You practice saying it, shifting tone and emphasis, using euphemisms like My father’s no longer with us—which sounds fucking stupid—until the fits become shorter and with fewer tears. It feels like progress, but already your throat is shriveled and hard as a walnut, and your ears are ringing with condolences from those who’ve been through it, and those who haven’t, each offering unsolicited diagnoses of your stage of grief, as if there’s some vast underlying structure to the mucus and tears and blood mixing like watercolor on your dorm room floor.
If only you, in your infinite millennial wisdom, hadn’t snapped that photo on your last visit to hospice. Your father, his blood leaden with antipsychotics, atrophying over the arm of a vinyl chair, his metal-flecked mouth—the product of youthful indulgence in penny candies—flashing a distress signal with each labored breath. You had deemed it necessary for your partner—who it suddenly dawns on you he’ll never see you marry—to understand what you meant when you said He’s heavily drugged so as not to spit on, or punch, or bite, or shout racial slurs you didn’t know were part of his vocabulary at underpaid orderlies who’d scraped the shit off his bedridden body that morning. Now, the image bleeds into everything.
More than anything, you wish to turn back the clock and have one honest conversation with him before it suddenly became too late. A conversation about regret, and how it felt to be in Seattle with his mistress during your premature birth. The thought makes you angry, and for a moment you’re able to push aside the pain like you pushed aside your guilt that time he accused you—of what you can’t remember—and you strung up his infidelity like barbed wire, watched him pivot toward your mother, who shouldn’t have told you, and allowed her to suffer your cowardice, just as she did when his condition worsened and you fled west to stick your head in the sand.
But even that seemed unimportant after you listened to her curt voicemail telling you to call. And even though you knew exactly what she’d say, and even though she wasn’t crying, and even though you’d convinced yourself it wouldn’t hurt because Death took His sweet fucking time with your father, you banshee-wailed before she finished her sentence—the one you still can’t bring yourself to say—and put your fist through the door.
Now here you sit, crumpled into yourself like something discarded, your body leaking fluids as footsteps approach in the hall. An eyeball wedged into the splintered hole asks, Are you alright? but it’s an absurd question, and before you know it you’re outside, the screen door echoing behind you as you stumble down the tree-lined street toward the setting sun, your battered hand wrapped around the neck of a tequila bottle in this cliché moment of grief. Soon, you’ll find in your aimless wandering the bottom of the bottle—the hopeless certainty that all paths are tributaries flowing toward the stagnant arms of a plastic-covered chair, and you’re a grain of silt caught in the current, waiting to be deposited, waiting for time to bury you.
And that night, years from now, your son who survives you will look up at the shivering stars and aim his bottle at one that might be you. And even though neither of you ever believed, he’ll ask if in death you’ve regained the bodily agency that ten years of experimental drugs couldn’t provide. No leaf-rustling or thunder and lightning will confirm you’re listening, but he’ll decide the time is ripe for that conversation you never had, and by morning—still wondering if the nurse was sneaking a cigarette when your heart gave out, or you choked on your own spit, or you simply forgot how to breathe—he’ll have learned the myth of closure.
The next morning, with shades drawn against the rising sun, he’ll reopen the wounds on his knuckles and resume watercoloring, his palette limited to memories of the accumulated suffering that justifies the phrase: It’s really a blessing.
Christopher Hathaway is an MFA candidate in The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. His fiction has appeared in The Hong Kong Review, and his non-fiction in CRAFT. He lives in Southern California.