One day when I was twelve, my father sent me to rescue Mrs. Correia. She was my godmother Clementina’s housekeeper, and she had locked herself out of her house. She sat in her yard, waiting for, it would seem, divine intervention; she lived alone and was too shy to ask for help. A neighbor called us—my parents had had the foresight to give her our number—and I was sent with a spare key. Mrs. Correia could not read or write English or her native Portuguese, but the most piercing detail was that she also could not fathom numerals—she remarked once that they all looked like fishhooks—and so she could neither write down a telephone number nor grasp how to dial.
“I think she thinks in color,” my father said.
It is the line that pinpoints the moment I became a writer. All of language, everything, burst into gradations and tints.
My father got a placard and cut out pictures to represent vital contacts—police, fire department, Clementina, us, neighbor, grocery delivery—and he dabbed seven beads of tempera color to correspond to the shades he coated over zero to nine on her phone.
Perhaps we were emerald-silver-gold-scarlet-silver-cornflower-gold.
When his children were at the age of crayoning on walls, instead of telling us not to do it, he said, “This is the wall for pictures,” and he painted a side of the den black and bought us pastel chalks.
An amateur painter, he used plastic coffee-can lids as palettes, until the impastos resembled visions of the earth from space.
The Portuguese night blessing, a parent asking God to make a child a big saint someday, can conclude by invoking pink dreams—sonhos cor-de-rosa—the equivalent of bestowing “sweet dreams.”
I return-wished pink dreams to my father in his final days.
After he died, I discovered a jar of rose geranium jam, with lemon and cardamom, in a store. He was a magical gardener, and one summer day he threw down loose geranium stems and said, “They’ll sprout overnight.” I gasped the next morning at the sight of them rooted and blooming.
I held the geranium jam up to the light, where it paled into pink and triggered the first profound tears of having him gone.
A dear friend wrote to me, “Death is a time of the sky falling in. The colors drain out of the streets and buildings. All goes pale.”
Salving grief, then: The restoration of color?
I was in New York with the man I would go on to marry, on a chilly evening, when the coat-check room began to spin and I could not remove my jacket, all twisting sleeves and arm holes and tangled scarf and panic, the air gray, and I sat to catch my breath. It was the hour in California when my eighty-seven-year-old father fainted, a blocked carotid artery beginning its final choking off of blood to his brain. He would never walk unassisted again. A few days later, for the first time, I entered my childhood home in Castro Valley, near Oakland, without him greeting me with a blessing and kiss, a vacancy as a prelude to loss. The diagnosis was “aging brain,” and though he did not suffer a stroke, his condition mimicked it, his mind exploding into confetti.
His mother, Francesca—Xica—died in childbirth with him in California. This is called “purple death.” She reappeared by giving his daughters her face.
My grandfather whisked him back to be raised in the village of Agualva—“White Water,” though it is one of the few places on the island of Terceira in the Azores that the ocean doesn’t touch. Years later, my grandfather remarried and returned with my father to California.
A branch of that family in the islands was so poor that they were taught to sing when they were hungry. They distracted themselves by eating songs. People called them Os Passarinhos—The Little Birds—and took their music as a signal to bring the food they were too proud to ask for.
When my father was dying, I asked the Universe to send me a little bird. Walking to the Baywood care facility, I found a whirligig cardinal on a metal spike, a garden ornament, faded by weather. Its red wings had paled and got stuck when I spun them.
He reverted to his first language. When a nurse asked where he wanted to go, he said, “Ao lado,”—to the side—and it was in the fair order of things when she explained there was no ladder in the room.
The elderly are set like bags of recycling on the curb in the dead of night, awaiting unseen removal by dawn. We refuse to live at a pace that includes people who cannot walk, people who cannot hold a spoon, people who cannot remember. A young man once barked at me, as we descended the steps into the subway, “Hurry up, old lady. This is New York.” I was fifty-eight. I had just lost my father, but I was also listening to a person announcing that the station was flooded. My ear was attuned to impediment, the perils lying in wait.
There is the further grief of our grief never matching the grief of others. I mourn my father; you mourn (fill in the blank: ________); through the filter of my feelings I imagine your heartbreak, but therein lies another grievously faulty bit of wiring in our human design, that what has me reeling will not stab you as it does me, and my conjuring some equivalency of pain will not relieve yours.
