Spring 2008 [Issue No. 13]
The Day My Father Died
October 2, 2007
◄▪ Joy Ladin ▪►
The day my father died I slept past dawn. My father had died in the darkness, around five a.m. I was dreaming. I wasn’t dreaming of him.
The day my father died the night had been as warm as day. I have all the windows open, my mother had told me the night before. He’s so hot. I don’t know how to cool him.
The day my father died he had already died. He had fallen in the bathroom a couple of days before, and never fully regained consciousness. He had been dying for months, ever since he refused dialysis. Decades before, he had refused to be my father. He was so proud of you when you were young, my mother told me. He thought you had such promise. I couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been dying to die.
The day my father died began when I was a child. It was a day I imagined over and over, a test that I always failed. I wanted to see if I was human. It was a delicate operation, an autopsy on a heart that was still beating. I would perform it in the dark, after I was tucked in and kissed goodnight. Sometimes my father had lain beside me in the dark, diagramming constellations with a flashlight, murmuring about distant galaxies and nearby stars. We lay on the edge of the universe together, a universe that was expanding and full of lights and smelled sweet and burnt like the tobacco of his pipe. But sooner or later, the door would close. My father and his stars were gone, and I was alone. Then the trial would begin. You don’t have feelings, I would say to myself. You wouldn’t even cry if your father died. Your father is dead. He’s lying there dead in front of you and you aren’t crying. You don’t even know how to cry.
The day my father died, a father on the other side of the wall woke me by waking up his children. I was at the college I had gone to as an undergraduate. They had given me a class to teach, and a room to sleep in the night before I taught it. I hadn’t known that there was a father and sons on the other side of the wall. I woke to the music of my lost life. “Good morning, Mikey,” the father cooed. I couldn’t help comparing his good-morning coo with mine – that is, the coo that used to be mine. His, I decided, sounded a little bit forced, a little self-conscious. I wondered if mine had too. Women do the good-morning coo much better, I thought. My eyes were still closed. As I dissolved my morning estrogen under my tongue, I could see him there, staring fondly into sleep-encrusted eyes, watching consciousness flare across unfinished features. He was probably kissing his son’s forehead, tasting the sweaty warmth, and his son was either smelling his aftershave or feeling the scratch of stubble or beard. I didn’t think of it then – I was too busy envying him, aching for the morning kisses I had lost, wondering what made him so much more successful a parent than I was, a parent so good he was still allowed to wake up his children – but later that day I remembered waking to my father’s stubble scratching my cheek in mid-winter darkness. “Where am I?” I mumbled, pretending that if I pretended to be talking in my sleep he would let me fall asleep again. “Timbuktu,” he answered. I turned onto my side, away from him, and said, “Wake me up when we get to Timbuk-three.”
The day my father died was thirty-five years after he had repeated my joke proudly to everyone who would listen. He was still my father, and I was still his son, and there was so much promise.
The day my father died, I put my estrogen under my tongue and listened to the other father, the good father, the father who had stayed male, fray in the face of the sons’ hostility. Something was wrong with the way my body was responding to estrogen; my hormone levels had quadrupled over the past three months. A healthy level was in the low two hundreds; I was in the mid-nine hundreds. The higher the level, the greater the risk of the blood clot I had so often prayed would end the problems I was causing by lodging in my lungs or my brain. I used to take three pills; then I took two; now I had reduced it to one. It hardly felt like I was taking estrogen at all. The sweetness of the single dissolving tablet barely spread in my mouth. On the other side of the wall, the sweet taste in the father’s mouth had soured. His sons were quarreling. His teasing comparison of the way each of them woke up had been a mistake, igniting their jealousy of one another, their feelings of inadequacy, the fears of each that the other was supplanting them in the father’s affections. The only thing that made them stop sniping at each other was turning, together, on him. It had been months since I had gotten to wake my children, but this was a scene I lived through every week – the spontaneous yet coordinated filial attack that transformed the best-planned gestures of parental affection into defensive rage. He wasn’t a better father than I was. He was separated from his children too. They weren’t used to being woken by him any more. His cooing made them angry, his teasing made them angry, his anger made them angry, his vulnerability to their anger made them angry. Even his love – love I was certain they used to bask in – was rubbing them the wrong way.
