Joe at the Aquarium
I pushed him so he glided through the fish, the eels, the boxed-in worlds of blues. It was two years before he’d have his own wheelchair and four years before he died. That day, my parents and I drove two hours south to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I was in town on one of the many visits I made to their house near Santa Cruz. My father had just been diagnosed with liver cancer, and the doctors had given him a year to live. He would live for four, but I didn’t know that then. I thought I had twelve months to repair my relationship with this shrinking, graying, and strange man who was my father. I flew back and forth between JFK and SFO over and over and over until I couldn’t.
We rented a wheelchair from the aquarium, and I steered him through the shrieking children. I parked him right up against the glass of one of the tanks. I looked down at his head, at how each strand of hair was combed back and held in place with mousse, and felt the softness of love bloom. I gazed into the aquariums, admiring the otherworldly globe of an octopus’ head, the metronomic opening and closing of a vacant-eyed sea bass’ mouth, the pointy little peek-a-boo teeth of a carnivorous eel. I looked at all the animals, but what I remember most clearly about that day is my father. I remember how his feet, clad in thick socks and practical sandals, rested on the base of the wheelchair; how his small brown hands sat folded in his lap; how the rectangles of his glasses reflected the blues of the contained water and the thin silver specters of sharks, rays, anchovies. He watched the sea life; I watched him.
Toward the end of our visit, we entered the “Open Sea” exhibit, which is perhaps the best part of the aquarium. In it, there are no windows to the outside world. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels hold back a wall of water. It is the closest I have ever felt to being underwater while dry and able to breathe. The exhibit immersed us in shades of shadowy navy, aquamarine, azure, and kelpy greens. The light was dim and the room quiet except for the whispers of excited children and parents pointing at what glided by.
This is where the aquarium kept the larger animals. Child-sized hammerhead sharks swung the spade of their tails back and forth, propelling them forward. Mossy-colored sea turtles the size of coffee tables paddled towards the top with soft, mitten-like flippers. Stingrays rippled through the water with velvety wings. There were smaller creatures, too: yellowfin tuna with golden mohawks and sardines in a school of kitchen-knife bodies. Purple striped jellyfish ebbed by like the glowing organs of an extraterrestrial. They all lived symbiotically in this simulated ocean, doing lap after lap within the huge pool of synthetic bubbles filled with real air.
I parked my father in front of the glass and watched him take it all in. I took a few steps back and snapped a photograph of him with my phone. In it, his head is cocked slightly to the left as he gazes upward at something overhead. He looks peaceful and calm. I remember even then thinking how sweet he looked, with his big brown eyes and the jacket layered over a sweatshirt he always wore to keep warm. In both the photograph and the exhibit, he looked tiny. Once six feet tall, he had shrunk down to somewhere around five-feet-eight-inches and had been steadily losing weight. He looked up at the glass wall separating his own world from an entirely unknown one with something like wonder. Now, looking at that photograph held underneath the glass rectangle of my cell phone screen, I do the same.
My father was a scientist who studied memory and learning in the brain. I hated telling people that he was a neuroscientist because they would act impressed, and I would roll my eyes because the last thing that my father needed was flattery from strangers about how smart he was. Specifically, my father studied the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that forms memories. I regularly think about how odd it is that I excavate my own memories to make sense of him, of us. Dad, I wish I could ask him now, why do I remember that day in the aquarium so vividly but can’t remember what I did the day after you died? I know he would start the answer with Well, kid, but that’s all I can say for sure. My father’s mind was very technical: He was able to teach the intricacies of how the brain worked, but rarely, if ever, apologized. He would probably explain which synapses fired and why when a brain processes hugely significant information like a death. I doubt he would simplify or lead with emotion in his answer. He would not say anything like, Because my death meant your world instantly changed, and you’ll come to realize you did, too.
The morning before he died, I went to the beach. His death had been on the horizon for years and then imminent for days that stretched into weeks. There was a hospital bed in my parents’ living room, and I was regularly FaceTiming my mother so I could see him. I tried not to cry as I looked at the sullen angles of his cheeks, the way his mouth hung open as he slept a deep, night sleep in the bright light of the California afternoon. By then, there were hospice workers at my parents’ house 24/7. They sat by him every hour of the day as my mother tried to sleep, walked the dog, and made food for herself and the hospice workers. It was August of 2020 and there was no way to quarantine. I didn’t want to be alone in an Airbnb mourning in even more solitude than I already was at home. I agonized over the logistics and morality of traveling across the country in a pandemic, until wildfires closed in on the area and made getting there impossible.
Back on the East Coast, my partner Aaron and I drove to a beach we’d never been to and found the water receded in low, low tide. The tide was so far out that naked swaths of sand hosted hundreds of lost periwinkles, slick and shining like winking pupils against the tan beach. Carcasses of horseshoe crabs lay on the ground, arachnid legs angled towards the sun. The bodies of washed-up fish littered the sand; their heads still intact with exposed, spiney white skeletons. The beach reeked of death.
We had driven there because I wanted to go swimming. I wanted to throw myself in the water and come up sputtering and reeling with the shock of the cold and the immersion in salt. I wanted to glide through the Atlantic, weightless, and come out of the water sparkling. I wanted to let the ocean’s spit dry on my skin. I wanted its residue to cake onto my collarbone and into my hair as salty evidence of having hurled my entire body into the unknown. I wanted a wave to knock me down against the sand, to leave bruises on my thighs, to make me scrape my knees. I wanted to float on my back and stare at the blue of the sky, to kick my feet and plunge into the ink of the water. I wanted to dive into anything else.
