I hear from a lot of people who were particularly touched by the chapter in my book called “MY FATHER’S BLUE DUESENBURG.” It makes me think of all the people grieving their lost parents, and to that end, I thought I’d post a small piece I wrote a month after my father’s death, seven years ago. It was never meant to be published, but it was never quite meant for my journal either. People ask me about memoir and how it differs from fiction. They wonder if it’s crafted or if it’s just heart language. I think it’s the intersection of both. Fiction finds that intersection too, but memoir is a special bird. It’s the mind’s way to find the heart’s course. It begs for steerage. It wants pure truth. To me, memoir comes from this place I share with you below. It’s no small surprise that it ends in a prayer. Maybe that’s what memoir is: a prayer.
Remember the Virgin Islands? On the catamaran, with Mom and Dad arriving as the sun was setting, dark and windy with flotsam around the dinghy and we were kids with kids and a crew, paid in full by the kids with kids with kids on the dinghy? Remember?
I was a new mother then. Everything was magic. My father could have died on a small island with chickens and wild dogs and naked children running around and I would have made it just fine I think. Back then. When life was light.
Dad, instead died a month ago. When I wasn’t in the Caribbean. When I was here in Montana, ten pounds heavier, with a skin condition, probably from years of heavy writing and heavy rejection and heavy mothering.
I know I need to practice light right now. To have a Caribbean mind. To be like the girl bartender on the island at the Soggy Dollar Bar with the piercings and the dun skin and more attention and power than anyone could ever hope to have. Remember the large black man – Bamba—at the Bamba Shack on Tortola who looked up at the way Venus was positioned near the crescent moon and said, “Something is going to happen soon.” And then terrorists flew planes into the World Trade towers and killed thousands and broke the world’s collective heart, and my father was still alive, so mine did not entirely break. I had my father. The something that I was waiting for to happen, did not happen, until a month ago.
I am a writer largely because of a lifetime of fearing this event. I said it at the funeral– “I have been fretting this moment my whole life. My father was nearly fifty when I was born. And I spent months and months of my life trying to pre-mourn his death in journals and novels and poems and songs and dreams and dark-nights-of-the-soul. And he was there for everything. He knew my children and my husband and my house and land and career and walked me down the aisle; he was there for more than I ever dreamed he would be. It was all a waste of time. You can’t prepare for grief.” I guess I used to think that I wouldn’t be anyone’s fool if I tried to. But the mind does not experience grief. Not nearly as much as the body does. That was a surprise. I have been preparing in my mind, and letting my body go cheap. Grief is visceral.
My father feared his death. He taught me everything I know about death. We were joined at the hip in our fear of death. And now he succeeded in taking that fear away for himself, and I am left alone with a choice. I choose not to fear death. And yet my mind does not comply. It seems to me that the mind is the true enemy.
The day before my mother called to tell me Dad had had a stroke and developed aspiration pneumonia, I was like Bamba. I said, “I feel like something huge is about to happen.”
I think we all have the power to be prophets. But are prophets like the messenger? Do we need to bear bad news? And what happens to us when we do? I heard there was a hurricane that took out the Bamba Shack. Or did I dream that?
If I am to be in my mind, let it be in a Caribbean state. Let me be with my love, collecting tiny sand dollars on a sand bar in the shimmering silver of sky and water and not knowing the difference between water and sky, and not needing to. Let me be fifteen. Let me be a green young thing tasting my first rum and coke and buzzing down the beach in the heat in my first bikini. And let me flirt with my first black man and consider drugs and not worry about my father dying or myself dying or my children dying because that buzz won’t let me and I have so much less to love. Then. It was all high. I won’t know then that I’ll be chasing that exact buzz for the next twenty years. God, let me be that girl. Let me be in my body and let it be green.
Make my mind Caribbean blue.
Make my heart agree to be so broken that it forgets to cling to the idea of broken and mended things.
Make me vulnerable past fences.
Make me new.