Chapter twenty-eight: The long goodbye
Time passes too slowly after you hear bad news. All you want to do is escape it, run into a dark corner where time doesn't exist. Sleep until your life is different. But the time is glued to your shoes. It stays with you. It expands and grows and morphs into a space, a state of being you can hardly stand. It becomes all you can see: that grieving time. The guilty time.
"It's your father. Come home." The words reverberated through my skull. I couldn't. I just couldn't face it. The fear of what I would find there was all-consuming. It was too much. I sat on the front steps of my school for what seemed like hours. But in that strange, expanded time it was really much less.
Ben was there. He wanted to drive me home but I wouldn't go. I had told him to go to class but he just sat down next to me on the step and put his arm around me.
I didn't care. Nothing Ben had ever done had affected me less. My ass went numb as I sat there on the cold concrete steps. I had to move but I couldn't.
Then there was a barrage of noise. A car. I looked up and there was Tristam. He pulled up to the curb in front of us and got out of the car, engine still running.
I was trapped.
He approached us and held out a hand for me. "Come on, Page. Time to go home."
I nodded and took his hand. He pulled me to my feet and neither of us looked back as Tristam walked me to the car. He opened the passenger door for me and I slid in noiselessly. Then we went home.
When I got home my father wasn't dead, but he was dying. That grim statement had been true for years. He'd been lying in that bed, slowly coming apart, since I was fourteen years old.
But today was different.
I followed Tristam into my parents' bedroom. There he was. My shell of a father. The dim echoes of broad shoulders. Limbs so fragile they reminded me of a baby bird.
Would he smile at me now, if he could? Was he happy that I was there? Or did he hate me, for having been gone for so long? For abandoning him when he needed us the most. Or maybe he wasn't thinking about me at all. Maybe he was just in pain and sad and scared.
My father was the kind of person who never asked anything from us. All he'd ever wanted was for us to grow up with the innocent, carefree childhood that he'd had and that my mother had only ever dreamed of.
I took his hand. He stared at me. I couldn't tell what he was thinking. Did he hate me? Did he hate me? Did he…
There it was. Impossibly, there was a tiny squeeze around my hand.
My father had lost control over his hands long ago. It was just a spasm. Just a random firing of broken neural pathways. Or maybe it was just my imagination. But I am who I am, so I read too much into it. It would be the last time my father ever touched me. The last thing he ever tried to say.
My mom took dad's other hand. Tristam put one big hand on my shoulder. And the doctor, a perfect fucking stranger who had showed up at my house to kill my father, turned off the machines.
The rest of that day was a strange blur. A thick mist had wound its way through my brain, filling up ventricles and clouding my thoughts.
Ben came over after school, and it seemed like he was with me every second after that, his arm always around me, holding me up. I don't know what we did or said. I must have sat in the living room for hours, staring into space, silent and waiting. There weren't any thoughts, in particular, or even really any feelings, other than a massively dense, dull, throbbing something, deep in my gut.
Macy and Dee were there too, and they brought over an enormous amount of food, enough to feed me and my family for days. I don't know how they knew. Ben must have told Macy. I recall a cocoon of the three of them around me, all evening. I tried to be gracious, appreciative, but I was having trouble remembering that they were there. I didn't know what to do with my limp, useless hands. I didn't remember what words people typically said to each other, or what expressions I was supposed to make to let them know that there was a person inside the still shell of my body.
I wasn't sure what time it was, but it felt late. I was wrapped in a tight hug. My thousandth of the day.
"Do you want me to stay?" Ben offered, and his voice was barely more than a breath against my ear.
I shook my head. He pulled back enough to meet my eyes and smoothed my hair off my face. His fingers curled in my hair and he bent down to kiss me. Just for a second. It was soft and unintrusive. It was warm. When he pulled back, his fingers brushed against my cheek.
"I love you," he said gently, and pressed a swift kiss to my forehead. "Call me if you want."
I nodded obediently and watched him turn and jog down my front steps. I noted dimly, bizarrely, that he looked so tall and unfamiliar. He waved from his car and it rumbled sickly as he drove away.
