I’m losing my edge. Last night I returned home from a party after midnight, wondered briefly if it was too late to play the violin for a while. I picked up the violin and felt its familiar smooth scroll, then set it down and went into the kitchen for some fuzzy water. There, I the unmistakeable presence of something else in the room. I raised my eyes slowly from the counter edge and saw a palmetto bug — the Gulf’s polite euphemism for GIANT FLYING COCKROACH (GFC) — sitting contemplatively atop a (thankfully unopened) box of crackers. And perhaps it’s the new silence in the house, the fact that I have nobody here to sing to just now : I talked to the bug. (After a preliminary shriek, of course. I’m not so inured to the entomological life of Southern Louisiana that I can see a GFC without my adrenaline spiking.) I tried cajoling. Come on, now, you don’t want those crackers. I realize you think you want those crackers, but trust me, you don’t. The GFC tilted its shiny mahogany head at a slight angle, toward my voice, then skittered down the side of the cracker box. It sat behind the box, next to a clear vase. I tried bargaining. How about this? You hop down from the counter, and I will simply usher you outside where you belong. I’ll even throw out a couple crumbs of something for you. Promise. The GFC scurried behind the vase. I shoved the vase gently against the backsplash, and the GFC was forced out of hiding. It ran across the remainder of the counter, toward the shelves holding my kitchen appliances. I lost sight of it for a moment, then heard its legs rustling on something — a box of teabags, right at eye-level. I tried reasoning. Now, you know you don’t want tea, for Heaven’s sake. You’re a Giant Flying Cockroach, not Prince William. The box tilted toward the back of the shelf, the GFC lost its balance, and again I lost sight of it. I sighed and pulled out the bug spray. There comes a point when negotiations simply stall. We needed a mediator, the GFC and I. Fortunately (for my team), the mediator came in the form of Raid.
I took no delight in spraying my contemplative companion, however. Over the past year and some, I’ve seen too much of the wondrous in what makes a life to find any satisfaction in ending one, even that of a GFC. And the encounter reminded me of a few things : first and foremost, that it is time to call the bug guy and have him come spray. He brings some super-potent chemical that ensures the bugs have nowhere to hide, inside the house or on the porches; and for a few months after his visit, all insect life is invisible. It’s brilliant. Brilliant, and comforting, and illusory. Bugs, after all, are part of the reality of life in the Gulf States, life everywhere really. They are the uncomfortable underside of a natural economy that makes the world turn the way it does. Kafka knew this. His Gregor Samsa, turning into a hideous scarab, became the locus for everything his family sought to keep beneath the surface : jealousy, disdain, selfishness, shame. His presence in the house unleashed their anger, their humiliation too, that such ugliness could exist right in their midst, could reflect their own ugliness right to their faces, and they couldn’t do anything about it.
Shortly after buying this house, I sat in the living room on my couch. It was late one summer night, and I was hot, and tired. I was teaching a summer class, then coming home to unpack boxes and paint trim. The house seemed perpetually filled with fumes, and full of surprises. I melted into the couch cushion and called Dad. We talked about whatever we talked about — my class, his current mystery novel (he had recently discovered Kathy Reichs, and was outpacing me in reading the Bones series), his health, my research — and suddenly I let out a yell.
“Sorry, Dad,” I said. “There’s a huge gigantic roach running across the living-room floor.”
“What is it doing in the house?” he asked, with undisguised disgust, outrage in his voice.
It’s just something you get used to, in Louisiana, but that’s hard to explain to a Californian who has never come face-to-face with an insect that eats your tax receipts and kitchen towels if no chocolate is available, leaves droppings that you can mistake for mouse poop, and flies from room to room. You learn to wear shoes indoors at all times. I don’t remember how I answered Dad. I do remember thinking that his question held distinct merit, as I grabbed for the broom handle with one hand and a tennis shoe with the other, ready to shoo-and-or-stomp my unwelcome visitor. What do insects ever do in a house? Eat and breed and startle and, well, bug people. They look for food and try to stay hidden, concealed in places we don’t even know exist, behind and beneath and between the elements of the world visible to us and which we interpret as all there is. But there is always more. There is always the piece we hesitate to explore or acknowledge. The part we only learn about later. The things we fear to excavate. There is always something beyond the certainties we think we hold.
