Monday, January 21, 2008

We don't do sad.

My father and I acknowledge emotions as diagnostic tools. An emotion worth mentioning is most often an indicator that something should be fixed. Anger, frustration, confusion and hunger. They’re like the low fuel light on your dashboard. If I express one, my father suggests options for remedy.

We don’t express emotions simply to have them acknowledged by the other. That is a chick thing. I try to do this sometimes, but he immediately tries to fix. So I have to back up and tell him that I don’t want a solution at the moment that I just want to vent to someone who will listen. Then when I’m finished I have to tell him to nod and agree because that’s the part he’s signed on for. However it’s not very satisfying when the person you’re venting to has to be coached through the process.

We express happiness and contentment also. Amusement also ranks among the top. These we share to show thankfulness and because we get along well enough that we take joy in the same simple things. “Hey Dad! This is the funny commercial! Come quick!”

Please turn on your sound and play now the best commercial ever.

But my father and I don’t do sad. We don’t do crying. Occasionally I express frustration, fear or anger through tears. But those are hot emotions. Ones that I can rage about. Things that I hope to fix and change. We don’t do sad even though we both are sentimental people. We both cry at movies. He cries easier than I do during films though he doesn’t like to admit that. Despite this we don’t do sad.

Today I caught him crying. Actually he was trying to wipe a tear from his eye just as I was sitting down at the breakfast table. Dumb luck would have it that I was looking at him as he did it and he paused as if caught red handed. I don’t think I would have said anything if he hadn’t stopped mid-movement. But it was just so odd that I asked him if he was okay. “Yeah,” he said. Then amended, “Well, sorta.”

I didn’t say anything else. I didn’t know what else to say. We don’t do sad.

We’ve known for more than nine months now that my father’s brother has terminal cancer. They originally gave him three months, six if he did the therapy.

My father has been up and down about this. It has been a year of reconciliation within the family. A year of now-or-nevers. But for me, I still don’t really know this man whom I see as being so much like my father and yet so very different from him. If my father were a Muppet he would be Rolf the Dog, my uncle Sam the Eagle. His wife is bull headed, as always, about the situation. She swore up and down that he’d be around another ten years. I think mostly about his three sons, my cousins; they’re roughly 29, 27 and 13 years old. The eldest two are married now and the youngest has always looked up to his brothers with something that far surpasses hero worship. They’ve always been the ones taking him out to play sports in the park or go fishing, but this past year they’ve been the ones teaching how to use the snowblower accompanied with phrases like you need to learn this for Dad.

I try to conceptualize, to feel compassion for my cousins but every time I do so I start to conceptualize the entire situation as a short story from my youngest cousin’s point of view. This makes me feel like an awful person. That some sort of compassion valve inside of me must be shut off if I immediately thrust all life experience into the realm of fiction. My friends have tried to tell me that it is just another form of empathy. That it is the one form of empathy that I know intimately and so I immediately turn to it. This sounds rational. But I still feel like a bad person.

When my father and I went to visit my grandmother this weekend, my father had hoped to see his brother as they live in the same town. It was then that we learned that he had and his wife had gone back to the cancer treatment center outside of Chicago. They did not expect him to leave this time.

I don’t have any kind of reference for this. I’ve been to funerals before, even spoken at one when they opened up the floor to friends and family. But I’ve never had someone close to me go through the kind of pain my father will. I was still in elementary school when my mother’s parents passed away. I remember the day of my grandfather’s funeral. I was only five. I remember being in the processional of cars. My mother being upset and snapping at my father’s driving. I remember going to the cemetery. It looked like a park to me, except I was in a dress and wasn’t allowed to play. I didn’t attend my grandmother’s funeral some years later. That came at the end of a long, drawn out affair. The woman we had known had died three years earlier when she had a stroke so bad that she never regained movement of her left side and couldn’t keep any memories from after 1970. This meant she didn’t recognize me. She didn’t know that my mother was married. She told stories to people about my mother having had an illegitimate black baby boy. My grandmother was something of a small-town-never-knew-better racist, so this was never told by my post-stroke grandmother as a joyous thing. By the time she passed away I felt like we had already mourned enough for the woman she had been. This feeling didn’t help me deal with my mother any better.

But even if I could remember more of that time in my life, my mother and my father are very, very, very different people. Which has a lot to do with why they are no longer married. And ever since I started high school, my father has been the one I was closer to. And still I don’t know what to do.

Saturday night my father, his sister and her 14 year-old twin daughters were sitting around the kitchen table with me in my grandmother’s house. There was a phone call which my grandmother answered in the living room where she and my aunt’s husband were. Then my grandmother came into the kitchen and repeated what she had just heard. That they had sent for my uncle’s sons.

I just kept quiet and didn’t make eye contact that might trip someone into tears. It would have been hard to do though because my father and my aunt were both staring pretty hard at the wood of the table. The twins started babbling about something right away again. I was actually pretty proud of them for how quickly they were able to pick up the vibe and simmer down. Although their unknowingness was welcome as a means of breaking the somber mood that could have easily become suffocating.

But suffocating is coming any day now and I don’t know how to deal with my father when it does arrive. This brother is fifteen months younger than him. They shared everything growing up. And everything they didn’t share they fought over. Mostly the latter.

We keep getting updates. Slow mile markers. Tomorrow they’re moving him home. He regains consciousness every so often, and stays awake just long enough to say that he wants to go home. So they’re bringing him home. Two to five days, they say, it doesn’t matter where now.

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