Or The Father, The Lover, The Cat
I tell my eldest niece—who has just confessed, all sprawled teeth and rollercoaster curls, that she does not like poetry—that this is fine, as she can’t read my poetry until she’s at least eighteen anyways. Especially because I wouldn’t want it to make her sad. She tells me I should write more happy poems. Also, she rushes to include, more poems about cats.
She does not yet know her grandfather is dying. She does not know his white blood count dive-bombed so low, a few weeks ago, that he almost slipped away from us. She does not know how hard I try to keep from crying when I watch him sweep her up in his arms, and carousel her in circles.
I’m one state and seventy-two miles away, left to learn news about my dad in dribbles—days, sometimes weeks, after things happen. I try, desperately, to be kept in the loop, but am repeatedly knocked just to the side of it, wheels askew. I feel like an afterthought to my family much of the time, but don’t think they intend to make me feel this way. Still, I clutch my mother’s perfumed shawl, grab onto the excess fabric of my sister’s flowing sweater sleeves.
Everything scares me these days. Anyone who knows me will tell you everything already scared me, that I came away from being sick just sort of lopsided, but now I’m really scared. How do we get up, move through these days, how do we face the infinite, tiny shatterings of existence?
I wiggle hips, line up knees. I cannot be entirely sure that I understand motion any longer.
Exposure to the train is too dangerous for my father, and I stopped driving years ago. I take an overpriced Uber back to my apartment from my parents’ house. You, my love, will meet me at my home.
On the way back, I’m cracked in two. Part of me suffused with the nightlight glow that a good evening with family flushes through you. Part of me stuck on the conversation with my dad in the kitchen, just before leaving.
Dad, have you gotten a chance to look at the website for the hospital Dr. Y. recommended? My father shuffles in place: I did glance at a couple things. I’ve been really busy lately. I don’t ask him what could possibly be more important than saving his own life. It’s too cliché, it sticks in my throat, and besides, he wouldn’t react well. I do my best to talk science to him; the astrophysicist, the man with experiments still orbiting space. Tell him about trials for his condition, tiptoe around terminology I barely understand, urge him (gently, gently) to check it out.
My mom seemed surprised he’d looked at the website at all, came damn close to calling him a liar. I wonder how it feels when your husband of fifty-five years is one of a four-in-one-million lottery for a rare and fatal disease. With odds like those, you know Nature has a sick sense of humor when it comes to you. My mom is not me, so is not suddenly afraid of lightning bolts, fault lines, or freak occurrences with toasters. I wonder if she’s angry, or just unbearably sad. In an email, she called our family lucky, said there are much worse and faster ways to go.
As a child, I wanted to go wherever my father did—hardware store, ice cream store, laboratory. Now he is going somewhere I can’t follow.
The Uber sputters to a stop, and I stumble through the overdecorated lobby, up the elevator, and home, tired as only family can make you tired, kicking off my pink platforms, curling back into the warmth of my apartment. You join me in the living room, kiss my neck, but it’s really the grey and white cupcake of a cat you’re after, that vixen, Ice Cream Muffin.
You are a lot of firsts for me—first time I watch six hours of Marvel movies in a row, first time in years I genuinely try to trust someone new—but let us not forget that you’re also my first partner to have such a distinct relationship with each of my cats. Romantic courtship with one, frenzied ear scratches with another, and a bitter, only semi-fictional rivalry with the third.
Watching you cradle Ice Cream Muffin to your chest, laughing with you at the utter weirdness of my three cats, something tugs at my heart as delicately as a Buddhist monk’s hands at work on a sand mandala, as he chants just above his breath, asking for blessings. Doesn’t this metaphor understand?
You are the blessing.
When I got sick, when inconceivable shudders of pain glued me to a mattress for eleven years, my father sent me an email entitled: A Scientific Hypothesis Of How To Get My Daughter Better. Luckily, I knew us both well enough to wait years to read it. There were some decent suggestions, some solid points made. But mostly, I laughed at the absurdity of his logic. So relieved to be better enough to laugh, it’s as if a tunnel of gratitude shimmered through the place where my uterus used to be.