Stumbling toward translation: A workbook for you and for me:
Year of birth? 1926.
First language? Portuguese.
An early memory of him/her? As a child being lowered into the tender to convey him to the ship going to America, the Atlantic dropped, and he screamed at the earth trying to swallow him.
What incident struck you as paternal (maternal, fraternal, spousal, etc.)? He bought me a stuffed toy animal, the Bricklayer of the Three Little Pigs, at a fair at San Leandro High School, where he taught history for thirty-six years. My mother replaced the kapok when it dried. It is faded, but I still own it.
Name an early job of The Deceased: Summers at the Sunshine Biscuit Factory in Oakland, where permission to snack on the cheese crackers soon rendered employees averse to them forever.
Fonder than fond: The times we rode the bus to the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, where he’d been the first in his family to attend college. We ate sandwiches on Telegraph Avenue.
Record a funny comment: When a male relative said he couldn’t have stomached the clothing of the Renaissance, my father’s answer was, “Oh, a bit of lace about the throat might be a good thing for a man.”
Name something you adore, though you fear you didn’t hear it right: He said, “In my family, the cure for fear of the dark was taking a stitch in a dead man’s arm.”
As a guilty pleasure, he/she enjoyed: UFO shows.
Complete: Grief is like: Writing on air with a branding iron.
Complete: One word that strikes me/you as a synonym for “history” is: Ruins.
In the favorite room of The Deceased, you found: A pipe-cleaner giraffe from the sixties, its wild colors faded; the bust of Virgil; a volume about the bandit Joaquin Murrieta; mint hinges to secure stamps into albums; an abalone shell from Santa Cruz, its mother-of-pearl tarnished; the wedding portrait of my mother in her mantilla; reviews of my books from the Luso-American newspapers.
Goneness has the shape of an eggplant and a tinge of pale blue.
A pang doubled you over when: Making pumpkin tiramisu after his death, I reached for the Godiva sweetened cocoa that he gave his three sons and three daughters every St. Nicholas Day.
Watching a rerun of Mad Men, I stared at a fedora with a feather in it. My father never failed to wear one, and a suit and tie, when he went to the bank to deposit his paychecks for teaching.
What infuriated me/you was: A nurse mocking him for preferring books to sports. My sister snapped at her, “Can he please finally be done with that?”
Complete: “My mother said, ‘Surprising how death always surprises us.’”
What he/she saw that was not there: White cats. Black cats.
The echo you still hear of him/her crying out: Please don’t leave me.
What caused you to erupt? The nurse who pushed him into a wall because he resisted a woman taking him to the bathroom.
What beset him/her at the end was: Not leaving enough money.
In the room of the dying was/were: A needle with the traces of the morphine administered by the hospice nurse that let him slip under.
Toward the end, he/she was angry about: Not having his shoes.
On the day of his/her death: He panicked about not being able to breathe and wept that he did not want to die.
Marked on his chart: Today August Mark Vaz ate everything because his daughter fed him. Puréed turkey, vegetables, potatoes au gratin, and thickened coffee with honey. It took thirty-five minutes. Skeletal, one hundred and thirty-eight pounds, his Cal college ring slipping off, he grabbed at empty space and said, “I’m afraid of getting lost.”
“An angel is sitting there,” he said; or was I merely wishing for a pretty comment?
He reported a dream about falling. “But it wasn’t through air.”
Wilson and Saldana, the physical therapists, reported he walked thirty yards, and they knew someone who’d taken his History of the Far East class back in those years when students thanked him with Buddha statues, cakes with yin/yang symbols, and bonsai plants. His bulletin boards were covered with photographs of auras, Hindu gods, Chinese dragons, and maps of Rome. They called his room The Temple.
Lauralynn, a nurse, fell in love because she said he looked like Omar Sharif.
An IV infused too much fluid, and he grimaced in pain and shouted he could not breathe. My mother said that at fourteen, he had run up a hill and never got over the ghastly sensation of not having breath. I reached for his hand, and his other came over to grasp our held hands. There is regard in stepping aside to let others hold a hand, too.
Clarity blazing, he said, “Remind me never to do this again.”
After two female nurses took him to be showered, he declared, “Well, I’ve never done that before.”