The day my father died, I threw my legs out of bed, pulled on the black sweater and wine-colored skirt I had spent days planning for my class, shaved, rolled on some lipstick to make my un-made-up face more believably feminine, and stumbled out the door to do my half-hour of voice exercises while walking the streets of what I hoped would still be a sleeping town. Walking was the last thing I wanted to do. I had walked ten miles the day before, a day that started at 1:00 a.m. when I woke from a nightmare and ended around midnight, and my feet still ached, but other people were staying in this house. I couldn’t do my voice exercises here. I had just had my first voice lesson and the initial benefit was losing my sense of how I should sound. I had a class to teach in a few hours; I needed to find a voice to teach it with. The suburban streets were still largely deserted. Everyone at the college was asleep, and I only had to dodge a few unlucky commuters who were drifting toward the train. “Ayah, bah, cah, dah,” I croaked, praying my voice, some voice, any passably feminine voice, would come back to me. Every week thus far I had lost my voice; every week I had called my friend Nancy before right before class, begging her to help me remember my vocal identity. I hadn’t wanted to get out of bed, but once I started walking, I didn’t mind being up. It was cloudy, and instead of dawning, the light had merged with the early air into a diffuse, liquid luminosity. It was October, but lawns were still green; beds were still in flower. Nothing had died except my father, and since I didn’t yet know he was dead, to me he was still alive, still failing, still sinking deeper into the fever sleep my mother had tried so hard to cool.
The day my father died, I paused on the bridge above the highway that separated village from college to watch a flock of tiny sparrows that had settled on the pock-marked concrete. I stood right beside them, a foot or two away. For a moment, we seemed to have settled together. Then the illusion shattered. The flock startled, split into panicky wings. I was no longer a fellow creature, pausing on a bridge; I was death incarnate. One cluster soared into the sky, the other skimmed along the ground. Both vanished. They were living too fast for me. Their hearts – it seemed I could feel their hearts – were throbbing to a quicker rhythm. To be alive this morning meant something different to them, something I could never imagine.
The day my father died, impulse told me to turn around before I walked too far.
The day my father died I felt lucky. Even though I had overslept, the single shower shared by the college’s itinerant teachers was available when I needed it. I was lucky, I was getting away with it, even though I had no idea what “it” was. I washed my hair in the sink in cold water, trying to prolong the life of the student-beautician dye job that had cost half what I expected, then took a quick, hot shower. More prayers – I had been so focused on my voice exercises that I had forgotten I was only halfway through my prayers. I had done the gratitude blessings – those were easy – and the affirmations of God’s existence, but I hadn’t even started the long and ever lengthening list of those in need of healing. I was lucky that I still had time to pray, lucky that my hair was growing out so nicely. It had dried well the day before, and I was hopeful that I would look artlessly, artfully curly today as well. There was a meeting of the writing faculty, and most of them were going to get their first look at their first transsexual colleague. I was lucky that I had planned such a good outfit, lucky that I had found time to bead a mauve and amethyst necklace that would go perfectly with the skirt – how lucky I was – that I had found in a thrift store for fifty cents. I was so lucky that when I was done with my shower, the father and boys and their terrible song of love was over. I dressed in early morning silence.
The day my father died I was singing – well, murmuring – Hallel, the sequence of psalms of praise recited in honor of Sukkot, the harvest festival that commemorates, in the paradoxical Jewish way, both the abundance of life and its impermanence. My cellphone rang. It was only 8:03 – I had felt lucky that it was still so early – and I knew it had to be my mother, and I knew my mother would only call me at 8:03 to tell me my father was dead. “Did I wake you?” she asked me. “No,” I said, suddenly confused about what day it was and how long I had been part of it, “no, I’ve been awake for hours.” “Oh,” she said, “I should have called you sooner. He died at five a.m.” There was a little silent thud inside me, the first blow of the tiny hammer of death. It was just as I’d known it would be. My father was dead, and I wasn’t even crying. “How are you?” I asked. A little sob rippled my mother’s breath. “I’m OK,” she said slowly, torn between truth and the eternal obligation not to worry her children. “It’s a relief, in a way.” “You told him he could let go,” I said gently, “and he heard you. He let go.” “Yes,” she said hesitantly, as though we both were lying, conspiring to cover the nameless crime of allowing her husband to slip away, “yes, he has.”
