Breath (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: NONFICTION)
In nonfiction, our winner is Mimi Dixon for her essay “Breath.”
The nonfiction judge, Dinty W. Moore, writes that “Breath” is “an exquisite memoir essay filled with gorgeous detail, breath, music, wisdom, and surprise. Though I never met the author’s father, by the end of this graceful, intimate essay I, too, miss his presence in the world.”
Mimi Dixon is professor emeritus of English at Wittenberg University in Ohio where she taught Shakespeare and writing. Winner of the William Allen Creative Nonfiction Prize, and a finalist for the 2014 Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction, her essays have appeared in The Journal, The Pinch, and Fourth Genre. This essay, “Breath,” is from her recently completed collection of essays entitled Background Music.
“For me, writing an essay begins in mystery and unfolds in discovery,” Dixon says. “A puzzle, an image, a confused feeling—in exploring these I find myself on the verge, tilting, ready to tumble down there where the words are. I never know where I’m going, though I’ve learned to value my hunches and trust the process. In this essay, the process of writing merged naturally with the process of mourning. How do I capture the complexity of a life, the chaos of loss, the meaning of my own relationship with such a dominant figure as my own father? It wasn’t until I’d pared it all down to breathwork that I began to find the shape—the breath of music, of life, and of words.”
“I shall be made Thy music.”
—John Donne, “To God, My God, in My Sickness”
It has been almost a year since my father died. He stopped breathing in the middle of the night, just an hour or so into his ninety-fourth birthday. I’d gone home with my sister that evening, my husband staying on to listen to him breathe, as we had all done for the three or four days of his active dying. That next morning, we all sat around in shock studying an empty silence, the loss of this driving force in our lives, a force that at times drove us a bit crazy. A silvered light numbed the room, an infusion of pale sun bouncing off Vermont’s mid-March snow.
Then someone turns on the radio in the next room, and there he is, alive again, playing Mozart’s Oboe Quartet. Vermont Public Radio is celebrating his birthday, looping his recordings throughout the day. The room fills. It’s his sound, his voice. We can even hear the quick breaths he takes between phrases. This is how we know him best, his music, his best self. And yes, I think, he’ll always be here for us, always in the other room, where he practiced all his life, always playing, always breathing.
“The breath is everything,” he tells me. We’ve been working on his book, Playing the Oboe, a distillation of his long career of playing and teaching, me revising and editing his drafts, rearranging some for clarity, deleting all the underlines, inverted commas, and exclamation points he sprinkles everywhere, as if he could transform the ink into the lively speech of his master classes.
He means it when he says the breath is everything. He’s quoting something the great singer Hans Hotter told him. “When you have learned that, you have learned it all.” My father loves singers, absorbs their wisdom about the secrets of the breath, ways to achieve resonance, ease, head tones. The ways they’ve outwitted the body and its limits, so that technique becomes pure music. He practiced singing for years in the basement of our family home, trying to glean truths he could apply to the oboe. He confesses in his book that if he had it all to do over again, he’d have become a singer. But the oboe is the singer of the orchestra, and my father is its master singer, known for his voice, his tone, the beauty and romance of his performances.
“Suddenly there was Ray Still, playing the oboe more beautifully than I had ever heard it played,” writes William Youngren in a 1979 review in The New Republic of my father’s recording of Bach’s Wedding Cantata. “Ray Still simply sitting on a low E is more expressive than most oboists playing the most passionate and varied solo one could imagine…For this record alone I would number him among the finest musical artists of our time.”
The key, my father writes in his book, is to think only of the music, make the oboe sing, float the sound so it seems effortless. And the key to singing, he says, is the breath. None of his own teachers said anything about breathing, and neither do the popular oboe exercise books—these focus on the technical aspects of playing the notes, fingering and tonguing. “To hell with the long tones and the scales!” my father writes in one of those places in his book where I have left the exclamation point standing. “The prescription to practice these has led to much misunderstanding of what constitutes control, and can lead quickly to a state of rigor mortis of the musculature. Neither the passion nor the restraint demanded by a maturing musical taste can be learned that way. Instead practice singing!”