I got in up to my calves. The water was warm and stagnant and didn’t seem clean, especially with everything that had washed up onto the shore. I took cautious steps out on the sharp floor of the ocean, trying not to put weight on the shells and rocks that nicked at my bare feet. A white family of four turned and looked at me, and I wondered if this was one of those beaches where you’re not supposed to swim. I padded onto the sand, zipped my shorts up and slid my shoes back on. Aaron and I walked back to the car and drove home. I got into the shower. By the time I turned the water off, my father had exhaled and didn’t inhale again.
Truth be told, I was frequently irritated with my father, and I’m sure that day at the aquarium was no exception. He was very stubborn. Things only ran on his schedule, though he had no respect for clocks or appointment times. He was in constant pain and prone to lashing out or snapping at my mother and me, which I can have more compassion for now that it’s over. He liked being at the center of everything and didn’t think about how his actions affected anyone else. He didn’t notice how my mother and I regularly arranged our schedules and days around him, wasn’t one to say something as simple as Thank you.
When I was younger, we clashed over the most minuscule things, and thus, there was still tension about everything. When he was mean, I was meaner; his words venomous, mine fanged. Ultimately, I moved out the August I was eighteen, putting the whole country between us. He was selfish and frustrating and had been the whole time, long before his cancer diagnosis. But I was, or am, selfish and frustrating, too. I am still his daughter even if he is no longer here to tell me when I’m being selfish, angry, irresponsible. I am still angry—both at him and for him—but I am trying to be less selfish, trying to be more responsible. I am still all these things even though he is no longer here to be any of them. I am still his daughter even if he is no longer here to tell me that he loves me, too.
The liver is integral to brain function, which I didn’t know before. He was first diagnosed with cirrhosis, which occurs when healthy cells in the liver are replaced by scar tissue and is most frequently caused by drinking. Although not always, it commonly evolves into liver cancer, which is one of the most lethal.
My father’s march towards death was often loopy. He had trouble following the plot of a movie, pausing it frequently to ask who was who or what had happened. He misremembered sequences of events and absorbed stories that my mother told him as his own. That’s where we saw the dolphins, he would state matter-of-factly, if we were talking about a particular beach. No, Joe, she would respond, her voice laced with irritation, that’s where I saw the dolphins. My father never went on beach walks with my mother and me; he always waited in the air-conditioned car, usually asleep.
He had moments of clarity. On good days, he cracked dry jokes and could carry a conversation. On bad ones, he would spend the entire day dozing on and off or saying things that didn’t make sense. On really bad days, he would hallucinate creatures (dogs, witches, babies). In the last month, he turned to my mother and put a hand on his salt and pepper head. He asked her, Where did I go? When she assured him that he was right there, that she was right there, he simply said, It’s gone.
My father believed in science like people believe in God. He must have known in the beginning what was happening to him: that his memories were slowly starting to erode, his cognitive abilities getting fuzzier and fuzzier as time went on. Until what? Did everything float away peacefully? All of the encyclopedic facts he always had ready to go about the brain and space and the history of New Mexico? Or did he suddenly wake up with a void where his analytical mind used to be?
My father had always seemed most at peace at night, where he spent hours in front of the blue glow of the television, a full glass of red wine (scotch when I was younger) permanently on the side table to his right. Both cursed with nocturnal circadian rhythms, my father and I frequently stayed up until the early hours of the morning when I would visit. The murmur of whatever movie or show was on served as white noise as the wine made its way down our throats and climbed back out of our mouths in the form of words. Conversations with him were the easiest when we were drunk, and it was alcohol that allowed us this ease. It was also alcohol that altered the clarity of my memories. Awash in the blue hue of the television in the living room, I found the most honest version of my father. Glass by glass, I kept him company as his body worked to replace his healthy liver cells with scar tissue. I unscrewed the bottles of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Malbec. I poured one glass after another, maybe because he seemed to like me the best in these moments. Cloaked in the liquid of the booze, we were two of the same shadowy creatures. I’ve never felt more like his daughter than I did in the middle of the night.
An aquarium is what we call the building that houses many smaller aquariums. We go to the aquarium to see different tanks of all sorts of sea creatures, we peer into their houses and marvel at their serpentine bodies, their iridescent neon scales with wonder, with fear, with awe. That’s what his death felt like, one moment that encompassed the multitudes of moments leading up to it. When I say, My dad died last August; he was sick for a long time, I’m saying that each missed call from either of my parents felt like a hurricane of anxiety and dread. I’m saying that I was running on adrenaline for four years and designed my life to make sure I could up and fly to California at a moment’s notice. I’m saying that I am still wrapping my head around the fact that my father will have only been a part of my life for twenty-eight years, many of which I didn’t even like him. I’m saying that I rushed myself into forgiveness and am now swimming through the aftermath of blurry ambivalence and wishing that I had asked more questions.
I’m saying that he’s still a favorite in my phone despite his line being disconnected. I’m saying that I had a dream that felt so real that I was crying for two days straight. I’m saying that until then, I didn’t think I loved him enough to be slapped across the cheek with grief months later. I’m saying that I look at the tiny blue urn containing his ashes on the top of my bookshelf every day. I’m saying that I wish he did better, that we did better.
Now, I look at that photograph of my father bathed in blue, with his tilted head and folded hands. I didn’t know that I loved him the entire time, but I realize that I did. Of course I did.
My father died last August.
Once, we went to an aquarium.
Rumpus original art by Genevieve Anna Tyrrell.