When told they were calling him Houdini because he kept escaping from bed to find his shoes to go teach despite twenty-five years of retirement, he giggled, pleased.
A squeeze-bottle of honey, shaped like a conical hive, with VAZ in black marker. A nurse, Juan Carlos Garcia, teased him about whether it should be the Spanish miel or the Portuguese mel. In the beginning, Juan Carlos called him Señor, Senhor. Toward the end of my father’s stay in this first care facility, Juan Carlos addressed him as Pai. Portuguese, pronounced “pie.”
We pushed his wheelchair into Baywood’s garden, past the herbs and tomatoes and the little patio with the wooden birdhouses and, in one, a removable yellow finch.
Rolling him back to his room, my sister and I passed an elderly woman who called out, “Hello there!”
We returned her greeting.
“Hey!” she shouted. “I’m talking to him, not you. Leave him with me, and you two get lost.”
“Tell her to go fly a kite,” he whispered. “I have only my wife and children.”
My father’s clothing warm with an excess of sleep in it.
His quietness was always my comfort, my island of safety.
Even diminished, he spoke fondly of pie. Pumpkin. Blackberry.
In his yard at home, near the St. Francis statue wearing dried glue as a collar after being beheaded years ago by a pass in a football game, my brother dug up a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee, its phosphorescence leached away.
I lied about selling my latest book. I told him I had done well with it, though so far no editor had bought it.
I said that at a Luso-American conference—the word was out that August Vaz was ailing—everyone stood to applaud the books he’d written about his community, the way he’d opened doors for immigrants, into knowledge, the arts. This was utterly true.
The Sadness of Westerns
I loathed Westerns as a girl, because the villains shot in the end were always in black and resembled my black-haired, mustachioed father. A nurse shaved off his mustache, and my mother drew a man’s head and wrote PLEASE DON’T SHAVE OFF AUGUST’S MUSTACHE! We were glad it grew back before he died, so he could go into his coffin with his facial hair trim as always, though long ago it had gone white.
“Mama, Mama!” a little boy had shouted when my father was old and sporting a goatee. “Look, it’s Colonel Sanders!”
The mother shushed him, but my father admitted that he was indeed the Colonel, and he shook the boy’s hand, and they laughed and discussed chicken. (Daddy revealing a Secret Recipe, paprika, flour, pepper, sea salt in a brown bag; shake!)
He drew back from The Brink, the waters receding. He emerged, rinsed. My eyes watered from a sudden brightness everywhere. Lightning jolt of the yard’s Meyer lemon tree, so sharp the sight of it imparted taste! Bluejays, songbirds; the lavender, pungent. His easel with an unfinished oil work of vibrant green pears. Shocking pinks. A water bottle covered with vivid cherry blossoms. Everything is peony, star-silver. Elation. Not the meanings of how things feel; just the feel of them.
The blinding glare of false reprieve.
Choked up, he said, “I am back from hell.”
Through an upstairs window in my childhood home, a view, eerie, that I’d never noticed, the chimney tops and points of the firs like crosses in a Holy Land or a Californian version of Easter Island.
We wheeled him to the garden because he wanted sun on his face, and it was yellow-blazing, fresh-cracked yolk, and the rosemary, the plant emblematic of memory, was effusive near the azaleas, camellias, pink as dreams, Daddy, look, look.
I hugged people as a ten-year-old does, tight, never let me go but head bowed to avoid the terrible weight of connection in someone’s eyes.
I dreamt I got lost on BART and, under a neon sign with words I do not recall, I descended a narrow staircase toward the train, but an ogre blocked the way.
The analysis of that one is obvious. But why did I also dream of Lena Dunham walking alongside me, smiling as I apologized for not watching her latest season, and she said, “No, you’re fine!” Her eyeliner was forest-green, and my coat was ombré with midnight-blue, China-blue, cobalt, a saturation spectrum.
A cutout of a cardboard horse appeared outside a house on Lessley Avenue, not far from the Baywood facility, and on its flank was: “Joy Is Here!”
I asked the Universe to send me a hair barrette as a sign that my father had truly backed away from The Brink. (Why a barrette? I no longer know.) Running around the Castro Valley High School track, I spotted an orange circle and thought it was a hair tie. It was the plastic ring from a cap off a bottle of juice. At the chain-link gate, three big signs: “Toilets,” “Concessions,” and “Exit.” Translation: “Body,” “What Is Required of Us to Get Through Life,” and then, yes, “Exit.” Full story, our lives in three words.