Macy and Dee stayed all night, unbidden. Macy put me to bed, literally tucking me in and kissing my head before she and Dee crawled into bed on either side of me. They didn't need to do that. But it did keep the cold of the impending winter from sinking too far into me.
The next morning began exactly the same as the day before. And the day before that. Even though waking life was a tragic disaster, it was some small relief to escape the cascade of horrific nightmares I'd had throughout the night.
I left Dee and Macy snoring in my bed and fumbled my way downstairs, flinching as the static from the carpet stung at my toes.
Tristam was making breakfast. He gave me a smile as I ambled in. "Want some bacon?" he offered.
The smell of it was enormous and full. "No thanks," I croaked. My throat felt thick and I wondered if I'd been crying in my sleep. I cleared my throat.
Ana got up from the kitchen table and came to hug me. "How are you doing? Did you get any sleep?" she asked gently.
I didn't know what to say. "Sure." It wasn't the right response, I knew, but I felt like my ability to tap into what I should do, or even what I could do, was simply broken.
Ana smoothed my tangled hair away from my face.
I looked to Tristam for help, but he turned back to the bacon.
Trist, Ana and I spent the morning together. We split the newspaper, a bizarre behavior that we'd never done before. But maybe a weak attempt to remind ourselves that there was a world that existed outside of that house. Ben came over around the same time Macy and Dee ambled downstairs. We all watched TV together but I don't think any of us even knew what we were watching. We were just desperate for something to pass the time. Something to fill the void of things we couldn't say and things we were already tired of saying.
My mother was conspicuously, loudly absent.
Surely there was something I was supposed to be doing. Surely there was some kind of ritual I was neglecting; a grief phase that needed addressing or some clothes that needed rending. But I didn't have any answers, so I just sat there, still, and waited. Sometimes I fell asleep on Ben's shoulder and when I woke up, nothing would have changed. The people around me would be exactly where they'd been before I closed my eyes, the same somber expressions on their faces. Ben's strong arm would still be around me, holding me close. A strange experience. Surreal. Like reality was flexible and thin and full of holes.
People came and went. Strangers from my mother's office. Friends of Tristam's. Even people I thought I recognized as having been Dad's friends before he fell under permanent house arrest. And they all simpered and expressed their heartfelt regret and sympathy. They all left us with casseroles and offers of support and a litany of inspirational silver linings. Platitudes and compliments about the man my father had been. I couldn't tell if they meant the man he'd been before he'd died or before he'd gotten sick. It was hard to keep track of what, in particular, we were mourning.
My mother played host to them, smiling bleakly and taking their proffered food and condolences. But when there weren't people around, no one to entertain or thank, she stayed in her room. I didn't know whether to be infuriated or relieved.
Macy and Dee ducked out sometime after lunch and came back a couple hours later, having made numerous stops across town to acquire all my favorite dessert items, running the gambit from frozen yogurt to HoHos to tiramisu. I knew that they were all being nice. Wonderful, even. And I tried to remember to thank them. But did I actually say the words out loud? Or was it all in my head? Even if I said it, it was just platitudes. I didn't want any of it. It didn't seem like loving friends or warm sympathy or even the holy grail of salty and sweet junk food could clear away the mental cobwebs, or make reality fucking behave itself.
Barely twenty-four hours before, I'd watched my father fade away. And now…life went on? It made no sense. Normalcy had no place in this new world. It was a disconnect I couldn't get past.
Everyone was very understanding and eager to give me all the time I needed. But time alone wasn't enough. Time became bizarre. Slower, and seemingly less linear than normal. But, somehow, inconceivably, it took me with it.
I hitched up my backpack and pushed open the front doors to the school. It was filled to the brim with people. Unfamiliar people all running around. It seemed like the entire building was full of wraiths and shadows. They were all busy. And they were all strangers.
"Page?" A voice from behind me.
I turned and almost felt surprised to see Macy.
"What are you doing here?" she asked unceremoniously.
I looked around, fighting back a bland, blanketing confusion. "What do you mean?"
She fidgeted and reached out for me. She touched my arm. "Don't you want to take some time?"
In truth I was there because I couldn't stand the thought of another day spent on that couch, mindless in front of the television, a passive recipient of everyone else's grief.
I shrugged. "I'd rather be here."
