The phlebotomist gently pats on the hollow of my elbow, first one and then the other, trying to find the best vein from which to draw blood vials. When she finally decides on an arm I deliberately look away. I am not going to faint or react in any external way but I dislike needles and dislike having punctures. I know in the moment I turn my head that in my nature (and my beaky nose and beady eyes) I have so much of my father in me. I remember how many times I saw him do the same, turn away patiently, almost like a dog that is suffering but does so in quiet as that’s the only way he’s known.
I have not physically suffered as much as my father did, of course. I remember watching him dealt with, a colostomy bag and endless shots and IVs and PICCs and shunts and all kinds of poisons and procedures. I remember him turning patiently away so many times.
It’s his birthday today. Were he still alive, he would have turned 67. How I bitterly wish I’d have spent the last couple weeks obsessively searching for a gift, and thinking Would he like it?, and it’s just kind of a game that makes no sense (see: Sumatran coffee, I need to write this story down some time) because he didn’t seem to need presents or gifts or much of anything. He’d be pleased because he loved me and I loved him; the gift was a little ritual of mine and that’s all. But it would be joyous for me to buy him a gift and think of him and guess how he’d take it and then take delight in how unimpressed he was (but after all the joking and unwrapping and beer-drinking or whatever he always looked kindly at me and said, “Thank you”). I miss the joy I took in this giving, especially these days when it feels I have fallen a bit flat at recognizing milestones for others and showing generosity. Babies are born, birthdays pass, people move, and I feel I am not honoring these moments in the way I used to.
Honoring the moments, that is definitely a gift my father’s illness and death imparted. The bloodwork I sit through today reminds me of a special time in my life; the categoric kindness and care these two professionals afford me this morning remind me of the almost categoric ministry that medical and death professionals showed him, my mother and me, during the years of my father’s illness, treatment, and death. I was with them as much as I could be – traveling from Port Townsend, then moving to Hoquiam and visiting him at chemo and surgeries and routine or not-so-routine errands. I’m glad for every moment I took. Every moment. It felt like these experiences were uniquely treasured by me at least, a nurse in faded, bright scrubs smelling clean and antiseptic and maintaining a glorious balance of cheer, and love, and impersonal, compassionate care. This nurse, these many nurses, bright canvases reflecting back to us our love and care for this man.
He is gone now and yet today he is with me often, or thoughts of him are. It would have felt spooky or even odd except it felt so grounding and sad. At nine thirty I am able to break my bloodwork fast with hot black coffee and a salami sandwich on crusty french bread. I drive the sun-spackled highway in total peace and quiet in the big old truck (the kids are home sleeping for the entirety of my morning errands) and I feel like he’s in the car with me. Later I sit in on a talent show audition and my kids are still for only this act: a skinny young man plays a slide-blues guitar version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”, a standard my father loved (he once asked me to find the Muddy Waters track for him). The boy doesn’t sing but plays energetically, gaining confidence, a thumping good rendition too. I don’t like blues but my father did. I think how much he would have liked to see this young man, whose joy for the music flies off his fingertips and shakes off his long hair. A last hit on the strings, then the young man smiles in pleasure at his own performance, the feedback from the judges mattering less than the guitar, its own reward.
Tonight, just now as I type, my daughter puts “Teaser and the Firecat” on the hi-fi. We haven’t listened to vinyl in months nor this album for a year. But both the phonograph and Cat Stevens were favorites of my father. He used to enjoy selecting album after album and playing while my mother, brother and I talked on the couch. This was family life for me as much as anything else.
Tonight I feel my father’s presence and it feels like sadness and joy and something never gained again.
Me haces falta, mi padre.