Farther on, a ponytail band lay waiting, a like-new raspberry color, and then, eureka, five bobby pins. This will do! No barrettes, but hail to answered prayers, or nearly so! Ask; receive! Proof! Back from the edge, everlasting! Daddy, Father.
Colors ablaze, salve, heart on fire, mind fire-engine red so much it hurts.
Ascension. Pointillistic dispersion. We picture the soul like this. But maybe it doesn’t keep rising. Maybe it breaks up and sifts onto water, where it’s silver, flickering sharp as metal combusting and coming toward one’s eyes, silver that burns despite capping cold peaks and tides. Nothing that will stay in a pail.
Days flow, life streams, but memories are mosaic pieces, or snapshots to fit into an album, or stamps like the ones my father collected, art-miniatures brilliant as enamel, so that the governments of nations can pitch our stories to each other through the air.
His favorite stamp category? Errors. One-of-a-kind gems, upside-down planes or animals; misprints. His most treasured? A Mona Lisa with a metal shaving or hair that must have dropped onto the press to produce the only stamp labeled “LeonarBo DaVinci.”
He looked at a photo of me in a Lisbon magazine, wearing black, dark-haired, and said, “Here you are, my Mona Lisa.”
At the dining table for those needing more assistance, he smiled at Alma, who kept chirping, “Que linda!” at me, and he instructed her about the utensils in her gnarled hands, and in his teacher’s voice said, “Good! You’re getting the hang of it.” Next to him, Robert broke up his chocolate bar and kept realigning the pieces, and my father said, “They’re beautiful, but now you should eat them.” Every word prismatic.
Chicken, snow peas, pears with cinnamon, puréed. A grilled cheese sandwich, whole, for me. We held hands and chatted, and he talked with the nurse about California’s Bear Flag history. “Jealousy Blues” blasted from the CD player.
We gathered for a family reunion in his room. He remembered his father working in the dairy business at American Creamery, and his first sighting of a banana slug in Santa Cruz, and being startled by a drop of water under a microscope because it held jumping dots, living things. He spoke of wanting to ride a train like the ones from his early years in Yuba City, when he resided in a boardinghouse. He recalled the homemade apple pie in that temporary spot, and the swishing of the silk and husks in the cornfield while he read his history books, the pages dusty, where sometimes he got red-eyed from being allergic to cut grass despite loving its scent, and there he was, painting canvases, teaching, overall happy, happy in a single life on the verge of his fuller life.
He pointed at me and said, “We had a good time today!”
I agreed that we had indeed.
My brother’s beagle, Karl (gone now, too), sat curled on his lap. We discussed how to take revenge on Betty, the impatient nurse who’d given my father too cold a shower and refused to adjust the temperature.
Then he wandered in a story we could not decipher, and the words his mind was giving him to deliver refused to cohere, and he grinned and said, “Well, I can’t help it if you are all so slow.”
What I took to keep: his copy of Claude Bristol’s The Magic of Believing. His favorite passages were underlined in red ink. How annoying people could be wished away and solitude restored. How one’s mind could attract money. How depression and anxiety could be replaced with faith. A blue cigar band dated February 26, 1926, fell out of the book. It must have been from a cigar my grandfather had smoked eighteen days after Daddy’s birth, my grandmother days away from dying of purple death.
From his bookcase in the study he would never again enter, I took his book about Kirlian photos, the science of documenting phantom limbs.
Complete: What strange but brilliant shades came along in a rush of craving? I wanted to make an Earth Cake I saw online. It required special round pans and many food colorings, ocean-blue for the outer stratum, red for the molten core.
Comfort came in the shape and color of the water glasses with teal polka dots that I bought with my friend since first grade, Colleen.
He said, “The sea has two things about it,” but he could not cite what those were.
My sister, Maria, was upset when they put my father’s mattress on the floor. He warned us to run before they trapped us. He thought his cousin Clementina had been killed in an explosion. He told us not to frighten his sister, Maria Luisa, by telling her what was happening to him. His failing body humiliated him.
He was moved to Eden Villa. The television’s screen was filled with pink waves and stayed on the old-timers’ song channel. “Meet Me in Saint Louis, Louis.” “Roll Out the Barrel.”