Now my father is sick, and I write poems about him—poetry, which he understands about as well as I understand astrophysics. We’ve laughed over this, staticky animal reverb on his end of the phone, the last man alive to use a landline.
When he gets sick, starts chemo, gets weekly platelet infusions, and wears a strange injection robot stuck to his forearm, I write ceaseless poems about it. I show him parts I know he’d approve of, but have to wonder about the rest. Would he, as I did of him, find my logic absurd? The abuse in our past is forgiven on my end, and maybe forgotten on his. He might find me downright nonsensical.
A Poet and An Astrophysicist Walk Into A Bar. There’s a joke there somewhere.
When my dad starts taking more pills, I start forgetting to take mine. This is entirely uncharacteristic of me. A classic mental health warning sign, my therapist would say.
Perhaps there’s a daily allotment of pills my family can take, and we’ve simply gone over it.
I can’t seem to drink enough water, eat full meals, or keep my chemicals level. When I move, I feel clumsy like a fiddler crab, scuttling and graceless and sideways.
It took six months, but I can sleep next to you now, love. Can even sleep through the night; through your adorable, squirrel-sized snores. A nearly impossible feat for me, no matter how much I care for someone. I must trust you more than I can consciously fathom. What a delight: To realize with body before mind. To sweep deeper than one knew possible.
On my forty-first birthday, you tell me you love me—pour the words into my mouth, mid-kiss. No gift can top that. Later, we wear matching plaid pajamas and eat mermaid birthday cake. You laugh: This is the cutest thing I’ve ever done. I wipe blue frosting from the corners of your smiling mouth.
Have I mentioned I am scared of everything these days?
You are a short walk to a steep cliff, but you hold my hand, all five fingers interlaced with mine, as we look down at the waves hurling themselves against the steel stones beneath us.
Ice Cream Muffin slept curled next to my pillow, paws wrapped around my arms, for the first month she lived with me.
She came to me bone-thin, fleas and dirt specks in her candy-spun fur, un-spayed, with a broken tail, and a cracked tooth that would later decay and have to be removed. When I opened the cage at the shelter, she threw herself into my arms, wrapped her paws around my shoulders, and purred for fifteen minutes straight.
Once she realized I wasn’t going anywhere, and would, in fact, keep feeding her, she began to sleep in other corners of the house. In the rose velvet chair next to my bed. Atop the pile of green and purple vintage dresses in my closet. Tucked like a tiny kitty ouroboros onto the perfect azure circle of my inherited, mid-century Modernist chair.
I thought Muffin and I had a good thing going, but then you came along. I’m not really a cat person you said, and I frowned on the outside, nodding knowingly on the inside. I liked you so much, so fast, and so did Muffin. Sure enough, soon you were murmuring I’ve never loved a cat before as you stroked her in wonder.
Muffin does not even try to hide her blatant preference for you over me. When you come to visit, she follows you from room to room, mewing pitifully. She purrs so loudly, we can hear it from across the living room.
How could I possibly blame her? We are after the same man. True, your boisterous laughter delights me where it frightens her, causes her to bound into the next room. But we have both stared into the same nutmeg eyes. We have both purred audibly in response.
On our first date, you dropped two straws, one receipt two times, and a bottlecap, all in the span of a few minutes. You flushed cherry tomato, and I found it so endearing that I blushed too.
The whole of Belvedere Square before us—an entire shop for fermented goods, a vegan chocolatier, steaming ramen, brick oven pizza—you ate a smoked salmon BLT with grape soda in a glass bottle. You fiddled with the bottlecap until I took it from you, tucked it into my wallet, an artifact that would come to mean more than we could have imagined. I ate a Caesar salad with extra croutons and boxed water, wishing the whole time for a Mexican Coke.
We sat outside at metal tables, in metal chairs, and the wind blew your silvered-brown hair from waves into curls. You began to calm down when I started asking you questions about X-Men. Magneto, Cyclops, Storm. These fictional characters, the quickest way to even your actual pulse.
Later, you murmured into my lips: I haven’t felt like this in so long.
