‘A couple is going to be apart for who knows how long. They have one week together. Why is the person leaving and what do they do that week? Tell us the story from the person that is staying’s point of view.’
Crying is never a viable option for a stoic. Growing up, it came to represent a kind of weakness. Doing so advertises dangerous levels of vulnerability that inevitably lead to other feelings. Necessity always dictated that outward calm was my only viable option. Thus was I the quiet one upon whose shoulder she cried after learning of her father’s diagnosis during a clandestine phone conversation with his oncologist. Things had progressed, the cancer spreading and persevering with nearly human-like efficiency. Her father and I have the same disease in that we’d both rather endure everything alone instead of dragging others into our pain. It speaks volumes that she had to discover second hand that he likely had less than a month to live. That was Monday.
Her father was both sick and alone, a combination too painful for her to fathom. For the nearly two years that we’ve been together, I’ve stood in constant awe of her ability to both feel everything with astonishing depth and remain functional during and afterward. I’ve spent much of our time together feeling wholly unworthy of being in proximity to someone with that kind of inner strength. On Tuesday, she quit her job after being refused a leave of absence to travel to her father’s side. “They demanded to know how long I’d be away, which translates to ‘How long will it take him to die?’, as if it were an inconvenience’, she whispered through gritted teeth.
Her mother had died when she was young, leaving her father to manage the upbringing of his daughter alone and without a great deal of knowledge regarding the care and feeding of girls in all their various stages of development. What he did manage, however, was the constant criticism from all sides of both his and his deceased wife’s families where parenting was concerned. Their attempts to insert themselves between him and his daughter extended to legal proceedings, all of which he managed to successfully fight off. During all of this, she clung to her father and he to her, each knowing that the other was the only thing tying them to the woman who’d been the foundation of each of their lives. On Wednesday, her attempts to contact members of her extended and long-alienated family proved fruitless and reduced her once again to tears.
Over the course of the next three days, her constant request was for us to do things that we loved. Anything to provide her the strength to move forward through the impending unknown. Having a more understanding employer, this was a wish that I was able and eager to grant. Our shared love of baseball found us at a double header on Thursday. She was never a die-hard fan, necessarily, but just loved the way everyone seemed to belong where they were on the field. There was an order to things that she had always appreciated, a comfortable ebb and flow to the game that had always seemed missing from her life. Friday and Saturday found us on the coast where the days were spent walking the beaches and the nights listening to the waves repeatedly shush the world. She talked to her father Friday evening and assured him that she’d be making the trip whether he liked it or not. She smiled when he refused and one can imagine that he smiled each time she shot down his refusals.
Through all of this, I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do for her now or ever, it seemed. On so many occasions during our time together I’d felt this way. So many times I’d convinced myself that I’d be doing her a favor if I just left and let her get on with her life with someone else, someone who was capable of feeling the way that she felt. I could never convince myself to leave, though. Through endless internal debate I’d persuaded myself that leaving could feasibly be seen as both an act of courage and cowardice. I’ve since lived within the interval between the two for so long that I can no longer see the line that separates them. Life had become a stalemate.
We returned Sunday afternoon to a series of messages from her father’s oncologist requesting that she call immediately. The conversation was short: Her father had died that morning in his sleep. She didn’t cry, but thanked him, said she’d see him the next day, and hung up the phone. She then suggested we go to the art museum in order to get away from the house. We made our way there and sat in front of our favorite painting
-where she leaned her head upon my shoulder and asked a question about it that she’d never asked before: ‘Do you think he’s afraid of what he can’t see?’
‘I think he’s focused on what he can see’, I replied, ‘and uses that to remind himself that it’s folly to be afraid of the unknown.’
That night, I dreamed that I was standing in the airport watching her walk away. I was slowly starting to panic when suddenly a voice behind me said, ‘Don’t be afraid of what you can’t see’. I turned and saw her father who placed his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Stay with her’. It was then that I woke up, saw that she was still sleeping next to me, buried my face in my hands, and let decades of weakness pour forth in relief.
Sir @ March 31, 2011