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December 2019
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Sad To Be Sorry

First Meal, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

I’ve had enough
Of words and games
I don’t think I know you
I can’t forget your name
Your eyes are clear
The way is strange
The light’s in the hallway
If you forget your way

You were here to be only
What you wanted anyway
You were sad to be sorry
You were sorry every day
You were here to be loved
But love’s trickled away
From your eyes.

–Vince Bell & Craig Calvert


My tears spill over her hand and the rumpled johnny balled up under it. Fathomless, welling sadness that erupts from somewhere deep inside my fractured, wounded soul.

I cannot lose her.

From the other side of the bed, my younger sister coos an almost soundless song of compassion and comfort, just with soft lips. In this wordless void she is assuring me: “Not now, not yet. We aren’t ready to suffer again.”

The tube is freakishly long and cruel—like a prop from a bad made-for-TV movie. The IV lines piercing her arms seem like twisted signposts leading to an unnamed land. A land freakish, surreal and wholly foreign. It’s as though I’ve been sucked into a Salvador Dali painting and am navigating the terrain blindly, knocking on walls. Knocking on trees. Falling into pools of fluorescent blood.

Despite her 74 years she is child-like lying there, an innocent without guile. She’s always held that innocence against the world, a world too cruel for her to inhabit. It’s always been up to us to be tougher and stronger—to bear up under the weight of life’s relentless blows. It is the reason, one could argue, that one has daughters.

But even so. Even so. A daughter never outgrows the need for her mother. Never outwears that keening wail of pain in the night when she feels her mother is finally lost to her. And after thirteen years of loss and numb acceptance to have her reappear and reclaim herself only to lose her again is agony for daughters who yearn for her softness, kindness, thoughtfulness and loveliness.

Her heavy body racks violently with a great soundless cough, her lungs filled with secretions. And even her quiet, gentle, steely stubbornness has to be overlooked and forgiven—that prideful scorn that led her to defy her family and refuse to see a doctor earlier, to deny her illness. She is an iron fist in a velvet glove. Indulgent toward her children to a fault and fond of spoiling them. But in her later years she has become more impenetrable. There is a quiet, immovable determination within her that seems to say: “There are things that belong only to me, that I will keep for myself. Including the right to die. When I decide it’s time, you will not stop me. You will not stop me. I will decide the time.”

My father stands in the middle of his rented cottage in his boxer shorts, amidst bags of food and piles of dirty towels. His massive stomach hangs over the shorts in defeat. He hangs heavily on his cane, looking shrunken and old. Only the day before he was up to the task of being irascible, of complaining that there were only physicians’ assistants instead of real doctors in the ER, that there was no proper chain of command, and didn’t we see? He was from a medical family and understood what needed to happen, knew what needed to be done. It’s as though some small part of him is tired from 79 years of ceaseless talk and analysis—realizing at last that it won’t bind anyone to this earth nor keep them from turning back to the dust from whence they came. His steely English spirit, so indefatigably tough in the face of any defeat, including the loss of an only son, seems to be waning now. He’s fought the good fight and has stayed afloat the tide of life on a wave of pure, righteous anger, through the warm flame of alcohol and the sheer focus of a dangerously brilliant and restless mind. But now he looks on meekly and resignedly as we clear out the cottage for him, pack his bags, and load them in the car so he can move on and be closer to her. At last he too is vulnerable.

For fifty years she has waited on him, made his meals, folded his undershirts, and listened to his endless prattle. And when she went away for all those years, the tide of pain and panic rose up in him too. And the anger for everything that was and everything that wasn’t came to an excruciating crescendo. He couldn’t forgive the death of his son or the spiritual death of his wife. The daughters left were small comfort and a reminder of his former boundless will. He resented our moving on in life, past him, past his anger. He tried the old tricks of  berating us and pulling us down with him through the sheer force of his will, but we refused. We could no longer hydrate the deep well of his loss.

Despite the anger that has controlled and instructed his life, he is no longer capable of exerting his will when she is quietly defiant. His power becomes a smokescreen, a show, a hall of mirrors. And we come to realize the unrealizable : she was in charge the whole time. His raw fury is nothing in the face of that quiet, imperturbable stubborn insistence. He is weak and impotent in the face of it.

And here is another undeniable truth: if she goes first, he will follow in short order. She is the tiller charting the course of their awful destiny. It has always been that way.

The tube is going to be taken out, the doctor tells us. First, however, she needs to be alert. My sister, always the gregarious one, does the talking.

“You were sick, mummy. You’re in the hospital. But you’re better now. And we need you to stay because we love you very much, and we need you.”

Her watery eyes regard us mutely. Her chapped, rakish mouth, misshapen by the tube, slackens. And we know that the pneumonia in her lungs is only a symptom, a metaphor for the greater, immeasurable losses she has suffered. Like the son she loved and lost, she has never really been of this world or of this body. But unlike him, she remains for a simple reason: because we ask her to. Despite her stubborn will, her heart is tender. She understands and accepts that we aren’t ready for her to go.