So his teaching focuses on retraining the breath for control, flexibility, and ease, though that effort can involve something of a paradox—how can you learn to relax and breathe naturally, when it takes some self-conscious artifice to unlearn your bad habits? Prepare your body, but focus on the music, he says. Melody is the soul of the oboe repertoire: test yourself on Bach cantatas and Shubert songs; try playing “Over the Rainbow” with the expressivity of the young Judy Garland, or “Till There Was You” as sung by Paul McCartney. Listen! Every note needs the vibrancy and nuance of a flexible breath—the attack, the accenting, the swelling crescendo, the subtle glissando, always moving, always alive. Free the breath to play the song in your imagination. Respiration and inspiration: two sides of the music.
“You can finish the book for me after I die,” my father says to me jokingly as we struggle together to hone a few chapters to perfection so we can put them up on his website. That’s the problem—his perfectionism. The project is just too big: he wants to put down in writing everything he knows, everything he’s learned from teaching. But words aren’t enough—he needs CDs and video demonstrations. He might make a mistake, offend someone (though this hasn’t bothered him in the past). He can’t let it go. It’s massive, this project, and as he ages, it becomes more difficult for him to organize it all and keep on task.
So here I am today, finishing his book.
I have my own conflicts. How much of my life do I give to his project when I have so many of my own to finish? My father was always demanding, and our family always made his needs central to our lives. He was the artist, the one who had to sit up on stage and play his heart out while we sat forward in our seats in the balcony and attended, his glow illumining our own rapt faces. In those busy years, he was emotionally volatile, unpredictable in his sudden angers or depressions, but that was the way with artists, was it not? He made up for those bad times by loving his children and grandchildren, rocking us to sleep with his own songs or dancing us to the strains of a Bach cantata, and by the generous sense of humor he shared at the dinner table or aimed at himself. As he aged, we saw him mellow into caretaking—my mother in her stages of dementia, my brother James with schizophrenia that left him unable to live on his own.
Sometimes when I work on the book, I’m on my own trying to reconstruct his intentions in a passage or a reference to a musical score that is only vaguely identified. I tell myself that I need to contact his students, busy all over the world in orchestras, for advice. But there is something about struggling alone with his words, just the two of us, that helps me through this season of loss. We have talked for so long, listened together for so long. I can see his hand raised in an upbeat, his head tilted, his eyes off in some musical space as he explains the spirit of a particular Mozartian trill. I can hear the sudden intake of breath as he anticipates the next lyric phrase he wants me to absorb. This is the breath that shaped my life, and now I breathe for him.
A gouging machine sits in my living room now, reminding me of my childhood and that constant chore my father faced—making reeds. It is a beautiful piece of sculpture, with its steel and brass guillotine for cutting the cane, and its gouging bed, where a split piece of cane—Arundo donax, harvested from fields in southern France—lies ready to be “gouged” out by the slanted knife which glides back and forth, shaving the cane down to where it can be folded into a vibrating double reed. Other precision instruments come into play—the spring micrometer to test thickness, the shaper (his own design), the mandrel to hold the tubes of cork and brass onto which the shaped cane will be wound with spirals of nylon thread, and finally the well-honed knives, for clipping and scraping. Making reeds is the bane of oboists—it takes such precision, such care, from the quality of the cane to the final testing of its “crow,” the tweet it makes when blown. Even then, many reeds don’t make the cut—there was always a bit of magic in the outcome. He used to joke about his willingness to do anything for a great one: “When I give a lesson and find a student’s reed that has greatness written on it, I spend the next hour trying to figure out how to separate that student from that reed.”
When we were children, my father let us sit with him and help out as he made his reeds. I think he had a fantasy of setting up an assembly line, his three children in a row. We were never allowed to use the knives except with his big hand on our small ones to demonstrate the craft, but we gouged the cane, and even wrapped it onto the tubes and applied the nail polish to seal it. Some days we’d just sit there and talk, or listen to the music that was always playing, while he taught us how to listen.