Dad loved the natural world, and he passed this down to his children. He could sit in the backyard for hours, working a crossword puzzle in the shade of a leafy ficus tree. When he had finished his puzzle, he would lean back in his lawn chair and watch the yard. The pine tree (later supplanted by a ficus), the lemon tree where a colony of bees hummed at pollination, the way a line of ants would swivel around a small piece of gravel in their path, the hummingbirds who hovered delicately over the fence, drinking from the neighbors’ trumpeting morning glory vine. And the large, wide-branched tree two houses down, towering high enough over our not-next-door neighbors’ fence that we could watch its colors deepen and glow in summer, pale and slip away in winter. Its leaves held four or five different shades of green. Some afternoons, as I sat inside with a book or homework or my violin to practice, I would look into the backyard in surprise to realize that Dad was still outside. Then even more surprise to realize he was awake. That he was contemplating the details of the natural cradle that held him, like a great cupped hand. This was his place, and it marvelled him.
I follow as much of this as possible, in my own life, but I am in possession of a sadly foreshortened horizon when it comes to patience for nature. Plagued with arachnophobia my whole life through, I can only tolerate a moment or two of sitting on the grass, no matter how lovely. Grass harbors spiders, sometimes quite large hairy ones, and the spider race and I have only recently reached a state of détente cordiale — by which I mean that I will not kill spiders outside my house, unless they happen to be extra-large or poisonous. (Inside the house, the gloves come off and the Raid comes out.) But there’s something else, too. Seeing the beauty of multifoliate green, or a budding or fading flower, or a particular curl of vine-tendril, I am compelled to find my camera, or my notebook. I start itching to record the experience, to put my fingers to work in service of its brightness, its saturation, its dew-tipped newness, its nuances. Whether in photography or in words. Something to capture the image, the instant, and remember it later, and share it. So being in nature empty-handed leaves me feeling somewhat anxious. The camera is right within reach ! My mind starts to flip through chromatic vocabulary as I ponder the spine of a leaf or the curve of peeling bark : is that viridian? sepia? ash? What color is birch, exactly? If I write birch-colored will the phrase with its rhythms and hues evoke the exposed flesh of the tree I am seeing?
A year ago I flew out to California for a long weekend visit. I had left in August, the day Dad was being moved to a nursing facility where he could do physical therapy two or three times a day. He hated the facility, and refused to ask anyone for help, and the fourth day he was there, a Friday, he got up to use the toilet by himself and fell. He broke his hip. The nurses on-site took x-rays but they were indeterminate. And so they took Dad back to the hospital, where he stayed over the weekend, unable to move because of the hip, unable to have surgery until the doctors rotated back in early the following week. During the days he lay waiting on the surgical wing, he developed a bedsore that went untreated and worsened until it was a Stage IV. The hip surgery was successful and quick, but the recovery was challenged because of the bedsore and because he had lost so many days of mobility. I went out as soon as I could. I felt awful that I’d not been there for his surgery. Long-distance reports from my sister and brother offered only marginal reassurance. When I got there on Thursday night, Dad was sitting up in a wheelchair and scooting himself down the hall using his legs. The left foot got stuck every so often, and he was frustrated with not having full mobility. The weekend was less than idyllic. Dad was in a foul mood. He was in pain. He had to sit up, to encourage circulation in the repaired hip and around the bedsore, but he had no energy to sit up or move. He didn’t want to eat. He didn’t want to drink his Ensure shakes. He didn’t want to do the physical therapy Larry had prescribed. He didn’t want to go sit outside on the beautiful sunny autumn afternoon. He complained about his caregivers’ harshness, about our family presence, about the doctors’ expectations. He wanted to be left alone, and we wouldn’t give him that. I wouldn’t give him that.
Come on, Dad, just one more hand-clench, I urged while he grimaced at the PT exercises. You can do it. Hold on to the counter and pull. Center your feet. Come on, up. Stand up. And down. And up again. The doctor said five times. You can do it. You have to do it.
Oh, for God’s sake, he snapped. I don’t have to do it. I can’t do it. Just leave me alone, would you?