I didn’t trust it at first—but oh—I felt it too.
Before we even met in person, we bonded over dad trauma. You knew I’d forgiven mine years ago, knew he’d changed in ways few do. But you also knew altogether too well that there was lasting damage. (You aren’t interested in forgiving your father. He is a make of monster that simply stays monster.)
So, when my father fell ill, I think you expected me to be more conflicted. But that’s the thing about forgiveness. Give it wholesale, or not at all.
In terms of loving my father, in terms of spending what time he has left with him: I have put the anger down. I doubt it has evaporated, and it will probably return when I want it least—but it no longer lingers, sticky on my palms, or sits under my tongue, no longer waits to be unleashed like a bullet from between my teeth.
My father is a firm believer in herding cats. He had that rarest specimen of feline some decades ago, a Siamese named Petrushka. She could be trained, would obey. I call them dog-cats.
Now he thinks it’s just a matter of a few loud words, a sternly pointed finger. He’s quite sure every cat can be trained with ease.
Ice Cream Muffin eats her breakfast, dinner, and treats in three separate corners of the house. She poops in the bathtub once a day, and nothing, not even those expensive plug-ins that I’m convinced are just cucumber water, stops her.
He thinks if I simply stop feeding her in these chosen spots, she’ll come to me. Boy howdy, he does not know this cat.
Which is funny, because you and I often talk about how alike Muffin and I are. She’s afraid of even more things than me, has been known to scatter at the sound of crinkling paper, a Chinese takeout bag simply too much.
It didn’t happen overnight. The forgiveness, that is. It didn’t even happen in a year. I’m not sure I can point to the particular alchemy that drops the weight of anger from my aching shoulders. After being bed-bound for eleven years, I am estranged from my father for eleven months. Not out of resentment, but out of desperate hope for that quiet fanfare of forgiveness. He grows old. I grow tired of anger. In those eleven months, I live in a therapeutic community, surrounded by an ever-changing array of rich people with mood disorders.
When I get the surgery that saves my life, that reels me finally out of bed, a fish eager to dance anywhere but underwater, we are still not talking. He sends a lush array of pink and purple blooms; calla lilies and roses and tulips all in ecstatic concert; to the hospital in Atlanta.
Once we begin talking again, there are a lot of overstuffed blue chairs involved in the process. Thighs sticking to cheap plastic, the kind of furniture you almost only find in hospitals. Which is to say, a lot of therapy, both family and individual. My father almost dying the first time also seems to fundamentally change him. He speaks more softly. He listens more closely. He becomes more attuned to nonverbal cues. You never know what unexpected gifts death might leave at your door, if only you manage to survive that first booming knock.
My father and I know this, both.
If we’re being simplistic, I’d say it was a heady combination of love, therapy, and persistence that pulled my father and I through. But there was something mystical about the whole thing, something much more like surrender than persistence. Now here I am, five years out of bed. Opening into a new love, just as Freud would say my first is leaving me.
The night I learn my father has incurable leukemia is the same night he finally teaches me exactly what a Phillips-head screwdriver is. (Ask him, however, and you’ll probably learn he actually tried to teach me a dozen times, or two.) Because he is my father, he is bent over my broken gold lamp, trying to fix it, less than an hour after telling me he will likely leave us soon.
It is not true that my father made us stop on dimes when we learned to drive, but it is true that he made us stop on quarters. He stole orange cones from a construction site, made us perfect our parallel parking between them. My sister was forced to learn to drive in his ancient beast of a black Ford pickup truck, but luckily, by the time it was my turn, the stick shift was so hard to move that it took my entire weight just to wrench it from one position to the next.
I was allowed to learn to drive in the family station wagon, but mind you, still had to halt Marine-tight on quarters, still had to park perfectly between leering orange cones.
Can I confess here that I never understood when my father explained how to check the oil? I could make no sense of the viscous black goo, nor of the words coming from his fevered mouth. My father swears I was a whiz with numbers early on, that he could’ve sworn I was going to become a mathematician.