After my father died, we distributed all his remaining reeds, lots of them, to children and grandchildren as mementos. I have some here, tucked neatly into the red velvet grooves inside their small leather case. When I try to blow one, I find I can do it, but it tickles my lips, and I remember why I never took up the oboe. So I look at them now, those delicate vibrating blades, the oboe’s vocal chords, reminiscent of panpipes and grass whistles, that rooster crow so familiar to us, the way that sound changed when he stuck the reed in the oboe. His face with a reed between his lips.
It is six months after my father’s death. I’ve taken up meditation, half-heartedly, though it has not been difficult. It’s the year itself that has been difficult. I’ve just been diagnosed with leukemia, an “indolent” kind that is somewhere in my bone marrow and sometimes in my lymph nodes, where they discovered it during a check on my postcancer breasts. My father actually had the same old-age leukemia, but he was diagnosed at eighty-nine. It was not what killed him. But I’ve just discovered—nine months after that first diagnosis—that I may be suffering from damaged bone marrow as well, caused by the chemo I opted for to ensure my breast cancer would not return. There is no cure for that damage and its consequences.
“It’s just bad luck,” they said. But I have a hard time believing in luck. And despite what they tell me, I have a hard time believing I am sick. This is the cruelty of cancer, the way it hides deep in your marrow, for example, plotting the kill. I try to forget it and enjoy these days of apparent well-being, but death will creep in—my dreams, perhaps, or as I contemplate my garden in the fall.
Father, I’m dying. But you aren’t here to tell. Again and again these words, as if he still were.
So I meditate.
Just listen to the breath. Brush away thought. Come back to the breath. Feel it on your lips, nostrils, in your chest. Relax but attend, a balancing act of sorts—the body does its work, and I don’t direct, I merely observe.
I’m used to gazing at the screen as I write, or out the window, or at my garden as I sit on my blue bench. Weeding and walking often turn into long meditations. And then, as I age, I seem to fall naturally—does everyone?—into long dreamy pauses. Mornings with the sun glancing off my eyes I sit and stare, still in dream. But in meditation, this kind, I’m to clear my mind of everything except the sensation of my body breathing: let thoughts go, float away like sun mites, like exfoliating skin through light-shafts. I’m to shave the self down beyond thought to mere breathwork, the music of the body. What if mine is a body I can no longer trust?
My father was not an expert in breathing when he first arrived in the Chicago Symphony. He learned from the tuba player there—a “genius in the most efficient way of playing” and in understanding both the physiology and the psychology of blowing. My father’s own breathing was all wrong. Proof lay in Arnold Jacobs’ lab, the gamut of instruments for analyzing and measuring breath, which my father soon adopted for himself and his students.
I remember those measuring gadgets at home, tools my father adapted for working with students. He tried them out on us—“blow here,” a rubber tube held up to our lips to measure our lung capacity. He would stick a small metal tube in the corner of an oboe student’s embouchure as they played to see the pressure on the reed. He developed exercises to get himself or his students into the right state of body and mind for playing. Set up the optimum conditions, he’d say, and then just hear the music.
He had been hearing music ever since he fell in love with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony played by a junior-high orchestra where he was sitting, but not playing, faking his fingers on a clarinet because he couldn’t read music and his mother couldn’t afford lessons—somehow, he said, the music sifted through. He spent his early teens listening to a classical radio station (his family made fun of him for it), and ushering for the LA Philharmonic, where he fell in love with the oboe (“love” is a constant in his autobiography). He had come from a hog farm in Iowa, where he had his first lesson in resonance—calling the hogs with a high “sooo-eee!” His first oboe teacher told him he should quit, that he had no talent—but that just made my father switch teachers and work tirelessly to prove him wrong.
His relentless self-criticism was always stunning. His studio was cluttered with reel-to-reel tapes, oscilloscopes, tuning machines, a breathing machine. He talks in his book—designed to help oboists teach themselves the way he did—about the necessity of skepticism and objective listening. He wasn’t happy with the feedback he’d get from sitting on stage—he’d place microphones at ten feet, at thirty feet, or all the way to the back of the auditorium to see how his sound was received. He always said he was a tough old son-of-a-bitch—and when he did, I’d imagine he was still hearing the laughter of those junior-high kids who used to get him to play so they could fall into hysterics. Love, defiance, fear? What does it take to commit your life to that kind of work?