Lupe, a resident, kept intoning, “Hello? Hello?”
“Think of her as a parrot,” my mother said.
His skin yellowed. He told my mother he wanted to visit Portugal. One Mardi Gras, the people in his village had stalked around wearing carnival masks, and he recalled being scared but he longed to go back once more.
In the circle of wheelchairs, he caught the beach ball being tossed in exercise class. I missed the father I knew, but I loved him as he was right then, too. After every lunch hour, he tried to rise and stretched out his arms and said, “Take me with you!” and that—that in particular—broke all of us in half.
In the freezer at home, there is pumpkin bread labeled 2011, and turkey soup, fish broth, berry pie in a Pyrex dish cracked from cold storage. I made stew in a hungry daze and did not know how a Christmas ornament had fallen into it. My mother bought salmon, artichokes, and apricots, pink, green, orange-pink, some of my favorite things.
I was alone with him when he had what looked like a seizure, his head jerking backward, limbs flailing, voice choked, eyes terrified, likely a TIA episode. I ran for help.
I called Christopher at our home in New York, and he said, “I fear I won’t be able to fill the hole in your heart.”
Desk, trumpet, Alabama: his doctor gave him a memory test that required him to recall three words. “Alabama” kept eluding him, so he wrote down the words to practice.
He began to resist going through doorways.
In a corridor of a Motel 6, as a chaperone on my high-school field trip to Hearst Castle, he put a steadying hand on the wall and said he was seasick. The hallway replicated the cabins on that long-ago ship going to America. He’d gotten lost and was searching for the cabin with his parents. The doors popped open and the heads of strangers poked out, like an archetypal nightmare scene in a movie.
He said, “Humorous, strong, wrong. Homeland, exile.”
My father curled up in darkness, as if for a lengthy sleep on a ledge, a repose that we figured might last for four days or four years. Everyone who must span a long distance with the dying, going back and forth, agonizes about whether to leave or stay.
The color of being called back to him:
WHITE. Three months later, in the New York home I share with Christopher, a glowing white block of light traveled up the hallway. It could not have come through any window. A square of translucent canvas. Odd that it did not frighten me, and I knew it was my father telling me to return. He would survive for forty hours after I arrived. Sharing the van to the airport was an actress who had starred in martial-arts films, someone I’d never met, in movies I’d never seen, but her eyes were an unearthly radiant green, and I stared at them, hypnotized. I am not one to reveal personal details to strangers, but I found myself reciting in a small voice that I was catching a plane to be with my father before he was gone. Has the saying about the kindness of strangers become a cliché? She bolstered me for what felt like stepping into a wind tunnel.
White would be the color of the bouquet an ex-student would send, having learned from him that this is the Chinese color of mourning.
On the morning of the day he died, he was crying. He knew it was his last day, and it was his constant awareness that was always an agony, but it also meant he never failed to recognize us. I arrived at Eden Villa, on impulse, at ten o’clock with one of my nephews; I usually waited to go with my mother at eleven, so we could stay through lunch. The fright in his eyes was unspeakable. Blue veins pulsed in his arm. He was desperate about not having the right amount of breath.
The administrator, Trish, used careful language to urge me to gather everyone. She said he’d had a difficult night and hospice—he’d been in their program for two days—had been notified to bring assistance for pain. Unbearable, his effort to open his eyes. I held his hand and said, “Daddy, I’m here, and everyone’s on the way.” My nephew Matt held his other hand and said, “Hey, Papa, you’re not alone.”
We said we loved him very much, and he mouthed that he loved us, too. I had a stark sense that I am lucky that the exchange of those words has never been rare or strange.
Decorations were in place for a luau at Eden Villa. Streamers, fronds, grass skirts around the tables. He would miss being at something he would have wanted to miss. I sent an email telling everyone to come say goodbye. While sitting in the hallway to allow everyone time alone with my father, my brother came running and said, “Come back.”
I stood and looked to gather my things.
“No,” he said. “Now. Hurry up. Run.”
