“I felt a ripple of envy, which I saw echoed on Jamie’s face. How simple things were for Henry! How I wished sometimes that I could join him in his stark, right-angled world, where everything was either right or wrong and there was no doubt which was which. What unimaginable luxury, never to wrestle with whether or why, never to lie awake nights wondering what if.”
— Hillary Jordan, Mudbound —
Before Dad had open heart surgery he and my mom sat down and made a list. It was a list of questions that he wanted to ask the doctor once he was on the mend, the answers to which would help fill in the blank posed by a particular formula: How long before I can _______? Mom told us about the list while we were sitting by Dad’s bedside – tubes everywhere, lulled by the metronomic wheeze of the respirator, surrounded by a chorus of other simultaneously disconcerting and reassuring beeps and whirs. I was drawn in particular to what had made it to the top of Dad’s list. The top three things he wanted to know about were, in order:
- How long before I can shoot a high powered rifle?
- How long before I can play golf?
- How long before I can sing?
I loved it instantly. I have never been a hunter, in fact cannot stand guns of any kind. But knowing Dad’s passion for the deer woods, it wasn’t surprising that he’d want to know when he’d able to hunt again. Golfing seemed benign, like it was just there on the list out of some unexamined sense of manly duty. The third one, though, the singing, just punched me in the gut. Not by itself; I knew Dad liked to sing. But the poignant juxtaposition between shooting and singing – their almost nonsensical adjacency. It was in that sweet, narrow space between them where I felt like I started to see my father.
I’d gotten angry on the flight to Memphis. There was the immediate, superficial anger: I’m missing Marilynne Robinson at the National Book Festival! I’m missing J and T’s wedding in Vermont! I’m missing Madonna! But there was more – more love, more fear, more anger … because I couldn’t escape the thought that he had done this to himself. I remembered him getting huffy anytime someone – me, my mom, his mom – mentioned that he might not want to have that third or fourth helping, that maybe he wanted to watch the salt, that perhaps chips and beer weren’t the best dessert. He ate and drank and didn’t exercise except right before his annual check up, which didn’t fool anybody, certainly not the doctor, and now suddenly it all catches up with him and bam. Fuck my plans. Fuck my bank account, budgets, and priorities. I’ll drop everything and get on a plane to sit by your bedside after they’ve cracked open your sternum and grafted leg veins into your fucking clogged up heart and wait and wait and wait and wonder while you twitch and shiver and, despite your bigness – of size but also spirit, your larger than life personality and your jolly disposition – look so small and vulnerable and alone.
I couldn’t hold the anger, and I didn’t need to. My anger was selfish, and there is little room for self in an ICU. I watched him in that bed, unconscious at first and then later, during days and nights of pain and fear and struggle – and as I looked down at him, or put balm on his lips, or helped him use the bathroom, or rubbed his feet, or fed him lunch, or held a cup so he could drink, I thought about that list, about those priorities, and that small, complex space between shooting and singing, and realized: this is that man, and he is much more than this inert lump in the bed, much more than a whimper and quiver, more than what he’s been reduced to, more than just my dad.
I loved the inconsistency in his list, what to me seemed like such a stark contrast, that drew both a line and a portrait – between and of someone both hard and soft, someone who experienced the same powerful itch to go to the woods and kill deer that he did to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. I love the image, I can’t help it. Because it captures so perfectly, so simply and succinctly, the rich inconsistencies of the person I know – between the happy, jolly man who, when I was in high school, was nicknamed `the hugging fool’ by my friends and the unhinged crazy person who shouted at me at the top of his voice on Tuesday I’m gonna cancel out your damn vote when he found out I was supporting Al Gore way back in 2000. This list was an embodiment and reflection of the man who, more than anything, loves people, but who is a total racist. Who deeply loves me and J, but votes against us every chance he gets. Who rails against entitlements and then complains about Medicaid and Medicare not doing enough for his mother. Who eats a Lean Cuisine every day at work … and then goes out to lunch.
But it wasn’t inconsistent at all, not to Dad. To hunt and to sing – side by side, these things made perfect sense. But the gulf that I perceived between the two was just wide enough for me to find wonder in it, and beauty. Wonder about what would be on my list – about what my priorities would be, and what they would say about me? Beauty in my father – in his contradictions (we all have them), in the person I want to appreciate but have trouble understanding, whom I love dearly and at whom I find it difficult to remain angry, despite the authenticity of that anger. It washes away. It’s hard to stay mad at someone struggling to breathe, his eyes crazed with fear and frustration; who fills up every Christmas memory; who still makes my mom smile. It’s hard to stay mad at someone who wonders how long it will be before he can sing again.