The day my father died, I had to decide if I was going to teach, then I had to notify my students I’d cancelled class, then I had to pack. It took me a long time to figure out how my body was going to reflect my father’s death. I was supposed to rip my clothing but my clothing wouldn’t rip. I didn’t want it to. I took off the purple necklace I was so proud of. I took off the earrings that matched. I put away my makeup before I put any on. Death had stripped me. I had to look stripped. I had to walk the world with a face that reflected the ugliness of death. I had to bring my bags to my car; I had to get another cup of tea for the drive; I had to return the key to my room; I had to use the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to stop because once I was driving I knew I couldn’t. I had to figure out how to do all these things when all these things seemed impossible to figure. I seemed to linger for hours over each trivial task. I had to get home, I knew that, but home was not my home, and I had no particular reason to be there. Come to think of it, I thought, as I trudged up the steep hill to the administration building to return my key, I have no reason to be anywhere. I would have to drive, to eat, I would have to mourn, I would have to figure out how to mourn when I couldn’t be with anyone who had known my father because the rest of my family didn’t yet know I – the new me – existed, I would require innumerable phone conversations and expressions of sympathy as my luckless friends tended what I had become: a creature that didn’t even cry when its father was dead.
The day my father died, I started crying on the Hutchinson River Parkway. I was crying for the loss of my home, the estrangement of my children, my daughter’s genetic disease, my skyrocketing estrogen levels, the indifference of my doctor, the end of my marriage, and my father’s death. When the tears that I had long ago believed would make me human came, they came at seventy miles per hour on a winding road, they came in gusts, they came in howls, they smeared the dotted white line across my field of vision, they swung the car back and forth like a slaloming skier. They came like colorless messengers from the truth my father had taught me. Nothing was going to get better. Much as he would have hated my uncontrollable sobs, my father would have approved of my despair. Life, he used to tell me, puffing the pipe whose smell I loved, is a terminal illness. It was a mark of the promise he saw in me – you should do something important, he would tell me, like finding a cure for cancer – that he would share this truth with an eight-year-old still dewy-eyed, or so he believed, with the optimism of growth. Each day I was growing bigger, stronger, smarter, but soon that would end, he told me, and then the decay that made up most of life would begin. The truth of life, the truth masked by the upward trajectory of childhood and the soft-minded sentimentality of maturity, was death. We all die, and that was what I was crying about, he told me angrily, as I hyperventilated on the floor of my room, weeping hysterically over the death of a grandmother I had barely known, who had spoken little English, had spent most of her time in my presence playing solitaire, had made the sweetest latkes I ever tasted, had spent her last years silent and shrunken in the adult equivalent of a crib. You aren’t crying for her, he told me. You are crying for yourself. You are crying about death.
The day my father died I stopped sobbing as suddenly as I had started, just as I had when he told me I was only crying for myself. I blinked until the road swam back into focus. I kept my car pointed straight along the darkness between the broken and solid lines. I slowed my breath. I wiped my nose. My air-conditioned tears cooled on my skin. I felt them disappear.
The day my father died, I didn’t feel him disappear. I should have. He had clung so long to the edge of my existence, transparent, ephemeral, evaporating slowly, like a leftover tear, like the blue smoke rings he would blow when I sat at his feet – he in his recliner, I on the floor or on the footstool – after dinner. The rings left his lips in tight ovals, but the further they got from him, the larger and looser they became. The emptiness at their centers yawned. Their edges rounded and blurred. Without tears or melodrama, they framed his face, then disappeared into the larger haze of the bulb-lit living room.