I arrived as he as was suddenly journeying from struggle to peace. We were all there, and I stood near his head and kept a hand on his shoulder and one on his head, and my nephew held one hand and my mother the other. My brothers and sisters were around the bed. On the twelfth of September, 2013, seventeen minutes after one o’clock in the afternoon, my father died. It had a gentle quality, befitting; he faded, let go, eased into gone. The hospice nurse gave him morphine so he could slip under, as if into a warm bath, and his heart stopped and the carotid artery beat with the last of the blood in motion, a few seconds more. It was surprisingly quiet.
I have lost people, but this was the first time of being with someone going from being alive to being dead. It is possible to go entirely through life without being present at another’s last moment, but once known, it reigns as the greatest intimacy, beyond love, because it is love and death, his or hers and a foreshadowing of ours, and we are changed by that, escorted into the club of others who know it, too. This is why I walk down a street and think, “I am walking. I see that building.” I am lifting my arm; breathing.
As a boy, he was taken to the matanças in the valley towns of California, when they slaughtered pigs, left them hanging and gutted from trees. The screech of the deathblow stunned him and he could never remove it from his skull, but somehow it reverberated into mine; I cannot eat ham, bacon, pork, any of it. Scream internalized: even his childhood story informed me of the feel, taste, sound of grief.
Deep blue, the color of the MacDowell Writers Colony T-shirt they put on his corpse. I’d given it to him years before and had no idea it was with him at Eden Villa. I asked for it back from the mortuary, and it was given to me in a crisp, white sack, the kind used for pastries. I inhaled the blue shirt, cloth cloaking face, the lavender soap that had washed it but, beneath, skin, traces, herb garden, Father. Father.
Dinner after he died was take-out from the Sunflower Café, where the owner became distressed by the largeness of the order, though she managed to erase the $6.75 on the whiteboard advertising the Dragon’s Feast. “Five o’clock starts dinner,” she said, changing the price to $7.75. My fortune read: “Remember three months* from this date! Your lucky star is shining.” (*Strange events would arrive in two months.)
Hand in hand in San Francisco’s Chinatown, we used to buy ginseng, paper fans, incense, and Laughing Buddha statues.
How to Select a Coffin: The lady with heavy foundation and rodeo clothes and a bolo tie snapped open the accordion door to display the “viewing area.” Urns with the Oakland A’s decals; San Francisco 49ers. Lightning-rod décor. Mahogany with brass railings. Tacky flower-painted sides, white exemplars with spray paint, some with velveteen interiors, wrinkled as brains. My mother gestured; could not speak. There was the barest version of pine; I believe we went with the more modest version of oak.
We were not at our best about the eulogies. Snappish and unclear with each other, only two speeches to be allowed by the church. A disagreement over who would inherit Item X and Item Z.
We were supposed to fling holy water at his coffin, but mostly we splashed ourselves.
At the funeral luncheon at the church hall, a woman droned on and on at me about “the sadness of feeling lost,” and I replied, “Yes, thank you,” but it turned out she’d been yammering about wandering away from her tour bus in Europe.
Name a colorless activity in which you engaged after the funeral: My mother and I watched back-to-back episodes of Project Runway.
What was put into the casket? A Starbucks card because he loved coffee; pink construction paper on which I wrote the Portuguese Night Blessing; from his garden, a pressed gardenia and sprigs of oregano and rosemary. A paper angel with blue glitter; his painting of a lighthouse.
What did The Deceased paint? Coney Island crowds, streets, buildings, portraits, whimsical versions of himself as a Dutch Master; a gas station at Opa-locka, Florida, that I gave to a friend. He left a number of paintings unfinished, a man building a wooden crib, a girl weeping near stones.
What did The Deceased paint on? Canvas, bottles, shells, Mrs. Butterworth bottles, the metal milk cans his father got from work at the dairy. On a car tarp, a Last Judgment scene featuring a tinman in one corner, engulfed in flames.
What The Deceased was buried in: White jacket, black trousers, a tie from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a vest my mother made for an anniversary.
Among the Last Suppers: Chocolate Guinness cake, crème brûlée, raspberry fool, coffee with orange-blossom honey, which he called “the gateway to heaven.”
Regarding numbers: Admit that you and I obsessively check the years of the dead in obituaries:
The age of The Deceased: 87 years, 7 months, 4 days, unknown hours.
In a random sampling, Your Beloved Deceased made it into the
Top 15% of longevity but not the Top 2%.
