Saturday, May 22, 2010

RELIQUARY: THE HARD, PERSONAL WORK OF DYING

THIS ESSAY APPEARED ON THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER'S OP-ED PAGE ON APRIL 28, 2003. UNFORTUNATELY, IT'S JUST AS RELEVANT TODAY.
 
It’s a simple gesture. In the newspaper photo, an Iraqi man squats between two rough wooden coffins, his arms spread wide.  In each box a small body is loosely wrapped in a coarse blanket. A shiny knob, perhaps a charred anklebone, protrudes from one. Each of the man’s palms bears a planet of grief. I do not need the caption to tell me these are the bodies of his children.
Why does his posture disturb me?  In the past weeks, there have been so many available images of war on TV, on the Internet: artillery shells streaking like apocalyptic UFO’s into the burning desert. Images of survivors; a four-year-old shot in the head clings to her father’s hand, her sweet face crumpled like a piece of cast-off fruit. Americans weep in Wyoming, in Kansas, New Jersey.  In a close-up photo, a young woman in Kirkuk washes her husband’s marble-colored face with small hard tears. 
The Iraqi father extends his arms as if to opposing points of the globe.  His grief invokes my private tears.  Before the US declared war on Iraq, my own father lived in a nursing home in Germantown.  He received first-rate care, but no one could do his job for him. He was engaged in the hard work of dying.
He was also a man whom words had failed.  They said it was caused by the Parkinson’s; they said it was the Alzheimer’s, but a few months before his death he spoke no more than whispered, unfinished phrases. No more conversation with this voracious reader, a man who had studied journalism in college and later crafted words for advertising.


From my father I tried to learn the eloquence of gesture and mute blue eyes.  I’d stand by his hospital bed.  While I untangled his sand-colored blanket, the machine for his 24-hour tube feeding clicked, clicked, fell silent, clicked. His palms up, his arms extended, he tried to revive his familiar and decorous greeting.  Or perhaps he was trying to tell me what it was like: How it is for a man to regress into infancy.  Maybe a boyhood memory of cabin-building in Colorado had popped open in his head.  Or maybe he was just thirsty.  I looked for the pink swabs. 
“It’s okay, Dad,” I’d say.  “I understand.” But how could I?  We no longer spoke the same language.  A television flickered in his room, which was warm as a desert.  I was glad for the distraction of TV, for it’s hard to rivet attention on someone who does not speak.  I kept the set tuned to the forced happiness of game shows, avoiding the buildup to war.  His hands were full enough already.
He became agitated.  He plucked doggedly at the blanket. I felt helpless, as if he wanted me to change its color.  He liked to be read to; I pawed through my handbag. Wanting to offer him control over something, I asked him if the Bible would be okay.  Yes, He growled. 
Psalm 102 was a random choice.  Hear my prayer, O Lord¼Incline thine ear to me¼for my days have been consumed in smoke, and my bones are scorched like a hearth.  My heart has been smitten like grass and withered away, I forget to eat my bread¼


I stopped reading. “Do you ever feel that way, Dad?” Suddenly I saw a blue flare of understanding, even relief, in his eyes.   He spread his arms again. His hands indicated the railing of his bed, his roommate dozing in his wheelchair with his back to us, the thin sunlight that hesitated through slanted blinds. 
I took his bony hand.  I wanted my touch to say that someone was in it with him.  He pulled away; he’d been sensitive about touch recently.  Again, he showed me how his life had collapsed around him like a tent, his palms indicating the points of his remembered world.  The Iraqi man in the photograph had tilted his hands in just that way.              “I understand,” I said, and this time I meant it. 
Now, with so many images of war spreading open in our minds, there are more of us who understand.








3 comments:

Rich Sidney said...

Nice essay. I really liked your father. I am sorry he is gone.

HelenQP said...

Merci...

"It's a hard rain gonna fall..."

catherinestine said...

Beautiful post, Helen. My father had two or three surges of clarity just before he passed. One occurred when I showed him a news headline of Obama getting elected. My dad's eyes cleared and he said, "It's a good day!" and then he sank back into blankness. The second time was when I had lunch with him, and he started to scat sing as if he was a trumpet!
I will always remember those moments.