The day my father died, I was surprised to feel that something had changed, that I had lost him again. It had taken me years to let him go, to realize that he would never speak to me again, that he would never explain how I had become something whose presence he couldn’t bear. I tried being angry; I tried being sad; I walked around repeating, “You are something even your father can’t stand” and I tried, out of some twisted notion of loyalty and love, to follow that feeling into death. I was going to die anyway – he had taught me that – so I might as well die for him. But of course I didn’t. I even tried startling him into communication by appearing unannounced at the house where I had grown up. It was winter. He was alone in the house, as my mother had assured me he would be. I let myself in and there he was, years older but still the man I had longed for and raged at for so many years of silence. His hair had receded into a steep widow’s peak, and though still black in the middle it was shock-white on either side. He was wearing a bathrobe over pajamas, standing in the kitchen, when I burst in. “No,” he said, or shouted – it sounded like a shout to me. He stared around wildly, looking for a way out. “Don’t be afraid,” I said, or shouted – I couldn’t tell the difference. “I’m not going to hurt you. I only want to talk. I just want to ask you why –” “No, no, no,” he said as he pushed past me and ran in slippers into the ice and snow. I followed him out but he had already reached his car. Curls of smoke were rising from the exhaust pipe, red and ghastly in his taillights’ glow. I stood in the driveway shouting to him as he backed the car into me. He was moving slowly – he wasn’t trying to hurt me – and it was easy, incredibly easy, to drop my hands from the rear of the car and step out of the way. I never saw him again. The therapists who couldn’t help me understand my gender identity were very helpful when I told that story. His rejection had nothing to do with me, they said. My wish for death was a wish for his love, my anger at myself was anger at him. Hour after hour, week after week, I learned what I knew better than to say to them. His rejection of me was all I had left. That’s why I kept it alive in my heart. My love and longing were a child’s. I didn’t want to survive without him.
The day my father died, a rabbi – I spoke to four in all that day, in a panicky effort to figure out how I could adapt Judaism’s gendered, communal mourning rituals to my transsexual isolation – told me that mourning could be the beginning of a new relationship with my father. He had had a difficult relationship with his own father, who had died a couple of years before. I finally realized, the rabbi said, that what my father found so hard to accept in me was what he recognized of himself. But though I didn’t say it, I didn’t want a new relationship with my father. Years ago, I had become bored by my father and his rejection. They were irrelevant, I had realized. Where my father ended, I began. Even now, in the first rush of the strange new tenderness that had come with the news of his death, I didn’t want to triumph over him by asserting a relationship he had so clearly rejected. We don’t believe the hand reaches that far from the grave, the rabbi said. Mourning is about the living, not the dead.
The day my father died, I became the custodian of whatever of me was him. The relationship now was all in my power, on my terms. I could summon or dismiss him, speak to his ghost or silence it, reject or embrace him. I could tell any story I wanted to about him and his rejection, conjure regrets and longings he had never voiced, phrase apologies he never delivered, weep as hysterically as I wanted to without fearing the vice of his rational despair. I could proclaim to the world – the facts spoke for themselves – that I had survived his rejection. But what was most alive of him in me was the courage, the recklessness, with which he had embraced his losses. He, like me, had been determined to be himself at any cost. I was part of the price he had paid, just as my distance from my children was part of the price I was paying to become myself. How strange, when I had devoted so much of my life to being a different kind of father, that I like him would find myself standing stubbornly on the shore of myself, watching my children drift further and further away. Loss must have hurt him too, but he had embraced it as the essence of a life he refused to live on any terms but his own. When his hearing went he refused a hearing aid. Was that because there was nothing he cared enough to hear, or because his sense of himself, his bodily integrity, would have been violated by having electronic equipment in his ear? When he refused dialysis, was it because he had given up on life, or was he affirming his dignity by facing without fear the downward trajectory of existence? He had paid for his refusal with months of increasing nausea, weakness, dizziness, failing breath, with the knowledge that every day he came closer to drowning in his own uncleansable waste. As far as I know, he never questioned his decision, never wavered in his conviction that this was the time and way to die, just as I knew that even if taking estrogen meant that it was only a matter of time before my platelets fatally clotted, I was determined to die as myself rather than to revert to what I had been. My father’s calm lived on in me. He and I both accepted the equations and inequalities of existence. We shared a humility that was hard to distinguish from humiliation. We had both wasted years in offices, aging under fluorescent lights, priding ourselves on intelligence that had little reflection in enduring accomplishment, regarding life from the ironic shoals of despair, as though there were triumph in conscious desolation. Settle down, he would say, when I was upset about something, and I would settle down, watch the jagged shards of life tumble back into their usual painful configuration. Nothing, he taught me, could really happen; no matter what we did or didn’t do, he and I and all of us would always be part of the colorless rainbow that arced from life to death.
The day my father died, I realized that even if my life was a failure, my new self a fiction or a wish, the losses it cost me permanent, I was still my father’s son. Neither he, nor I, nor death itself, could change that.
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