A Month of Autumn

Our luggage was stuffed with boxes of old photographs from the Vietnam War along with a stamp collection in tattered binding and a baseball for a son we didn’t yet have. It was the middle of October, two days after the funeral, and my husband and I were flying over Tennessee carrying souvenirs from my father’s life. I rested my head against the double-paned airplane window, my gaze fixed on the orderly landscape of yellow and orange squares ten thousand feet below. The leaves were changing in much the same way I had seen myself change over the past thirty days, wavering and unhinging before falling into heaps.

I’d been placing avocados into a plastic bag when my dad called on an evening in early September to tell me his cancer had returned. Stage four this time. I hung up the phone and left my half-full cart in the produce section of a grocery store on Gallatin Road. Just over a week later, I held a one-way ticket to Houston and got on a plane.

Every single day of that month, of that withering process, was different. Each time I walked into the hospital room, a little bit less of my father was waiting for me. And yet there were rituals. I derived a semblance of comfort from pumping the hand sanitizer in the doorway at the start of each visit; from watching the clock hands move one pie section at a time until dusk signaled the hour for me to go. Every day the nurse came in to retrieve his undisturbed lunch tray, and every day I folded the newspaper and placed it near his plastic water pitcher so that all he might need was an arm’s reach away.

The logical side of my brain — the part I’d inherited from my father — pushed me through the days. We are born, we live, and we die. I could exist in that vague synopsis of reality much more easily than the surreal universe I was currently spinning in — one of radiation creases pressed into foreheads, of bile being spewed.

For as long as I possibly could, I kept my attention on preparing his taxes and balancing his checkbook. I copied down estate information with careful detail. I closed out his auctions on eBay. I wrapped my mind around numbers and the shape of the circle of life that every human being has in common. But somewhere during the course of that month, when protocol began to fail me, a crucial piece that fused me together began to rip apart.

Photo: Kierstin Casella

The worse my father’s condition became, the more I was forced to comply. There was the afternoon I’d sat at his bedside, flipping through my mental catalog of memories trying to recall happier times. Our ski vacation, a hundred trips to San Francisco, I searched and searched for the very best ones. As we talked, I reached over with a tissue to pull fuzzy clumps of hair from the shoulders of his thin, blue gown. I did this as if it was the most inconsequential thing in the world to do in the midst of conversation, like brushing off dryer lint.

Suddenly, right in the middle of a sentence, my father stopped talking and began to mumble. His eyes wandered off to a corner of the cold, beige room toward a person who wasn’t there. For several minutes while I listened, he babbled nonsensically about monkeys on the ceiling and buying a loaf of bread. He asked questions to nobody and talked to his mother who’d been dead since I was ten.

Then just as abruptly, as if someone had whacked the side of a shorted-out television, his eyes snapped back and almost like a child, my father looked at me with absolute fear across his face. “Shit, I was hallucinating again, wasn’t I?” he asked and started to cry a little. I nodded, caught my breath, and pulled his glasses off to clean them.

It was right around this time that my father gave in too, let the tethers binding him to any shred of hope fall away, and did his best to die. We all watched — my aunts, uncles, my husband, and I — the day he nodded goodbye to us, closed his eyes gently, and almost with a shrug, willed himself gone. We sat around the edges of the room, quietly weeping to ourselves and waiting. Fifteen minutes later, my father opened his eyes. He glanced at his surroundings and laughed.

* * *

After the funeral, I attempted to return to a normal rhythm while also walking myself through the Stages of Grief. I was still partially in task mode, having just written his obituary and picked out his casket in the same way one might shop for a new piece of furniture. It was dark and timeless and not too ornate — appropriate for my father, an accountant, who had always taught me to make sensible choices.

At home, I sifted through condolence cards and made half-hearted attempts to focus on good things. I wrote and I cooked; I brought flowers into the house. On seventy-degree days, I wandered around our Nashville neighborhood like someone’s lost pet, trying to convince my skin to absorb the beauty of my favorite season. I bought smooth white pumpkins and sugar-dusted loaves of banana bread, anything to bring my senses back to life. For weeks, all I could seem to see was the horrible beige of those hospital walls.

I’m not sure I even noticed or cared that sometime during this process, I’d begun to turn away from God. Deep down, if I let myself think about it, which wasn’t too often, I was bitter that He’d left me there alone to deal with something so beyond my capacity to bear. I blamed Him for the vacant, frayed remnant of myself that walked around on achy legs. When I wasn’t blaming God, I questioned whether He existed at all. I bit my tongue in conversations with sympathetic friends because I figured death was supposed to deepen a Christian’s belief in heaven and One who saves, not shake those ideas to the core.