She nodded and looped her arm through mine. We walked together to Spanish.
The day passed in fits and starts. I looked up and realized that I was in calculus. It was third period already. And then just as quickly Ben was taking a place next to me at the lunch table. "I didn't think you'd be here," he said gently, and put a hand on my knee.
I blinked. In all honesty, I barely was.
He kissed my cheek and set about his lunch.
Everything seemed unappetizing, inedible. For a moment I considered that the whole world and everything in it seemed to be made of play-doh. Smushy and impermanent. Kind of filthy. Squat, fat, clay bricks in the columns and smashed clay tiles on the floor. Gumby people walking around, chatting with putty words and letting out sticky peals of laughter. I couldn't eat a clay lunch, so I just pushed it around on my plate.
There are staticky gaps in my memory, like I was flipping channels on an old TV, passing through stations that were showing nothing but noxious snow. I remember stumbling through a few tests that my teachers assured me I didn't have to take; I could make them up later, "Whenever you're ready." Whatever that meant.
All the teachers knew, of course. More than a few of them kept me after class to give me long, meaningful looks and to let me know that they were there for me. Great, thanks. I remember listening to their speeches as if they were using a foreign language. As if they were speaking backwards. I do remember that they always said they were sorry.
Fair warning: when something horribly fucked up happens to you, everyone is so fucking sorry. Like the whole world was culpable for the untimely and random, cascading death of my father's motor neurons.
Juarez called me into his office in the afternoon. He was a real human being about the whole thing. He might even have bordered on compassionate. It was more confusing than anything. It felt like talking to a convincing Juarez muppet. I thanked him robotically and left.
When I came home from school that afternoon, my mother's cold, awkward sister was sitting in our living room. I froze in the doorway. I hadn't seen Aunt Maddison in years and suddenly she was sitting in that overstuffed armchair that my dad used to love. She nodded stiffly at me from across the room.
"Uh, hi," I blurted, not knowing what else to say.
Maddison's face contorted into what I guessed was an attempt at a pitying empathy, but I wasn't really sure she was pulling it off.
"I'm going for a run," I announced, and got the fuck out of there.
My father's weeping, aging parents arrived later that night. They held me so tightly I thought their fragile arms might break. They were both shorter than I remembered. Then the next day, a hoard of other mourners, aunts and uncles and cousins, all of whom were sorry, so, so sorry and loved me very much and knew that my family and I would get through this. They were all mourning too, I supposed, but it seemed an abstract concept. It was hard to think of these people as having genuinely loved my father, or to imagine that they had gone through the pain of his decline in their own ways. I felt like an inert passenger as the current of grief swept me along. It took me in silent circles around my mother and past the pitying glances of family and strangers alike.
My father's funeral was on a Tuesday evening, which seemed bizarre to me. And time lingered and stretched awkwardly in front of it, bending over on itself, skipping steps and winding confusingly. It was hard to keep track of what was happening and when. But the time came, inevitable and dark, and I watched passively as Macy and Dee pulled a black dress out of my closet and did my hair for me. I sat there, doll-like, as they pinned my hair back and pulled a scarf and gloves out of nowhere.
Something about the air in that room, as my silent friends polished and readied me, scared the hell out of me. I'd never felt anything more final in my life. It felt like preparing for some unknown apocalypse.
I tried not to think about what the funeral meant. It was almost grotesque to think that all of my family, everyone who had ever loved my father, was convening to share a spoken commitment to move on. Just thinking about it made my hands shake.
But Ben slipped his arm under mine and somehow got me into Tristam's car.
I sat in the back seat with him, looking at him. He looked back at me, patient and supportive. He held my hand. Ben looked absurdly handsome in his cheap black suit and his serious azure gaze. It seemed so out of place, so preposterous that my dad would die and there would still be beauty in the world. Ben's suit jacket pulled taut as he settled into the seat, and he unbuttoned it. It was a thoughtless gesture, easy and simple. It was something I'd seen my mother do a thousand times when she sat. I studied Ben from across the seat. The strong line of his chest. The dark brush of his hair across his eyes. I'd never seen him dressed up before. Was he still Ben under there? It seemed doubtful. This person was calm and collected and patient. This person smiled gently. This person wore a suit. He didn't seem like Ben at all.