365 x 87 (the Years of The Deceased) =
+ 217 (add the Days between birth and death)
+ 22 (the number of Extra Days in Leap Years)
= 31,994 (the Days of The Life of The Dead)
The object that broke you: The slate-gray blood-pressure cuff with the tiny red heart.
My father explained death to me through animals.
(1) Under the pine that shed yellow powder, the stray cat we fed lay staring, and my father told me that eyes can sometimes remain open in death.
(2) When our Norwegian Elkhound went missing, he drove me around, searching. Much later, I learned he and my mother knew the dog had been killed but decided I’d be so hysterical it would be kinder for me to think it had run away.
(3) When a sick goldfish in our aquarium got attacked by the others, he saw my horror at learning how the world treats weakness. He scooped it with water into a clean pail to let it die in peace.
At a dinner for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, after losing my father, I told this story to Wendell Berry, and he said, “Your father contributed to the storehouse of grace, then, and to the great soul of the world.”
RED: The color of the cloth hiding the open rectangle in Hayward’s Holy Sepulcher Cemetery’s Mausoleum, where they would slide him in and seal him up.
RED: What I saw while attending a gala in New York, because after mentioning I enjoyed Christmas, a drunk woman taunted me, “Oh, how sweet. You believe in all that nonsense?” and I wanted to smash a plate in her face.
A hair colorist doused me with a red lotion. Why did I choke up and turn into a child who lost every avenue of speech, too shy to say I preferred not to have this?
I ate linguini with tomato sauce and starches and gained five pounds in one week. My thighs got gelatinous; my limbs felt dipped in sea. Younger, I never had to instruct my body to “get out of this chair,” as I did now; I simply rose up.
Three phone calls in two days, two months after my father died: I won Narrative Magazine’s contest with an essay about him, and the New York Times wanted to include my submission for their “The Lives They Loved” year-end eulogy in their Sunday magazine. His was one of only ten national entries for the print edition. More were included in the digital version, and a friend created a freeze-frame of my father when the revolving photographs announcing the article were at the top of page one.
I’d written about the kidnapping of the bust of Virgil from his classroom, an official Senior Prank at San Leandro High School. Every year, we received ransom notes and snapshots of Virgil drinking beer, riding in cars, sitting in restaurants. My father demanded Virgil’s return as part of the game but always said it was obvious from the first day—teenagers being teenagers—who would be the ringleaders. When he zeroed in on the culprits, they were alarmed at his psychic powers.
When he died, his decades of ex-students engaged in merry quarrels on the Internet as to the best conspiracies. One man scoffed that his class was the only one to take Virgil “as a hostage; the rest of you treated him like a houseguest.”
The third call: the prize for being one of eight national winners for a one-page idea of a film was a six-week bootcamp to write the script in Burbank, sponsored by the Writers Store and the New York Film Academy. In the Easter-egg shades of warmth, my grief softened, got heat-treated. Outside the sliding door of my temporary apartment, a palm rustled, begonias got baked. Lemon trees, orange. Bougainvillea heavy-boughed, alive with bees, pink trumpets. Bare-armed in winter; New York blanketed with snow.
Los Angeles itself is the best instruction on how to paint loss: there cannot be a simple revivifying of what went pale, because I am changed and cannot return to pre-grief shades even if I wished to stop feeling his death; I prefer to keep it, the ashes, though in some interior hearth rather than smudged on my forehead. We awaken, in longer grief, to a sharper sense of what we think we know because we carry it every second but now possess deeply: all of life is, of course, always on The Brink, and therefore we see, for good now, a faded world with bursts of intensity, the shades of most vibrant life when death is beckoning, but we draw, for a while, backward.
The Los Angeles sky is not fully blue, robin’s-egg; it’s bright white, as if a palette knife has scraped away great swathes of color. The city itself is like that, hot and searing, and dotted with violets, neon murals, chili-pepper Christmas lights, doors a shock of spring-green. The journey through the shades of grief ends up with the Los Angeles sense of browned hills and sun-sharpened glare, all pale but with stunning brilliance scattered.
Fresh peaches and an aqua pool and a silver ladder, freestyle back and forth. Water warm as I slipped in, as if enacting my father’s dying, sinking into a bath. His gifts, washing over me. Oyster-white clouds so intense I teared up. I drank coconut aloe vera juice. I wrote all day and into the night, and I lost ten pounds.
