In these months following my dad, George's death, I've begun to write a book. It is a memoir, a self-reflection, on my journey from cancer to caregiver, from loosing my dad in my 20s to finding him again in my 30s, only to loose him again for good before 40.
At first it was hard to write because poking around at memories felt like an insult. Not an insult to him and his memory (he urged me to write almost more than anyone). No, an insult to me and my open, broken heart. But ever since I was young, I've always managed to heal myself through writing and so I made mysef sit down and write something -- anything! -- each day, even if it was just 10 minutes worth and I wanted to throw my noebook across the room afterward. (Which was frequently true.)
Still, I wrote.
And gradually, as the notebook filled, the pain began to lessen its grip. A bit. At first I didn't have a clear destination with my writing, but I often found myself writing about my dad's so-called cancer journey -- that metastatic pancreatic cancer Autobaun -- more often than I wrote about anything else, and as the frequency picked up, so, too, did my desire to write about him. I wrote about his diagnosis and treatment, hospice and dying, but also about the little moments in between that constitute a life, even if life is happening at Stage IV.
In the beginning, mostly I wrote at night, my notebook open on my lap and a fast pen in my hand.
A deep breath, and as I looked at the blank white page, words would start to bounce around in my mind, images would appear behind my eyes, my heart would ache inside my ribs, and my pen would begin to move.
So often it was George who flowed through the blue ink. He'd emerge on my page just as he looked every day of my life -- Levis, worn work boots, t-shirt under a heavy, quilt-lined flannel button shirt. Tan, hairy arms, a thick head of hair gone more salt than pepper, a mustache to match. Creases in the corners of his eyes -- laugh and smile lines. Worry lines etched across his forehead because a life lived is often some ratio of joy to sorrow.
Another deep breath and I can smell him: it's the leather of his gloves, boots and wallet, it's cut wood, it's damp soil, it's warm sunshine on a redwood shingles, it's grease and diesel fuel, it's deoderant and aftershave and a lifetime of Head and Shoulders shampoo, it's Tide in the washing mashine, and Dial/Dove/Ivory in the sink.
Another breath and I can feel the warm, soft flannel of his shirt against my cheek, his arms around me in a bear hug.
And in this way, my pen has become my time machine. Ink to paper, my eyes sort of glaze over and I'm looking at something behind my lids... but not just looking back, no it is also smelling, tasting, touching, hearing. Feeling. And yes, looking, too. We, my dad and I, are side by side in his little silver electric car, soaring down the mountain road, the light flashing through the maple and bay leaves, fir and pine needles. I'm driving, and he's beside me in the passenger seat, our twin water bottles between us in the cup holders. Each of us is hidden behind dark sunglasses.
If this is a true memory, the car is bearing us down the hill to Silicon Valley, to an oncology appointment. We are silent with worry, or maybe discomfort. But, I've discovered time travel is a free spirit, not a slave to memory. And so I feel the leather of the steering wheel against my palms and I guide the car north instead, along the crest of the mountain. We follow Skyline Boulevard through Douglas Fir and Madrone, Oaks and Bay trees lining the road. The sun is on my left, way out over the Pacific, hidden by the lower elevation hills and the trees, but I know it is descending toward the horizon out beyond Pescadero and will soon splash red and orange onto the clouds here above us. As we cruise along, we pass through stands of magestic, stead-fast Coastal Redwoods, the sun even more muted here by their giant trunks and skyscraper heights.
Now a fog is rolling in. The little silver car slices through patches of it resting in white cotton-like masses on the highway. As we emerge from the damp white we are suddenly sorrounded by the rolling golden hills that give California her nick name. The Bay Area stretches below out my dad's window, and on my side the hills roll down toward the open sea. We wind along the road, a tiny dot moving along the very edge of the continent.
I slow the car and pause for the stop sign at Highway 84, and then switch on my left turn signal. I ease the car into a parking spot in front of Alice's Restaurant. Tonight the motorcycle hangout is a buzz with mountain locals home from Bay Area jobs and schools. We cross the wide wooden deck and enter by the bar. The atmosphere is casual, relaxed. We take an open booth among the regulars: the single guys at the bar, the families at the tables, one or two dogs lying underneith. It is loud -- conversations mix with a couple flat screen televisions broadcasting baseball games. The Giants on one, the A's on the other.
George takes out his glasses to read the menu, though he almost always orders a variation on a theme: fries, cup of soup, lasagna. Tonight is no different: he gets the pasta, the chicken tortilla soup, the sweet potato fries, and a regular coffee. Meanwhile I mill over the menu, finally choosing the tuna melt, house salad with bleu cheese, and a Chardonnay.
The waitress takes the order and moves away from the table. George puts his glasses back in the hard, black case, and puts it in his breast pocket. He looks acrosss the table at me and smiles.
"So? What's new with April?" I sniff at his use of my name and smile back.
I feel tears pricking my eyes -- but these are tears of the present moment. My time travel machine is weakening, pulling me back to the present. Stay with it!
"I'm ok, Dad. Doing a lot of writing lately."
I bite my lip and a tear betrays me and splashes on the notebook page, and I'm back in my dim living room, alone. But the memory of that car ride and our dinner together feels real enough and I'm grateful for the time spent together tonight.
In this way I get to see -- and smell, and feel, and hear -- my dad often. At first it was every night. Now it is less frequent, maybe once or twice a week, as my need changes. It is always real: the feel of the leather booth seats under my butt, the clink of ice in the plastic water cup in my hand, the greasy smell of burgers frying and ketchup floating in the air.
I'm ok, Dad. I'm writing a book finally.
Well, good for you, April! His smile is full, genuine, creasing the corners of his eyes.
And then the waitress arrives with his soup and my salad, fries for both of us, breaking our eye contact. I sip my wine and we drift in and out of conversation as we eat, laughing now and then, sometimes comfortably silent -- like every other father-daughter pair eating dinner together tonight across the planet.