Part one of two. Yin: darkness.
In the process of moving on, there’s an ill-defined moment when it’s time to move the hell on with your life, because you’ve exhausted all the Magic Friend Juju your friends have to spare, and they just don’t know what to do with you any more. If you’re lucky, you realize you’ve worn out your welcome about five minutes before your friends realize it, and you get the hell out of Dodge to finish scabbing yourself over, hoping your friends acknowledge you when you next drag your ass back into town.I did that about a year ago. Learned to shut up, mostly because there comes a point when the one thing you absolutely can’t stand is the look of pity, the sound of words that are meant to be comforting, but distorted through a haze of anger and grief come out as …
In the past few months I’ve found myself trying out the gateway drug of casual mentions of my father, in the hope that this time, familiarity won’t breed contempt. Or noise. Just numbness. Better a thousand tiny pinpricks than a single large wound in the shape of Christmas.
Or a kitchen timer.
See, I had a bright idea while my father was sick:
For days like these, victories get measured in the smallest of things. Today’s victory was realizing that Dad could take an eight-dollar kitchen gadget and use it to make his life a bit more bearable. The random gadget: a digital timer.
Why, you ask?
Dad remains on a constant morphine drip to help manage his pain. (‘Manage’ being the operative word here.) In order to prevent overdosing, the drip is controlled through a machine. If it turns out that he needs a bit of a temporary boost in medication, he can press the “dose” button to receive a slightly boosted dose of morphine.
This can only be done every ten minutes. Any sooner, and the machine simply ignores the requests.
Would that I have had the foresight to understand that perhaps buying the same model of kitchen timer that I had in my kitchen was not, perhaps, the best idea.
Except that, standing there in the Wal-Mart with two opposing timers in my hands, I did understand.
Except that I didn’t have a lot of cash on me, so I opted for the cheaper timer, never dreaming that a year and a half later, my penchant for starting long cooking processes and walking away from them would trigger memories I neither want nor can shut off.
I put the pork on to simmer, and asked Jeff if he’d shout when it was done, because I had some code I wanted to work on in the meantime. Ever pragmatic, he said, “Why don’t you just grab the kitchen timer and take it with you?”
I grabbed it. I looked at it, and gave a perfunctory nod to the memories, and walked past Jeff, who looked down and unwittingly gave those memories what little breath they needed to inflate and become real again: “Isn’t that the kind of timer you used for - “
“Yes. Please, just….don’t.”
Don’t say it. Don’t make it any more real than it already is; a world in which your mother writes to you on your birthday to tell you that she’s packing up your father’s things, and is there anything in particular you want her to hang on to? - and the only thing you find yourself wanting to say is,
“Couldn’t you have chosen any other day but my birthday to tell me this?”
The timer is still sitting on my desk. It hasn’t done anything wrong; it holds no karma and no ill will; it’s just a mass-produced plastic toy with four zeroes staring back at me like empty eyes. When I pick it up, my hands give me memories I don’t want and can’t use. Memories of trying to explain, to guide my father’s hands, dulled with the opposing intoxicants of pain and morphine, how to keep punching the buttons so that he could get his next dose of morphine as soon as the machine would allow it.
I would sit on the couch, zero-eyed, wondering to myself what in the world all my technical knowledge could possibly be worth if I could not figure out how to hack into a morphine dispensation box to find some way to alleviate his pain.
Amidst a sea of relatives well-wishing and hoping for extended life, I found myself pacing my half-whispered nine-minute prayers: “I get the fucking point already. If you’re anything even approaching a kind and merciful deity, let him die. Let this stop, because it’s killing us too.”
At the end of the tenth minute, one of us would reset the ringing alarm, fire the booster dose of morphine, and return back to our thoughts.
I’ve had an immense amount of trouble forgiving myself for many of the thoughts that passed through my mind in the final few days of my father’s life. No one tells you how to cope with the four a.m. moment when you’re the only one awake by your father’s bedside, your copy of Confederacy of Dunces steadfastly refusing to be read, and before you realize it, you’re holding the hand of your rocky-relationship parent and the only words that can come out of your mouth are,
“It’s ok, Dad. You can go now. Just go. Please.”
Say the words, really say them, really mean them, and something in you gets up, walks away, and just doesn’t return. Like acid, some thoughts can’t be stored without damaging the vessel they’re stored in.
* * * * *
This December will mark my first Christmas at my childhood home since my father died, and I’m already shadow-boxing with grief and it’s not even November yet. I’m starting to think that perhaps it was a good thing I booked December so full that I hardly have days to spare. I try not to think about how this will be my first Christmas with my family that I won’t look across the room and beg my father to please put down the video camera and just unwrap his presents instead.
I always wondered what it would be like to have a Christmas with my family in which I wouldn’t be videotaped from the moment I walked into the living room on Christmas morning.
This year I’ll know.
* * * * *
In a conversation held not too long ago, and in a galaxy very much resembling our own, I had a conversation with a friend who can choose whether or not to identify himself here. We’ve both returned to the same line as a focus point for writings on completely different subjects:
“Humans. Very funny. Very quirky. And sometimes very, very fragile.”
Eventually, a kitchen timer will just be a kitchen timer again.