Photo: Sara Virgil

Photo: Sara Virgil

Saying Goodbye

Existere, Volume 34, Issue 1, Fall 2014/2015;  Diverse Voices Quarterly, 2015

For a long time after your death I pictured your body, covered in a soft gray cloth, your toes pointed up, floating between two mountains, surrounded by fog and mist. I must have put you in this place, suspended in limbo, because of the way you chose to die, pretending, just like everything in our lives—the conflicts we encountered as a family and that I experienced as your daughter—was going to be, in your physician-speak, just fine. Like the picking up and moving every four years, changing schools, abandoning beloved homes and friends, like dislocation, like dying, was no big deal.

I tell myself that you loved me, even though you hardly ever said these words. It is enough to just know, you explained, and I guess as a child I did. I watched you cut up my spaghetti into the shape of a red heart, remove your gloves in bitter cold to tie my frozen boot laces, warm my hands with your hot breath, and make the most marvelous kites with a big H, my initial, and long, swirling tails. How I wish you had told me about the culture of kite-making, something I imagine you might have learned and loved as a little boy in Turkey. When I got older, in my teens, your love changed. I wanted the old one back.

You were irritated and annoyed when I fought with Mother. Heaven forbid, though, that I should ever talk back to you. No, sir. That was not allowed, ever. Not that I wanted to, with that steely look in your blue eyes, your lips hard-pressed, and your short hair standing straight up, bristling, like part of you was one fire and the other was stone cold. Maybe I took it out on her since I couldn’t talk to you. Sometimes you let me carry on slamming doors, crying, ignoring the fuss until you yelled, “That’s enough.” We kept pace at arm’s length, me thinking, always wondering if I was a good enough daughter. I wonder what kind of life we would have had if there had been a dialogue. I would have forgiven you for beating me, for threatening to disown me if I got pregnant, and you would have held my hands and told me you were sorry, but that did not happen.

I feel so bad, looking back at the last holidays we spent together, Thanksgiving, Christmas, how you insisted on driving from West Chester to our house in the city. You refused to allow me to book you and Mom a hotel room nearby so that you wouldn’t have to make the trip back at night with your one good eye and a few drinks under your belt. You said you were an old man, and old men like to sleep in their own beds, so I, well-trained, did not argue. But I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifice of picking you up and driving you and Mom back either. I should have been.

I should have fought back when you were in hospice care, those final days at Barclay Friends. I should have disobeyed and talked to you about what was really happening. I should not have just sat there, writing in my journal, going along with the pretense. Instead, we watched you slowly drift away, as if you were swimming in the ocean and letting the waves and the tide pull you out to sea.

I watched you in those last days try to make a bowel movement; you insisted you had to go. You got up and out of bed with the help of a nurse’s aide, a lovely young black woman, pregnant, to whom you gave your best gynecological advice, and she, not I, took your hand and helped you to the toilet. You are my flesh and blood. How many times you must have helped me go to the bathroom and wiped my dirty bottom when I was little, but I was not prepared to do that for you. I should have been, with tenderness and love. Maybe I was afraid of making you angry by breaking the rules, acknowledging something was wrong. I wish you had ordered me to help you, but you said nothing, and I said nothing. I just sat there, in agony, and watched you wince and struggle, getting up and down, up and down.

At the end, during our last visits, we (me, Mother, Susie) sat in your small room with the TV playing soccer games, tennis games; your favorites. Your bed, placed beneath a window, overlooked a lovely garden with a small stream cascading gently over landscaped rocks. It was peaceful and quiet, but I don’t think you noticed; you barely knew we were there.

Each day you grew progressively weaker and weaker as the kidney inside you ceased to function. But you had the strength to lean over and reach for Mom’s hand and bring it up to your papery, trembling lips, kissing her over and over until you had to let go. Falling back on the pillow, you asked me to pull the blanket over your head. “Cover me,” you whispered hoarsely.

What were you thinking and feeling? Could you tell your life was being extinguished? Did you feel pain? Your lungs, emptied of air, your heart—was it empty too? Had it ever been full enough? Had we given you enough love to compensate for the all the losses in your life? I wondered if you knew that it was me you had asked for help.

The nurse came in at that point, the hospice nurse, a mature woman with feet planted firmly on the ground. She wanted to take your vital signs. How ironic, I thought, taking the vital signs of a dying man. “Come on, Doc, let’s not pull the covers over our head,” she said, or something like that, indicating your attempts were childish and unnecessary.

Right then it seemed that there were two different worlds: the world you were passing into, and the hard, cold reality of that room, us, wordlessly watching you leave. Your comfy brown corduroys and green flannel shirt were hanging in the closet; your Clarks, sitting on the floor, things you won’t wear again, the only things left to say goodbye to.