I was angry with my dad for leaving and angry that I’d had to sit helplessly while it happened. I felt shame for all the times I wanted to escape that suffocating room, for how repelled I was by all the sickness. My relatives commented how my father’s eyes lit up in my presence during those final days. They told me what a wonderful daughter I’d been for never leaving his side. This only made me feel guilty for secretly wishing I didn’t have to be the wonderful daughter just this one time. As grateful as I felt for what seemed like sacred moments with my father, I equally knew they had caused me to unravel to a point I didn’t recognize. I hated myself for dwelling there, for not being strong enough to shake how disturbed I felt by observing death so up close.

“Lots of people’s fathers die,” I’d tell myself. “You should be over it by now.”

I didn’t understand why God just let me stay there in the muck. I’d asked Him over and over and over again to pull me out, and was starting to imagine a smug ambivalence whenever I thought of Him. Even with a supportive husband and friends to lean on, I still felt alone. Grief can be isolating that way, especially when you’ve never learned how to navigate its salty, stinging waters. Faith and strong arms, I discovered, only get you so far across the ocean.

After several months of unsettling dreams and a subtle but relentless feeling of panic, I finally decided I’d given myself the allotted time to mourn the loss of a parent, and that it was up to me to move past it. We sealed my father’s things into a plastic bin in the basement and I tried to talk about him only on his birthday, Father’s Day, or anytime I ordered sweet-and-sour chicken — his favorite Chinese food.

I trudged toward hope. My husband and I went to Europe, and then we had a baby (a boy). We planted trees in the backyard and did every optimistic thing we could possibly think of. Still, the old memories found a way to invade, and I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if it was really okay to feel happy after everything I’d seen. Unable to embrace joy, and having let go of the sadness I could no longer endure, I landed somewhere in the middle where I didn’t feel much of anything at all.

Even today, after six years, it still seems as though my ability to experience palpable joy in any given circumstance is slightly diminished. I lost a vibrant part of myself in that month with my father that I haven’t completely regained. Maybe I never will, which means I’m left to make the daily decision, conscious or not, to either open up or shut down. Anxiety has become the friend I am most comfortable with but equally abhor. In this relationship, as in most of my real ones, I oscillate between pushing too eagerly and retreating inside of myself. I go to the place of order and control I came to rely on in the face of crisis, even now in the day-to-day. I do this almost by default, my protective mind assuring me that wherever there is chaos — the unfurling of a thing once held together — there is potential for pain too sharp to overcome.

I wish I could recount some grand, redemptive turning point, to say that God found me at the edge of battle, pulled me up and pieced me back together whole. That in one fell swoop, He restored every ounce of faith that went into the ground with my father that October. Sure, I suppose I’ve encountered God in some of the likely places — beaches at sunset or a fleeting moment on a Sunday morning. I’m almost certain He was there in the Sistine Chapel. And I do catch a glimpse every time I look at my children’s faces, when I pause to contemplate the mystery of their existence.

I have tried with all my might to fix my eyes on those obvious points. I hold steadfast, if only sometimes, to the idea that in times of deepest sorrow, when my need is most intense, that’s when Truth can find me. But I can be cynical too, so uncertainty washes over like a tide, crashing in around me, undoing me just like before.

And then, like a gift I didn’t recognize as quite so valuable the first time I saw it, I remember one improbable moment in that stark, lonely hospital room. I was holding my father’s hand, silently counting his breaths. It was nighttime, well past my usual time of leaving, and others were there too. I’d been counting for hours, waiting for relief to descend.

Eventually, his breathing began to slow, and his face turned, almost like a flower blooming in fast-forward motion, from pale white to a shade of yellow I’d never seen before. He breathed a final, labored pulse of air and faded away. I held his hand tightly and watched his cheeks become hollow; I watched as everything, the good and the bad that had made him my father, left. I watched as God made Himself known to me for the tiniest, most undeniable, split second. I remember this moment in as much detail as I will let myself. No more than is needed, no less. And slowly, as if all over again, I loosen my grip.

Kierstin Casella is an artist, writer, and photographer who looks for beauty in unlikely places. Her favorite things include traveling to Southern towns, drinking good coffee on her porch swing, and spending quality time with her husband and their two small children. They occupy an old farmhouse just outside of Nashville and share their property with a flock of backyard chickens. Occasionally, you can find Kierstin on her blog, A Net for Catching Days.

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