I leaned into this seeming stranger, settling into his chest so that his arms came around me, like I knew they would. In their warmth, maybe I could forget where I was going. He held me and ran his fingers through my hair and said sweet things to me. And I felt a deep, abiding nothing.
My family wasn't religious but the wake was in a church. I'd never been there before. It felt appropriately foreign and bizarre. I planted myself in the front row between Tristam and my mother. Macy, Dee, and Ben were somewhere behind me. I'd lost track of them in the chaos of the crowd.
I watched as Tristam got to his feet and took the pulpit. Ana scooted closer to me, taking his place, and twined her fingers through mine. On the other side of me, my mother looked straight ahead, never once looking at me. I stared at her, not sure how I felt about her refusal to acknowledge me. Annoyed, maybe. Grated and bristled. She seemed to have sprouted several new lines in her face over the last few days. Despite the determined set of her gaze, her eyes sagged, heavy with dark bags and pulled down by wrinkles. She looked old and worn. Tired. I felt the blunt edges of pity prickling underneath the annoyance, uprooting it, but it all felt like a battle someone else was fighting. I felt divorced from it, and from her.
I turned my attention back to Tristam as he cleared his throat a little. He looked even taller than I was used to up there on the dais. I held my breath as he began to speak. His voice was dry in a way that made me clear my throat in sympathy. He sounded so matter of fact, so scientific, and for a moment, up there on the dais as he eulogized our dead father, he sounded like he used to. I remembered, in a rush, something I'd let myself forget. Tristam had been different, before our dad got sick. There'd been a time when he'd been so outspoken, so academic, so amorous of logic and science that he'd never shut up about it. I hadn't thought about that for a long time. How he had always excitedly brought home new facts from school. The time spent at the dinner table explaining things to me and vigorously debating with my parents. That had been at least a lifetime ago. The enthusiasm and intrigue and joviality had belonged to a very different family.
But today facts about neurology and philosophy bubbled forth like he'd never pushed them down. He spoke about ALS and fate and the grim, mixed blessing of having had the end in sight for so many years. He spoke about my dad as a fighter, and about beautiful gifts being taken away. He spoke like a loving son, but also like a grown man, full of his own hard-earned wisdom and knowledge.
This Tristam was almost a stranger to me. My brother had hidden him away and I had all too willingly forgotten. How strange that this was where he would resurface. That the end of one man would be the rebirth of another. I couldn't stand the sight of him, this forgotten brother.
I'd been little when dad got sick. For the most part, I was a person who was built around the ruins of an increasingly sick father. But Tristam and my mom, they had secret parts of their lives, repressed and forgotten parts of the people they used to be, people who were fully-formed before Dad's diagnosis. And it occurred to me that now, those parts would come back renewed when Dad's memory faded away.
I didn't have that. No parts of me that existed independent of this sideways fucking cosmic injustice. There wasn't anything in the dark, deep holes in my life. It was just empty.
They lowered him slowly.
I hadn't realized it would be that slow.
Ben stood on my right with his arm firmly around my waist, and Macy clung to my left arm. But it didn't feel like they were there. The world felt empty, like a bomb had dropped and I was walking the lifeless streets alone, knowing there was nowhere for me to go. Like that dream I'd had, wandering through the ashes in the hollow hull of a city.
The lip of the coffin passed the grass line and then it was in the ground. I watched as two men I'd never met slowly turned cranks, lowering it deeper into the earth.
Unbidden, I thought of when my father had given me wild piggyback rides through the house. He would make a mess, overturning plants and furniture and my mother's papers just to make me laugh. She would yell at him from across the room, exasperated, and he would shout something defiant and hilarious back at her. And finally, whirling until we were both ready to be sick, he would drop me onto the couch. And I'd beg him to do it again and again and when he'd finally reached his limit, he would plop down onto the couch with me and hug me close. I could remember the smell of him, vibrant and healthy.
His coffin disappeared into the packed dirt. Into a lonely, slow decay.
I was going to vomit. I shook off Ben and Macy and sank down to a crouch on the balls of my feet. I wrapped my arms around my knees and waited, trying not to be sick.