“Playing the oboe” my father writes, “is an unnatural act.” Audiences often get that impression when they see an oboist’s face turn red—they think the instrument must take extraordinary pressure—the ill wind that no one good blows good, a pressure that’s also said to drive oboists crazy, their heads ready to explode at any minute. In fact, as my father writes, the oboe takes less breath pressure than other instruments, like the trumpet, and a much smaller quantity of breath than, say, the flute. And that’s the real problem. He writes: “I say ‘unnatural’ in the sense that our minds and bodies tend to rebel when confronted with the most bizarre aspect of oboe playing; the fact that it doesn’t take any air, or so little that the human mind and body cannot relate blowing it to any natural human function. What the body feels, when confronted with little or no air going out, relates more to coughing, sneezing, or heavy weight lifting, all of which are associated with some closure of the glottal muscles.” The closing down of the throat muscles involves constriction of the abdominal and chest muscles as well, so if there is pressure, it is isometric, the body fighting itself. The oboe reed takes so little air to vibrate that the lungs build up CO2 from the unexpelled air, which pushes the body’s natural panic button, builds up lactic acid in the muscles to make them clench. This rigidity makes it very difficult to expel air even after a long phrase. Countering this process takes a lot of physical and psychological retraining.
There are many exercises in my father’s book for retraining the breath. Some are amusingly named: the puppy dog, the happy chicken, the yodel, ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay. The puppy dog exercise is basic, one of those sounds I’d recognize through the door of his studio at home as he taught. It involves very fast panting, in and out, starting slow and speeding up to make the pants shorter and quicker. He’s tested it out on me many times. He stands there with his paws curved below his chin, his eyes doggy, his tongue hanging a bit, and begins. Then he asks me to imitate while he pokes my abdominals to check which muscles are engaged. I think the method acting is part of getting the panting puppy into the psyche. Later he’ll tell his students to just imagine they are panting as they prepare to attack the first note of a solo. “Dynamic retention” he calls this state of the breath. Like the tennis player who waits with knees flexed, feet engaged, ready to go wherever the ball flies, or the boxer who stays on his toes. “You are setting up a climate, a condition of the body…a state which does not make relaxation a goal but instead makes freedom to strike the ideal, as in the readiness of a cobra to strike in the proverbial battle with the mongoose. (The irony of his metaphor doesn’t escape him, he says: the cobra usually loses.) A good metaphor: in music, the way you start a note is called “the attack.”
I’m having trouble breathing. For several weeks now, breathing has seemed an unnatural act. The doctor reminds me this has been a stressful year. I tell him about the irony—I’m working on my father’s chapter about breath. I had breathing problems once before, years ago, when I first chaired a particularly cacophonous English department. So I know that when the panic begins, it will be difficult to stop. My throat constricts, my ribs fail to work without executive oversight, my diaphragm is in some useless funk. I’m gasping, shuddering, yawning. I can’t seem to expel the air, and lung-full, I can’t inhale. I can’t stop thinking about my breath. This has nothing to do with meditation. This is the wrong kind of being here. It is the mind messing with the body, unable to let the body do its work.
Sometimes, he says in his book, you have to tell yourself “oboe lies.” My father, in his pursuit of a breath that will make his music transcendent, studied not only singers’ techniques, but the Alexander Method, yoga masters and their chakras, as well as the book he admits to have stolen a lot from, The Inner Game of Tennis, which proposes a kind of Zen approach to mind and body. The inner game, the psychological one, this book argues, is as important as the outer one, the physical training and skill. The mind so readily interferes with the body’s work, the body’s knowledge. For my father, this translated into focusing on the sound, the music, not the blowing itself, but its result. Let the body do its work.
