I touched his hair and noticed how soft it was. So soft. So his own.

He was gone. An empty skin. A body. I held his hand, but the essence of him was lost.

Where did that essence go? How could he simply vanish, cease to be?

I will never fathom it.

We are more than our death. We are all the life that comes before that awful moment of oblivion.
So I try to remember the before, the world of him, not just the after. I try so hard. I try to make a life out of the good parts, the beautiful memories of him but, often, I am drowning. I am devastated.

One comfort is our last encounter. The last time I saw him, we embraced and my last words to him (and his last words to me) were I love you.