A Little Night Music
Chris and I were alone again in torpid August heat, the sun dipping slightly in its southerly course but scalding the earth. Dad was tenuously balanced between here, with us, his champions and light, and his event horizon, which was near but murky. We had not foreseen so many stutters and halts on Dad’s path to the exit; dying turned out to be a much larger issue than cancer wreaking havoc on Dad’s organs. It was now nothing more, nor nothing less, than a battle with time and love.
Love really does conquer all. Love was conquering everything outside this island of waiting.
Chris was pining for a girl. He knew that it was not the time for a new romance. He also knew that he needed something away from this, away from here, to look forward to, something which had nothing to do with either Dad or Portland or even his job where he could focus some of his attentions. The person upon who he hung his affection was a girl he met on his movie shoot in June, right before he came back to watch Dad fall apart. They had spent three magical days together, and then Chris left for Portland.
He had, in a romantic and perhaps unrealistic way, been trying to make something of it, despite the evidence that this was not really possible under these circumstances. Not only was he living through the most challenging, emotionally distressing event of his life, but she, so far away, not even in Vancouver, was extricating herself from a problematic relationship. And yet, because Chris was so utterly distressed, he couldn’t get his mind off of her.
She was similarly infatuated, though perhaps rooted more firmly on the earth. And when Chris hatched a plan to visit her, she was thrilled because it meant that she was free of her failed romance and onto something new. He needed to be elsewhere, to have a destination, to have somewhere to go.
Chris and Dad talked about the girl, Dad giving sage advice as always, suggesting that he reach for the ring—just like he had over Chris’s life. Go for it, he was saying. Embrace your life. Move forward.
The real problem lay in the fact that Dad couldn’t let go himself, and we had become wise to it. He had, over the entirety of his illness, professed an unwillingness to hang on unnecessarily. His rational brain believed it with the conviction of a zealot. He wanted to be able to say goodbye without fear, without remorse. But when he looked at us, he wanted to stay, hear one more joke, have a conversation about art, watch the world pass outside his window and provide the commentary.
One afternoon Chris sat down with Dad, overlooking the late summer garden turning shades of scarlet and gold. They argued.
Dad admonished Chris for not letting go, for not being able to say goodbye. “You need to move on now, move into the world again,” Dad told him.
Chris was appalled at his lack of self-awareness. “What the hell do you think I’ve been doing?” Chris asked. “I’ve been trying to move on, but you can’t let go either! You recover every time you think I’m coming back!”
“I know it’s hard, but you’re good now, just let me go.”
“Did you think that perhaps maybe I was here because of Q, and Lars, because they need help? They’re falling apart, Dad. I’m still here to help them! Not just you. Q can’t do it alone,” he said.
This might have been one of the most difficult conversations ever passed through the lips of father and son.
Dad sulked. He could sense us trying to manage our lives outside of Dad’s house after weeks in limbo. Never one to take criticism well, he retreated into petulance and an inability to roll with it. His demands were becoming sharper.
It’s not that he didn’t deserve it. He was dying, after all.
But we were split in two; the whole people who had been dedicated to caring for Dad in his final hours became divided as hours became weeks. As a result, Dad was less and less satisfied with the service in Chez Moone. Chris, larger and stronger than me, was asked to give foot rubs and back rubs, and as time went on, Dad felt empowered to complain when they weren’t adequate. The complaints weren’t really about the quality, it was pique as he felt our attention drifting.
“What are you talking about over there?” Dad barked.
“Nothing,” we said. “Just bills.”
“I can’t hear you over there,” he said. “I feel like I’m not relevant.” He fell silent. “Which I guess I’m not, because I’m dying.”
If this argument was Dad convincing himself of the necessity of crossing the finish line, all it did was make us more confused and sad.
Dad pulled Chris and I aside one afternoon. “You both need to move on with your lives. I’ve decided that I can go anywhere to die; I knew it was a case of diminishing horizons. You need to find some help, somewhere to take me.”
I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t thrilled. “We don’t want you to go anywhere. You’re in your home. It’s true that we need to move on, Dad. But not to just drop you off somewhere to die.”
“I don’t care where I am,” he argued. “I just don’t want to be a burden.”
“You’re Dad. There’s nothing more important to us than this moment. You deserve a good death… We’re trying our best to give it to you.”
He teared up. “This has been a better death than I had any reason to expect. I know how much you guys are giving up. I just want to be able to help you out, but I can’t. I’m helpless. I’m still your Dad, though, and I want to take care of you.”
It was too easy to tell him that it was our turn to take care of him, but I’m pretty sure that’s what we said.
Chris and I spent more and more time on the porch in Dad’s Adirondack chairs deep into the night. Sometimes we didn’t spend it together but on our computers, looking through the internet into other worlds moving forward without us. We’d talk briefly about some stupid video we saw and then fall silent again, our screens casting a ghostly light.
But more often we would talk. We talked about our lives, divergent though we shared Dad between us. We learned about what made each other who we are, stories never shared because we were too far apart in age and too physically distant to be exposed to them. We learned each other’s flaws, which neither of us were aware of because we weren’t close enough to witness them, but mostly we learned each other’s strengths. We shared our most complicated dreams and neuroses, our personal battles slaying dragons, or merely abandoning them.
They were precious hours, savored in the boggy humidity of a summer we couldn’t enjoy. We struggled with Dad’s inability to let go; we couldn’t get our heads wrapped around this slippery knot. If Chris left again, so close to the finish line, he abandoned Dad in his darkest, loneliest hour. If he stayed, we kept him floating in a purgatory, which Dad himself would admit was horrible, as our own lives disintegrated.
We sat on the porch, morphine given to Dad so he could sleep. I don’t know how it began; one of us played a song. It was a funny song, but then we changed tack and played something more plaintive, more melodic, slow and mournful. I picked a song, and then Chris responded with his own choice. We took turns back and forth, playing songs about loss and love, and stars which embraced us or shone impassively upon desperate lives.
The songs were our conversation about Dad’s final walk, a conversation it was too difficult to articulate ourselves. It began with death and loss, moved through the madness of love, spiraled through desire and unrequited passion into sweet romance and quiet contentment. An operatic saga unfolded on the porch, Dad quietly struggling with dying while we wrestled with what it meant to be left behind. As the night turned toward the quietest hours, Chris and I were dancing wildly on the porch, a celebration magically arising from disintegration, two siblings laughing and crying and wondering what would happen next.