Sunday, February 15, 2009

to my father

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we say goodbye. How we honor and respect those people and things that are no longer in our lives but, like memories or genes or scars, remain always with us.

Saying goodbye has always been scary to me, linked to issues of abandonment and events happening outside of my control. I was too young to say goodbye to my father when he left us for jail. He was just gone.

I can remember having to saying goodbye to my life in Hawaii at the age of ten moving to California knowing no one, speaking a different slang; it felt like I said goodbye to my entire universe, and I had no choice in the matter.

And then four years later, I had to say goodbye to California when I was forced to return to Hawaii, a changed person, with a new accent and new interests. But saying goodbye when you move pales in comparison to saying goodbye when someone dies.

My father passed away on August 25th. I had the chance to sit with him for the last five days of his life, taking care of him, preparing him for hospice care, dealing with his insurance, his hygiene, his eating. It was like parenting your parent as a newborn. Something familiar yet disconcerting, something I was thankful I had the chance to do yet disturbed by.

When I first got the call to come home, I was terrified because this, of course, was another goodbye that I had no control over. There was no coming back from where he was going. The doctors knew it. He knew it. I knew it. There is a certain relief when faux optimism is replaced with the stark reality of what is coming. But relief and clarity don't make it any easier. On my way to the airport, a friend said to me: when you see him, touch him. Don't be afraid to touch him.

It feels like the best advice I have ever been given.

When I saw him in his barely recognizable state, yellow, bloated, often delirious, I was shocked, standing rigid for a second wondering what to say. But then I walked directly over to him and laid my hands on his arm, his cheek, touched his face, stroked his hair. It was a grounding act, a gesture that could say more to him than any of my words could.

We sat like that for days, often in silence, sometimes talking about my kids or my sisters and brothers; we never really directly said anything about the lives we led, the decisions that have pulled us apart and brought us together, but we touched, we hugged, my hands always on his.

On his last day alive, he was feeling good enough to go to the library to get some books for his stay in the hospice. He wheeled about the library while we stayed with the grandkids in the children's section. An hour later when he found us, he had a librarian with him holding a box of twenty seven books, most of them romantic novels. I now have someone to blame for my obsession with romantic comedies. Twenty seven books for a man who had less than a month to live. My brother laughed and said: Papa, how 'bout like one or two?

My father responded: Chale, mijo, you never know and plus I can't decide. They all look good.

Needless to say, we checked out every fucking book in the box and stacked them by his bed that afternoon.

However, he never got a chance to read any of them because he died that night while I was flying home to gather my children. When I told the story to my daughters, they asked me, in their infinite wisdom, if I knew the titles of the books. I realized I didn't and immediately picked up the phone and called my brother and asked him to write out all the titles. Perhaps one day, I'll read them.

The funeral was going to be in a week. We had a few days before my kids and I were to return to Albuquerque. In the meantime, I thought I'd do some research for a story I was writing. You know, to get my mind off of goodbyes, off of how we pay our respects to our past and to our history. So I went to the library to get this classic book called Subway Art, one of the first books ever published on graffiti; it contained hundreds of pictures taken by this old white dude who had the wherewithal to recognize the incredible art going on in New York city by these fifteen- and sixteen-year-old kids.

They had one copy in all of the Berkeley public library system, and it was in a special reserve section. I asked to see it and the librarian said: You can no longer take it out of the building. You have to stay right here.

I was thinking What's her problem. It's just a fucking book. Yes, I was in a foul mood that week. I said fine and walked to this table and sat down. I opened the book up and I was stunned. I understood why she was so careful.

At first I didn't know what to feel; at first I thought I was offended. Every possible piece of whiteness was covered with notes, with people writing in the book. Every margin and blank area, even some strategic spots in the pictures themselves, like backdrops behind people's faces or the sky above the trains, every possible space was covered with tags and throwies.

It was overwhelming.

People had written simple things like: J loves T, or westsiiiide, or just their names: Hector or Jaime. It was like they had come to pay their respects, to show their love. They were very careful not to cover any classic subway art. They wrote notes to their graffiti idols: Les you live forever, or lady Pink stole my heart. Page after page, I marveled at the intensity. I became filled with such a powerful feeling, like this book held so much, carried so many wishes and prayers, from so many kids who probably never felt this way about a book in their lives. Who had never even been to New York City. But here, in the pages of this book, they took their time to leave a little something behind. Here it was.




I thought to myself that this must be one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

I couldn't help it; I just broke down right there in the library. And the best thing was no one did or said anything. Except this one old dude. He got up and brought me some tissue, dropped a box that must have been in the library on a table and walked away. It was the first time I had cried since my father died. I felt myself wanting to cover my face, trying to keep from crying, but I couldn't. I just let myself cry and turned page after page.

When we finally arrived for the funeral, the typical family drama ensued: we had to have both a Catholic and a Christian service, people argued over cremation or burial; I seemed to have offended everyone when I suggested we just divide up his ashes and bury some in the family plot we've had for over a hundred years and spread some in the mountains of northwestern New Mexico.

But none of these rituals was the kind of ritual I wanted to honor my father with or was the way I wanted to say goodbye.

I wanted to write something.

I wanted to put on paper the pain, the pleasure, the complexity of being his son. On the plane ride to see my father before he passed a way, I had taken out a sheet of lined paper. I wrote on the top of it: To My Father. I was ready to write out all the things I wanted to say to him.

For the entire week, I was taking care of him as well as the days before the funeral, I would take it out now and then and start something; then scratch it out. I'd write a word here or there, but ended up crossing them out. More often I'd take it out and look down at the blank sheet, the growing false starts and illegible words and find myself speechless.


At the funeral, they placed the casket in the front of the church so people could come up to see the body. Everyone waited and milled about for a while and then the Padrino asked the children to come up first. I watched as one child then another came up. My father was surrounded by a dozen children all looking in at his body and finally one reached out and touched him. Then another. And another. My kids were lost somewhere in the group. They petted his face, stroked his hair, picked up his stiff hands, some laughing, some crying, some looking blankly at a man most of them barely knew but had heard stories about. Some placed on his body little cards or pictures.

Finally, the adults got up, and I sat there and watched his friends approach him one at a time. Some didn't do anything but walk up and look down, share a moment of silence with him. Many walked up and bent down and whispered their final goodbyes, their final words to him. And many others walked up, and with the hand drawn pictures from the kids, left something: someone tucked a 60's peace patch in his hands, someone a crucifix, someone stuffed a twenty dollar bill in his pocket, someone left a Corona bottle cap, a bullet, a picture of him and a woman on a boat.

In the end, when it was the family's turn, I took out my scratches on the piece of paper, its solemn silence holding all the things I wanted to say but didn't have words for, all the anger and the sadness and the joy; in the end, I folded it up tightly and I tucked it into his suit. It joined the other tokens of remembrance, other parts of his story: the tears from family and friends, the softly spoken memories, the odds and ends people left with him.

In honor.

In remembrance.

With love.

In the end, I simply reached out and placed my hands on his.

And whispered goodbye.