So sometimes, he says, you need to tell yourself you have all the breath in the world, that instead of exhaling, you are inhaling and you feel filled, expansive. Sometimes you tell yourself you are blowing out all your wind, like a tuba player, even though the reed is taking so little. This is autosuggestion, psychological make-believe to keep the mind from impeding the muscles.
So I’m taking this suggestion—I pretend that breathing is the easiest, most natural thing in the world, that I’m a thing of the wind, which blows through me like an open window. I don’t need to think about it, I relax my jaw, my throat, I step aside, out of my own way.
Sometimes it works.
“Fast air,” my son said, holding up his hand to touch it, the first time in his baby life that he’d noticed the wind. Spiritus Mundi, earth’s breath, heaving, gasping, gusting, sighing. The aspen trees I’ve planted in my garden are trembling, shimmering from the wind, making their delicate, whispering clash. The butterflies in this late summer season, ride the currents, the sunlight is full of them, and hundreds of bees, white moths, gnats, making the air visible, a gaseous sea in which they float.
“The Chicago Winds” was the name of the wind octet my father started. Remarkable how the breath circulates through the collective imagination. I think of those Greek gods of wind, Zephyrus, Boreas, and the others, their cheeks puffed like Satchmo blasting from each cardinal point on the compass. Spiritus Mundi: the word spirit comes from the word for breath, an etymological reminder that we imagine the world’s body from our own. The Latin verb spiro, I breathe, respire, inspire, spirit, inspiriting. Or the Hebrew ruach—the word for wind and breath but translated in Genesis as “the spirit of God.” I grew up in the Windy City, so I have a fine appreciation for the divinity of wind. Nothing more alive than the wind on my skin, the breath I draw, that knows no boundaries, the generous air, its reviving spirit.
“At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels.” This is John Donne’s magnificent Holy Sonnet, his brass section resurrecting the dead, conjuring that image of the four winds. At the end of this world, will we rise up, inspired and inspirited? But art is the only true resurrection I know. A dead poet’s words resurrect his heart’s beat, his speaking, breathing body. And so the voice of the wind, the woodwind blowing in the next room, it is unmistakably, deeply familiar, as if my father arose for me and spoke.
He used to come to my schools when I was a child and demonstrate the oboe to my classmates.
“What’s an oboe?” the kids would say to me, when I told them my father was a musician. I’d try to describe it—looks kind of like a clarinet, I’d explain, trying to convince them it was actually a big deal in the orchestra. He’s the duck in Peter and the Wolf, I’d say.
When he arrived, he’d make them laugh with his reedy crow and his quack. And then he’d do a trick I’d see later at master classes and other lecture demonstrations: He’d play the long solo from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, and he’d ask them to notice how many breaths he took. The solo was very long—about a minute. Composers love the oboe, he told me, because it takes so little breath that one can play long lyrical melodies on it. Everyone is always astonished when he tells them he played the whole solo in one breath.
Some oboists “have just said it’s impossible to breathe naturally on the oboe and have resorted to circular breathing, sometimes called the glassblower’s art,” my father writes, but he disdains that shortcut, even in this solo, which is serenely beautiful, with the same gliding feel as the composer’s oboe solo for the leading ballerina in Swan Lake. Nor does he want to interrupt the magic of the phrases with an audible exhale, so he has trained himself to disrupt the natural panic response, and keep to one extended breath. But there’s a problem—not for him, but for the audience. It turns out that listeners, too, have a panic button, set off by watching an oboist who doesn’t seem to breathe. Instead of listening to the music, they begin to worry whether the oboist will pass out. So he inserts breathlike pauses after phrases, artificial ones.
Music and the natural breath are partners; the contours of a musical phrase arise from the natural dynamics and limits of human breath, just as rhythm seems an artistic translation of the heartbeat. We follow empathetically the rising and falling tune, the crescendos and diminuendos, the quick in-breath, the cadences where we rest. Thus the power of music: when we sing together, and even when we listen, we breathe as one.