Years earlier, Christopher and I were given a tour of Rowan Oaks, Mississippi, because his father had been Faulkner’s publisher. I requested two cuttings from the rose bush the author had planted—one for us, and one for my father. Ours perished despite my father’s instructions; his flourished. When we visited, he gave us other cuttings, all doomed. (Granted, he was in California and we were in New York, but I suspect we would not have succeeded on either coast.)
By the time he died, the Faulkner rosebush had sprouted into a tree.
I was at a florist’s, staring at the green Styrofoam blocks because in the end it broke my heart that he couldn’t do well in the flower-arranging class. When I wandered near the roses, I had a vision of the playhouse we outgrew but that my father kept as a shed for the tools used to tend his fruit and walnut trees, chard, artichokes, kale, herbs, blackberries, fennel, tomatoes, and camellias. The owner noticed I had paled, and she brought me a glass of water, and I thanked her and merely said I was sad, and she replied, “Sometimes the smell of earth in here reminds people of someone who died. I see my own mother all the time coming through the agapanthus.”
The Story of the Red Bow
I asked the Universe to send me a big red bow, to cheer me. I watched a Mad Men rerun that evening, and it turned out to be a Christmas episode. Red bows everywhere, including one featured on Joan’s dress. But I wanted the bow to be tangible, for me. Christopher and I went to our local Brazilian restaurant, and they had decorated an outdoor plant with red bows. One fell at my feet, but I replaced it; it belonged to our friends. The next day I searched for a tray my father had painted so we could bring the dessert to Thanksgiving with friends… and it was covered with acrylic cornucopias, fruits and vegetables, a turkey—and a huge painted red bow at the top, all mine.
How Painters are Lazarus
At the Vermeer show at the Frick Museum, the Girl with the Pearl Earring offered a riveting example of my father’s instruction that two tiny dots of white in the pupils of eyes will make what is flat and dead spring instantly alive.
I located her living white dots. The pearl earring was like that, writ larger.
I see you everywhere. And everywhere, you watch for me.
Christopher and I attended a wedding in Brooklyn, at a restaurant called My Moon. An elderly aunt of the bride fell before the ceremony, and the EMTs arrived to lift her away, and sudden accident blended—she was shaken but not seriously hurt—with the black-and-white table settings and peonies and a photo booth and a little white dog and shouting laughter and so exquisitely much happiness.
When I was a girl, my father waltzed with me to “The Blue Danube” on the phonograph, and he’d lift me to sit on the refrigerator and tell me to point to the moon, because it was mine.
In Sag Harbor, I grew faint in the abandoned graveyard where Azorean whalers rest alongside the African American early residents, the headstones slate-gray, their names nearly effaced. At the whaling museum, I left after glimpsing a sailor’s mustache cup with an angel for a handle. A menu advertised “crème caramel with essence of red roses.” But all I wanted was to go home. It was what my father kept asking for.
Coral shades; an egret lifting. Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet based on Thomas Tallis’s spem in alium nunquam habui in the Fuentidueña Chapel in the Cloisters, a girl in a pink tutu holding her father’s hand. Reading a book that makes me less alone because it makes me weep; writing a story that makes others less alone because it makes them weep. A chamomile bath after being caught in rain. Christopher’s face as he sleeps.
I returned to Los Angeles the following winter, riding the cross-country train, back to where my father sent me to let grief ease out in air medicinal with honeysuckle. The sleeper car rocked me as if in a cradle through the Southwest’s red earth.
It is the year of my wedding.
It is the time of my life.
My mother tried to decipher his computer’s password after he died, and since it began “AUGUST,” she typed in variations of his name until she found a paper spelling out “AUGUST1955.”
It is my birth month and year.
At a cottage for my honeymoon with Christopher, I think, “I see the rust-colored reeds along the shore, but my father cannot, and one day, I shall not, my husband shall not.” I ascend the stairs, knowing my father’s getting to do that shall never come again. “I did not ask to come here,” he once said, “but I sure didn’t ask to leave.”
At twilight, the bay behind the cottage where I enter my marriage rests under a sky that flares with a startling rose-pink (carnation-pink, streaked, until it cedes to night) that stuns with its beauty, intense with its desire to paint how my father described the shade of dreams.