I stop at the borders of dreams.
I ask who you are, whispering
in my ear all these years, you
to whom I’ve said all I can say.
I hold my two hands upward
toward the light now sifting
from the air. That is the shape
of eternity: five long fingers
and a palm broadened and carved
–Philip Levine, “Burned”
This photo of you was taken in 1988. You are twenty-seven years old here, standing in front of a Chevy pickup. A cigarette is dangling between your fingers and the smoke from it is rising up so that it looks like a ghost is posing next to you. You are grinning at me from inside there, your mouth tilted beneath your mustache with the kind of look you would give us whenever you knew something the rest of us didn’t, as if you are fully aware you have already lived half your life by the time this picture has been taken.
At least two hundred people must have showed up to your wake, all of them holding their hands out one at time, telling those of us who stood in front of your casket how they knew you. I held myself together until a woman twice your age came walking up, smiling at me as she wrapped her arms around Mom and then me, whispering as she came close, saying, “I used to diaper your daddy.”
The night you died you woke from a dreamless sleep and went straight to the toilet where you began to vomit. You clutched your chest instead of your stomach. Mom noticed this. She said, “I’m taking you to the emergency room.”
“Can we talk about it later?” you said. You took in a deep breath and heaved again and after that you said, “I’m kind of in the middle of something.” When you were done you stumbled out of the bathroom and told Mom to put the phone down. You told her you were fine. You said if she called an ambulance out to the house that you’d just send them away.
After that you went down to the garage to smoke. Two days later I would stand right there where you had stood that night. I’d look over your workbench at the piles of mail and paper coffee cups, spare keys and cracked sunglasses, old lottery tickets, empty packets of Marlboro. On the corner of your workbench lay a small blue flashlight older than me. I hadn’t seen this relic in twenty-five years but I knew it had once belonged to Mom’s dad; I knew that you had stood near his things like this the day he died all those years ago and that you had tucked it into your back pocket before you forced yourself to leave back then. You emerged from his garage that day and took me by the hand and put me in the car and we drove up to the liquor store where I waited in the front seat as you went in and bought a 24-pack of Coors. I remember seeing that exact flashlight peeking at me from your back pocket as you walked inside. When we got back to the house I watched you hand out cans to the family as they arrived one at a time, and I remember thinking about how much it reminded me of the communion I saw at Mass every Sunday. As I stood over your things the day after you took your last breath, I reached out and took one of the Marlboro packets between my fingers. It crumbled when I held it, empty and thin, and I waved it in front of my nose and breathed you in. I slid that packet into my glove box when I left. I’ll never take it out of there. I halfway wonder if one of my own children might find it years from now whenever something happens to me, and I wonder if they’ll know what it is or if they’ll think I had secretly taken up the habit.
You showered after having a smoke. There was a pain high between your ribs. It was a new pain. So you said, “Okay,” to Mom as you stepped out of the shower. “I guess I’ll have to let you drive me.” You slipped into a pair of boxer shorts and then you sat in the recliner you had not long ago dragged next to your side of the bed in place of a nightstand. You ran your electric shaver over your face. Mom combed your hair for you. She’d part your hair and comb down the back. When she was done she would move away to get into her own pair of jeans. That’s when it happened.
When they finally let us see you that night you had tubes growing out of your mouth and they told us that they were sorry but they couldn’t remove them until the coroner examined you. They said this was because you were so young and had no known health conditions. You’d have hated this, your mouth agape in this way and tiny stains of blood outlining the edges of your lips, and a part of me expected you to reach up to your face and pull those tubes out and toss them into the trash and turn to us and say, “Let’s go, let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Can you close his eyes?” Mom said. “Can you please just close his eyes?” The nurse nodded and stepped forward and pressed his fingers over your eyelids. A droplet fell from each eye when he did this. No one could look away from you when this happened, the drops sliding down your cheeks and clinging like dew to the whiskers you’d missed when you’d shaved.