They are having a hard time finding veins in my left arm for drawing more blood. I’ve got two IVs hooking me into the drip bags over my head—Vancomycin, Cefepime, and a saline solution are running down the lines. I have pneumonia, and I’ve been here for a week as they try to find an antibiotic that will work. The trouble is, I have no immune system, or one so weak it can barely produce symptoms. I came to the emergency room with a neutropenic fever. They said I was lucky, that death can come quickly, and I’d waited too long. How was I to know? I have little appreciation for my own vulnerability; I approach those disappointing blood tests with a bit of bravado. When I’d called about my high fever, the doctors expressed the necessary urgency.
“ER—immediately! This is an oncological emergency.”
The cough isn’t as bad as it ought to be. But it’s not comfortable lying here in this narrow bed, all hooked up with no way to sleep. There’s a little plastic breathing machine by my bed—they want me to exercise my lungs. I think of my dad. The gadget has numbers up the side so I can see my score. A little white disc moves up the scale as I breathe in slowly. I suck it up to where the nurse made a red line—she says that’s my goal. Then I beat my record—higher and higher. Ten times in a row.
I’m my father’s daughter.
We try to keep our loved ones alive while they are dying. We try to remind them who they are as they drift away from us. Or is it ourselves we try to remind, when we feel ourselves losing them to some other world. For who am I without this other?
As my father is fading, losing himself in dream and hallucination, my sister tries to bring his familiar world back into this clean-swept room for assisted living. She brings Darcy, the family golden retriever, who had, as my father began to drift, bound herself closer to him, as he to her. My niece brings her two little girls to see their Great Dad. He wakes for them as he has for Darcy, emerging out of his silence to speak and laugh as he watches them dance. As he falls deeper into coma, my sister thinks perhaps she’d bring him his best friend, his oboe, to hold. She opens the case and takes out the pieces—I’m sure she handles each one reverentially, as we’d been taught to do. She hands him the bell to touch. Then the joints full of silver keys—she lays his hands over them. Can he still feel the music? But his eyes are closed, he’s barely responding. Then she takes the upper and lower joints and tries to put them together—she’s having a bit of trouble. He eyes her suddenly from nearly shut lids.
“Don’t mess with that,” he says sharply, and drifts back into a sleep that isn’t sleep.
The Hospice nurses tell us that hearing is the last sense that goes, and they suspect that even in a final coma, the dying can hear us.
“Tell him now,” a nurse says, “whatever you need to tell him, whatever you haven’t yet said.” So we’ve sat together for hours listening to his labored breathing, and my sister, her daughter, my husband, and I have also spent time alone with him, sitting beside the bed, talking and listening, and sometimes holding his long slender fingers. The nurse has especially suggested the need for forgiveness, asking for it, and granting it.
We had planned to fly to Vermont to celebrate my father’s ninety-fourth birthday, but a few days before our trip, we heard from my sister that he was declining more quickly than expected.
“If you want to see him,” she said, “come sooner.”
So three days before his birthday, we arrive at the assisted living facility where he has recently moved. It is a cold and cloud-cluttered March evening in Vermont, a whole winter’s snow persisting, piled up along the roads and all through the wooded hills. With some trepidation, we enter his room, where he lies on his back in his narrow bed. He is breathing loudly. Last light streaks the window.
My sister is there with my niece Liz, who keeps him bedside company, making him comfortable, talking to him. Music fills the room—Billy Holiday and Lester Young, Fats Waller, the jazz greats he loved. They’ve got his whole collection of CDs spread out, and we take turns finding the pieces that will please him most. We want to comfort him in this final passage, keep him afloat on the sound. We want to sing him to his rest.
For so many years, we had no deaths in our family. And then within the last two, my youngest brother, my mother, and now Dad. I have no religious beliefs or rituals to console me, but in sitting here, breathing along, I am learning how to die. I am overwhelmed by the holiness of the moment and I am surprised by the hard work of dying. A natural death, like this one, is active labor: hard breathing, occasional tremors, arms reaching out spasmodically as if grasping; a struggle of the body to let loose its being, conclude its long story, release itself into memory. I read into these movements emotions that the nurses say are not there. It always happens, they tell me; this is simply the body working hard to achieve its end. As I look on, I’m surprised by how much this seems like a birth—the long hours of my own first labor, the way my body contracted, jerked, and spasmed so violently to propel another body into the world.