Less than a year before you died, your beloved sister, Nurhan, passed away. She had been sick for many years. You had done all you could to help, sending money, visiting your nieces and sister in Ankara, the city where you were born and where your mother is buried. But Nurhan died suddenly, and there was no way for you, given your own declining health, to be with her or attend the funeral.

It was on a Sunday when we came to visit that you gave me the news about Aunt Nurhan. I hugged you and said I was so, so sorry. I remember you shrugged your shoulders and said, “So be it,” a phrase you used quite often. You did not cry. Was that the point when you lost the desire to keep on living? I’m guessing so, because everything went downhill after that.

You were such a smart man; you loved to learn, travel, explore new places. You loved skiing, tennis, sports cars, good wine, tailor-made clothes, swimming (swimming!), fine art, music, four-star hotels, good food, and picnics in the mountains; all the things I love, too, so I must have learned them from you.

Mom confided in me, you know, after you died, that you had loved her unconditionally. I wish you could have seen her face when she said this; her expression was part disbelief, part distress, and part amazement: She knew she could never have loved anyone like that, not you, not me or Susie. At least she recognized and admitted the truth, even though it was too late to thank you; but you probably know that anyway. You loved her the way she was, in spite of the flaws.

When I listen for the sounds of you I hear the dry intake on the hollow stem of your pipe, the click of your black Army-issue shoes on the shiny linoleum hospital floors, the sucking of air between the little spaces in your teeth, and the wet, cracking, nibbling, and spitting noises of eating sunflower seeds. I hear you singing along, laughing, to the lyrics of “Volare” and “Que Sera Sera,” playing the piano by ear. I think I played my guitar for you, didn’t I? In Calle Piccola, the villa on the ocean, the summer of my senior year at college? That was a beautiful vacation. Thank you for all the beautiful vacations: Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and the many cross-country trips from New York to San Francisco, first in the big white Buick with its rocket-ship fenders and then in the cream-colored Chevy, which didn’t turn as many heads overseas as the Buick or, as we called it, the “White Elephant.” Compared to all the European-sized cars, it was gigantic. It’s a good thing you both quit smoking, because I got carsick a lot when I was little on those grand-tour treks.

And thank you for always being there to take me places. You did everything for Susie and me: You drove me to ski-club meetings, to college visits, to visit boyfriends when I didn’t have a car. You dutifully attended all of our performances, me singing in the choir, Susie the star ballerina of Signora Paulon’s Scuola di Dansa. You did all of this like it was a job, your job. You rarely complained or said no to anything. But sometimes, when I acted up or gave the wrong answer, and you whacked me on the head or called me a “dodo head” or criticized how I was raising my own children, you shook me to pieces.

I have dreams about you all the time, but I guess you know that. They are frequently the same. I am inside a house or sitting in a car, and there you are, pulling down a shade, opening a window, as if you never left, and I say with enormous relief, “See, I knew you weren’t dead!”

I don’t want you to be dead. I want to believe that you and Mom are still sitting in your little breakfast room at Hershey’s Mill. You are reading the paper, Mom is knitting, the TV is on; there’s a small, crumb-filled plate left over from toast with butter. I can feel you there, hear your conversations: the planning of your next trip to Florida, what you are going to have for dinner and whether or not you have to “go to fish store,” speaking your abbreviated English, minus prepositions, pronouncing all your Vs and Ws. You were always hard to understand.

But I have to tell myself the truth: You are not there. The house is sold, all of the furniture gone; the garage emptied of old skis, broken garden pots, paint cans; the salt-rusted Cadillac given away to charity. There are new people living there now, and I will not be driving out on Sundays to bring you Dim Sum from Chinatown.

If I tell myself more truths, by now your ashes have settled at the bottom of a deep ocean channel that runs from Maine to Maryland. At 484 feet you dwell with sea creatures; your remains mingle with sand and shells. You and Mom wanted your ashes to be buried together at sea, so we took you to Maine, near our home in Rockland. Now when I want to look for you I scan the horizon between Ash Point Island and Vinalhaven and know where you are.

It was extraordinary, did I tell you? The kind lobsterman who took us out in his small boat lowered the little flag and placed his cap over his heart, such touching gestures as we slipped the special shells holding your ashes, one blue, one pink, into the water. We scattered rudebekia blossoms, red-orange and golden yellow, on the sapphire-blue surface. That is when the boat suddenly stopped rocking; the ocean became calm and still. Extraordinary. The lobsterman said that the currents did not pull the shells in different directions; they stayed together for a long time. We watched them swim and then slowly start to dive. Dad, you went first, quickly, as I knew you were in a hurry to get all this over with. Mom went last; as much as she wanted to be with you, she did not want to go. 

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