The crowd became fidgety as the pastor spoke again. Soon they began moving as a group, away from the grave. They were going back to my house for the reception, where they would indulge in cheesecake and cry on each other's shoulders and tell stories about my dear departed dad. It was about pity and seeking pity, and, supposedly, beginning to heal. To move the fuck on.
"Page," Ben whispered. "Let's go." He tugged gently at my arm, trying to get me to my feet, but I shouldered him off.
"Leave me alone," I croaked, and wrapped my arm back around myself.
He hesitated. "Okay," he conceded, and walked away. Dee and Macy were standing and watching us, but he beckoned to them and they followed him down the path.
Then I was alone in front of the grave, and I had no idea how the fuck I felt or where to go from here. I held myself as tightly as I could and spent a long time crying and gazing down into this place where my father would stay behind.
The air darkened as the sun began to press down into the horizon. My body felt stiff. I wondered nonsensically if I would forget if I sat there long enough. If my body got tired enough. If I wasted away enough.
A noise caught my attention. A corner of my mind must have been waiting for it, because my head whipped around immediately to find the source of it.
A backhoe was rolling up a nearby path, slowly mounting the small hill. And a small dump truck followed it, full of dirt.
Something in me started screaming.
Then there was a new sound, more familiar, and Ben was kneeling down and gripping both my shoulders in his warm hands. "Page," he said softly. "You don't need to watch this."
I ignored him. I couldn't take my eyes off the machines. The operators looked back at me, and they seemed uncertain. My breath came more quickly. I wanted to hurt these strangers. I wanted to fight them off, protect this opening, the open air between me and my father. The least distance I would ever have between us again.
Ben's hands slipped under my arms and he pulled me to my feet, lifting me as easily as if I weighed nothing at all. That's how it felt. Like I was nothing much more than a brief interruption in the air around me. Like the empty feeling inside had emptied out all the cells in my body, making me ephemeral, a haze in the solidity of reality. Ben turned me around to face him. His fingers passed over my cheeks, smoothing away the tears, and tilted my face up to his. His face was just a blur above a black suit. I couldn't see his blue eyes. "Time to go," he said, and his tone told me that he wasn't going to let me stay.
"But-" I began, but Ben interrupted.
"No, Page." He shrugged out of his suit jacket. "You're freezing," he muttered, and wrapped the coat around my shoulders. He rubbed his hands up and down my arms, trying to warm me.
I looked back to my father, and to the cruel, whirring machines that would seal him up. A few tears spilled over as my head tilted down.
Ben put his arm around me and pulled me into him. He held me while I cried into my hands. It felt like years. He buried his fingers in my hair and I thought he was saying something to me. But something was wrong with my senses. I didn't hear his words or feel how he shivered in the cold wind. It was all drowned out by the loud, raging blur of the pain deep in my stomach. It felt like it was resonating perfectly with the droning of the backhoe. The sound was a physical pain, made mechanical and separate and evil.
"The world doesn't make sense," I whimpered. "It's not…it's not whole."
"I know," Ben breathed, and kissed my head. His arms were strong around me.
There were more people coming. More people I didn't want and couldn't stand. I looked up and saw that it was Macy and Dee. They were holding hands, clinging to each other, each in their somber black dresses. "Page," they called when they were close. "Tristam just called. He wants you to come home."
I blinked. I hadn't realized that Tristam had left without me. I hadn't thought about him or my mother at all. I wondered dully if I really had to leave. Was that even possible?
I nodded blankly. Ben kept his arm around me as we walked. We climbed together into the back of Macy's car and she drove us out of the cemetery, away from my father. I watched the grave as we drove, smaller and smaller in the rear window, as the machines advanced on it. Macy turned a corner and it disappeared.
It's an odd position, to watch a person you love going through something awful. I've obviously never done this before. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing.
I'm having a hard time being there for her, pretending to be fine when looking at her face makes me want to fucking destroy something. That expression she's had on her face since it happened terrifies me. It's like she's gone. And I have this deafening screaming in me, this thing that says I have to fucking kill whoever did this to her. Which of course is not helpful. But I can't help it. It makes me crazy. I have to do something.