Requiem for the New Year
On this first dark day of the year
my daddy was born lo
these eighty-six years ago who now
has not drawn breath or held
bodily mass for some ten years and still
I have not got used to it.
My mind can still form to that chair him
whom no chair holds.
Each year on this night on the brink
of new circumference I stand and gaze
towards him, while roads careen with drunks,
and my dad who drank himself
away cannot be found. Daddy, I’m halfway
to death myself. The millenium
hurtles towards me, and the boy I bore
who bears your fire in his limbs
follows in my wake. Why can you not be
reborn all tall to me? If I raise my arms
here in the blind dark, why can you not
reach down now to hoist me up?
This heavy carcass I derive from yours is
tutelage of love, and yet each year
though older another notch I still cannot stand
to reach you, or to emigrate
from the monolithic shadow you left.
– Mary Karr
photo by Kaizoryn
Fathers and daughters have been much on my mind these last two weeks. Caring for my father has been exhausting, far more than it would seem to be when described in writing.
I’ve watched his face wax yellow with frailty and drain white with nausea and flush crimson with effort. I’ve counted off every one of his one-hundred and eighty daily leg exercises, reminded him to breathe deeply, to relax his hands, face, shoulders. I’ve seen him speechless with chill and fatigue and agony, press headphones full of jazz onto his ears so he could be at least partially disembodied, reincarnated as a coil of blue cigarette smoke rising from Dexter Gordon’s ashtray as he played ‘Round Midnight for the studio men in 1986.
I’ve estimated the angles of his knees as he gripped the arms of his chair and quaked with effort. I’ve held his hand while a stranger calmly pried thirty staples out of the flesh of his leg. I’ve filled his prescriptions for Vicodin and for a blood-thinning medication that is also a popular ingredient in most commercial rat poison. I walked down a long clinic hallway with him, step by step, stopping three times for him to catch his breath.
I’ve had him lean on my shoulder as he struggles to turn and climb back up a sequence of four steps, repeating to himself the which-leg-goes-first mantra “down with the bad, up with the good” which he had trouble remembering – painkillers render his short-term memory not unlike it had been before he quit drinking – until I pointed out to him that a man with a PhD in religion should be able to remember the phrase if he thought of it as a moral statement. Down with the bad! Up with the good! In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I have brought him an eternal cycle of icepacks and pressed them against the great angry violet swaths of bruising on his thigh, awoken him at two in the morning to remind him to take medication, cleaned the toilet after he shits, emptied his catheter bag.
I love my father. The foretaste of his mortality and potential dependency, as reflected in the aftermath of this painful but entirely elective, entirely constructive procedure, has been a bitter one. Being away from my life, wrapped in the cocoon of his condition, ceasing to exist at moments as anything other than my father’s helper, has been an alienating, distressing, and precious experience. How do other people adapt to being reshaped as caretakers of loved ones who are in permanent states of distress or disability?
For those who do so with grace, who negotiate self-negation with self-preservation, who give comfort and take it in equal measure, who are guardians of dignity and protectors of vulnerable intimacies; who perform the alchemical magic of transforming love into care,
I give thanks.