We all walked out together. We looked up as we moved. A handful of stars watched us behind a ripped black canvas of clouds. It started to rain as we all got to our cars. The skies poured down globs of heavy rain that burst out like tiny bombs around us. You wouldn’t have liked this part of the story; you’d have thought it was the one part I made up. You’d have said I couldn’t resist. You’d have wanted me to take it out.
Three years ago you lost your own father. Your suit didn’t fit. Somehow it was too big on you, too baggy in the shoulders and waist. You’d lost weight even though you’d always been thin. So you bought a new one, a plain black one that fit just right and you wore it as we stood there at his service and carried him up the hill on a snowy March day to the place where we’d leave him. You’d pick up all the spent shells after the men from the American Legion fired twenty-one blank rounds toward the tree branches, and you’d come up to me and place one in my hand. I put my forehead against the shoulder of this new suit as you put your hand over mine, this suit you would wear as we carried you down the hill on a warm and windy April day five days after that night at the hospital, the same hill where you’d once sat with your own grandfather when you were a boy and the two of you watched the trains scrape over the nearby rails.
You sat there in your recliner that night. You were showered and shaved, your hair was combed, and Mom stood on the other side of the bed. She looked down for her shoes. When she would look up you would be lowering yourself onto the bed and she would be witnessing your very last second of life on this earth. You would be there, on your side of the bed, both hands low against your chest, almost at your stomach, and you would make eye contact with her as you whispered the final thing you’d ever say. She would hear the rattle of your final breath; the sound of this would send her fleeing, running out of the house, screaming as she went next door, yelling for help.
In the second that you stood from your chair, just before the pain really hit you one last time, you had decided to push yourself onto the bed, because you thought maybe if you could just rest there for a minute that you might feel better and that everything would be all right. You were so tired, you thought to yourself, and while you waited on Mom to finish getting dressed you thought it might be good to rest your eyes for just a moment before heading out. You knew the doctors were going to admit you. It was going to be a long night, you thought. That’s when you felt the final twinge of pain you’d ever feel, and you spoke during your last breath. Mom told me later that you said the most ordinary of all words. You said, “Oh.”
I left for the hospital as soon as I hung up the phone with Mom. I got there at the same time as the ambulance. They pulled into the circle drive as I found a parking spot and eyed you from a hundred feet away. I got out at the same time as the paramedics. They threw open the double doors like a pair of hollow shutters and they rolled you out of there, walked you inside and around a corner. I ran up to the ambulance and looked inside. “What were you looking for?” you’d have said. And I would have told you I wasn’t sure. One of the paramedics came walking up behind me. He asked if I was all right. “That’s my dad,” was all I could say, pointing inside. He stepped close to me and told me that they had worked hard on you, that they had gotten your heart going. He told me you were fighting. It wouldn’t be until weeks later, until this exact moment as I type these thoughts into words, that I have pushed away from my desk and sat here and realized that I was the last person of those you loved who saw you while you still had a heartbeat.
As I sit here at this desk and think about this, I am drawn to this picture of you again, at you looking back at me from another time and place, and I trace my finger over your face and I try to imagine what happened right after this picture was taken. I imagine it was Mom who took it. “Get one picture of me with this pickup before we sell it,” is what I hear you saying before it was taken. You loved that Chevy. It was the one you and Mom drove around town in, the one you camped out of, worked out of, a truck in which you stored boots and hammers and fishing poles and six packs and cartons of cigarettes. I imagine myself standing next to Mom, near her knee, and after it was taken I came running up to you. You would be able to get one more drag from your cigarette before I got there and you flicked it away to burn out in the gravel as you crouched down and picked me up. You would hold me close to you, my arms wrapping around your neck, my cheek grating against your whiskers, and you would press me tight against your chest so that the heart of your four year old son was aligned with your own heart, and you would rest your chin on top of my head. Our hearts would beat across from each other like the intake valves beneath the hood of that Chevy. “No,” you would say if you were reading this over my shoulder right now. “Change that. Say our heartbeats drummed. Say each beat drummed into one another as if to keep the other going.” That’s right, I say to my dad as he looks out at me from that photo. I tell him it’s like he was trying to feel my heartbeat with his own.
Feature photograph provided courtesy of author. Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.