This is what I hope for, a good death, family hanging on every breath, the spirits of music lifting us all, music rearranging the world for my departure.
It is the third day of listening. The breaths are changing—a deep rattle in the throat and longer silences between. Apnea, the nurse says. It’s part of the normal process. Our choices of CDs are becoming less playful. This last day we select the most inspirational music we know, and his favorites: The Mozart Requiem, the Bach B Minor Mass, and the piece he thought the most profound ever written, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. (Georg Solti conducting, my father’s oboe.) So many times in his life, this passion has taken him out of this world. I’ve seen him many times, with tears in his eyes, listening. And as it is playing, I notice, miraculously, that his breathing matches the beat of the aria, and that his sighs even follow, unmistakably, the rise and fall of the melody. He’s listening, hands resting by his side. I place my hand over his—they match exactly.
So I speak. It’s awkward—the overhead glare, the quiet voices in the next room, the rumpled bed, his body barely covered by a quilt my sister-in-law made.
The words feel belated, but I try anyway, even though there will be no answers. I tell him that I thought we had settled accounts long ago. As I speak, I’m beset by unsummoned images: the day he broke down the French door to my room because I’d yelled back at him; the abject apology he’d made when he sat next to me and cried for doing it, the self-loathing I saw in him that turned my anger into pity; the anger I felt when he deprived me of my anger. I had always understood him too well. As we sit here, though, these things don’t seem so important. I am no longer small and afraid.
“Let’s forgive everything,” I say. My crazy elopement, my little rebellions, my self-betrayals, forgive me those. Thank you for believing in me—even when I didn’t. For loving me, even when I didn’t love myself.
“Did you love him?” My brother asked me soon after dad died. Then he added, “What does that even mean?”
How can you answer such a question? Of course, I said. But it is so complex, this love. How can I see it from so close up? He was terrifying and consoling, inspiring and infuriating. As I sit here listening to music and breath, even now it is dimming, becoming memory. He is floating back to his innocence. I am outgrowing my childhood.
A sacred chorale plays in the background, serene and blissful. It’s all about sin and regret, but the voices twine and blend into tranquil, breathtaking harmony. In this long space of waiting, I’ve been thinking about his memorial, what I’d say if I spoke, and the words that occur to me are the metaphors of religion. Dad, you weren’t an angel in life, but you played like one. You’ve earned the heavenly choir.
I say it aloud: “You can sing at last.” I don’t believe in a heaven of angels, but there’s something right about celestial music.
I promise him I’ll finish the book.
My sister and I leave at about ten that night. My husband wants to stay. My brother and his wife will arrive from Montana soon, but I’m too exhausted to wait. At midnight, my father will turn 94, the age my mother died just a year ago.
At about two in the morning, we are awakened by a call. My husband is crying. He’s going to sleep in the room next to my father’s body; the ambulance won’t come for hours.
“He made it to his birthday,” he tells me. “About one-thirty.” I feel a kind of guilty relief that I was not there to witness. And then he tells me this story:
About midnight, my father’s breathing changed again—the nurse said it won’t be long, but my brother hasn’t arrived yet. He and his wife are driving up through the snow from the airport in Connecticut. My husband keeps talking to dad, telling him Tom is almost here, asking him to hang on longer.
And at that moment, my husband hears my brother coming down the hall.
He rushes to the door, pushes away the greeting hug, and tells Tom to hurry in, and as he does, there are seconds more when they watch him, silent and still in his bed.
The nurse is bent over, checking the pulse in his neck. For the past few hours, the silences between breaths have lasted about twenty seconds, and my husband has been trying to breathe with him, but unable to keep up with those long waits. This silence has lasted much longer.
She looks up at them. “I’m sorry,” she says. “He’s gone.”
And then, before my brother can rush to the bed to embrace the body, my father—as if in defiance, or simply in tune with his audience—takes a last deep breath, in and out.