I hear the longing in his voice when he tells this story thirty-odd years later: Who is this daughter he’s been left with, this poet, this one-time porn star, this pink pixie, this creature as opposite from him as might be possible?
(Don’t worry. I know he loves me.
Despite the poems.
Despite the years as a porn star.
Despite the fact that we spent most
of my teenage years screaming at one another
until our throats were raw as sandpaper.
Don’t worry. I know.)
You and my father are very little alike, love. But you both hate when I’m in pain, and you both hate when you can’t do anything about it.
I sometimes think if I let him, my father would unwind my body like a clock, test the cogs and springs, see what he might be able to fix with some good old-fashioned duct tape. Instead, he used to bring me bars of dark chocolate, then darker, making a game of my love for bitter, seeing how dark I could take it.
You mostly try to make me laugh, distract me, take me out of the moment as best you can. Early in our relationship, you bought two bottles of lotion—one in bergamot and neroli, one in tea tree and lavender—so you could rub my sore back.
The cool lotion spills down my spine, your hands sliding through it in waves. I picture children making snow angels on my back. Maybe you’re even less like my father than I thought.
You just sit with me. You just let me be, even if that means being in pain.
I have known my father is sick for fifteen minutes. He says he could be angry, or he could consider himself lucky. He chooses to consider himself lucky. Astrophysicist turned armchair philosopher in his later years, I don’t tell him how angry I am.
Don’t tell him I want to hijack a hospital and tell them he is not too old for a bone marrow transplant, then demand that they please, look please, take mine.
I just fight the furrow forming on my brow, keep my face as smooth as possible. I just listen to my dad, whose doctor calls him the healthiest eighty-year-old he’s ever met, and marvel that he is not, after all, eternal.
It will be several weeks before my sister tells me the truth my parents awkwardly skirted: A bone marrow transplant has a 50/50 chance of working at my father’s age, and the recovery is brutal. Meanwhile, the chemo has a 70% chance of working—though for how long, we can’t know.
It’s also only later that I learn my sister, too, pushed hard to be a bone marrow donor. Never before have we wanted so much to give my father something he simply cannot use.
Because of his work as a scientist in decades past, my father was exposed to radiation in amounts that would be prohibited nowadays. Due to his exposure to said radiation, he did not develop Spidey powers or Hulk strength. Instead, he developed something called aplastic anemia. Mayo Clinic says this is “A rare condition in which the body stops producing enough new blood cells.” My father’s veins have stopped finishing their sentences.
It started when I was still so sick, myself, I was not leaving my bedroom even to eat. And so, I do not know it the first time my father almost dies. The guilt of this still gluts my throat.
After seven years of living with aplastic anemia, which is categorized as very rare, my father’s body decides to level up to something even rarer. Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia: “A type of cancer that starts in blood-forming cells of the bone marrow, and invades the blood.” So says cancer dot com.
My father’s doctor says the aplastic anemia essentially transformed itself into leukemia. I want to argue with this logic. Transformations, the gendered little girl in me insists, are only for beautiful things. Butterflies and swans and fairy princesses with crowns of fireflies.
But no. Apparently, transformations can also be brutal, be final, be last fucking call.
It is early enough in March for the cold to still ache my jaw and chap my bare thighs, and my father is dying, and nobody knows if it will be fast or slow, but he was building literal bridges what seems like yesterday, and it is also true: I am newly in love, and have three very weird cats I adore beyond reason.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that my niece was right, and the happy and the cats do matter quite a lot. As does the love, I told her, a single fist parked on jutted hip as she groaned and rolled her eyes: Eww.
So no, niece of the maniacal laughter, niece of the bottomless energy, niece of the self-esteem only someone under twelve can pull off: I can’t promise you I’ll write less sad poems. Not with so many dead behind me. Not with so many close ahead.
But I can promise to also write more happy poems. More poems that mention how much Ice Cream Muffin loves bacon from Five Guys, or that she attacks her own reflection in the bedroom mirror, waking us up with the terrific racket of the whole thing.
More poems that talk about what it’s like to ripen like onion grass in an early Spring, sharp and sweet and overcome.