I breathed deeply. His nurse stood to the side, watchful. No, Daddy, I won’t leave you alone, I said. I’m here to help. We’re going to get you stronger. Remember? Come on. Go ahead and be angry, but stand up out of that wheelchair again.
I saw him grit his teeth. Our jaws, a mirror : two bright white curves of bone grinding in unspoken frustration. He grasped the counter and stood halfway up, one more time. I bit my tongue and gave him a hug. Then I went to the store to get ingredients for dinner. I had an idea in mind. I was going to cook something he wouldn’t be able to resist. I bought tilapia filets and fresh cashews, an exotically shaped jar of delicate white-wine mustard, baby spinach and tender white mushrooms. Back at Dad’s house, I crushed the cashews into a fine powder and mixed them with some corn meal. I coated the fish in egg white and mustard and laid each piece in the crumb mixture. I sautéed the mushrooms first, with white wine and a little bit of garlic, then spooned them out of the pan and added the spinach to the leftover sauce. The kitchen filled with wholesome scents, a tang of spice and the honeyed odor of baking cashews. Mom set the table while I filled the plates, making sure Dad got a full but reasonable portion. Dad’s caregiver helped wheel him down the hall, letting his feet work at propelling him forward. It was slow going, and he was grumpy by the time he got to the table.
Everyone complimented the meal. Everyone except Dad. It was too dry, he said. He couldn’t swallow the spinach. I rolled my eyes and determined to let every remark slide off into oblivion. Just eat what you can, Dad, I said. He grumbled something I refused to hear. His caregiver pulled a forkful of fish and twined a leaf of spinach around the edge of it, held it to Dad’s mouth. He ate. I was so thrilled to see him eating that I got out my camera and snapped a picture, then another one. I wanted to remember this, the evening I had cooked something that Dad ate. Even if he complained, he was eating. One of the pictures I took caught both him and the nurse in an unfortunate pose, mouths open, chins at unflattering angles. I showed the back of the camera to my sister and we giggled. Dad muttered something. He took a mouthful of spinach from the nurse’s proffered fork, then spit it out into his lap. My sister joked that we had two two-year-olds at the table, her daughter and her father.
Thanks a lot, Dad said, offended. You know, you all are being very impolite.
Oh, Daddy, come on, we’re just teasing.
He turned toward me the way the velociraptor in Jurassic Park turned toward its prey, his eye flashing. And you, he said. You just want to take pictures of me so you can show them around to everybody and make fun of me later.
I blanched, stared at Dad. Is that what you really think?
Yes. His voice was petulant.
I was stung far more deeply than the comment merited. A voice inside me reminded me that he was sick and hurting, that he didn’t mean what he had said. Another voice — much louder — screamed that being sick and hurting does not give you the right to be nasty to everyone who loves you and is trying to help you get better. That you have been beastly all day and everyone is here to be with you, for fuck’s sake. That yes we are annoying and persistent and silly when we encourage you to stand up one more time, to flex your muscles, to raise your arms, whatever the fuck it is, because you’ve done nothing but complain about it over and over again and it’s the only thing that is going to get your strength back, you keep complaining that you have no strength but how the fuck do you think that’s going to change if you don’t do anything you’re supposed to do? What do you want us all to do? Just let you lie down and give up and die? Not gonna fucking happen. And yeah, I take pictures. I would take a picture of you right now if I wasn’t screaming at you. You know why? Because I don’t get to see you every day. This is what I have to keep you close to me when I can’t be here. And if you don’t fucking understand that, then you know what? I’ll just stay in Louisiana. I flew two thousand miles to be here. I came to be with you this weekend because I love you, you asshole.
That voice smashed into the table with both fists and careened off the dark dining-room windows. It licked the far wall of the living room and touched its fiery tongue to the muted television screen. It seared a swath through the buttery leather couch, jack-booted the loud low piano keys in dissonant intervals, and shot out the door into the backyard where it planted itself in the untended grass like a dagger someone had thrown, tip pricking the earth, blade quivering silver in the moonlight.
When I looked up Dad’s eyes had crumpled and his whole face reflected grief. I’m sorry, he said.
I’m going for a walk, I told the family and stormed out of the house. It was nearly nine o’clock. The streets were black. I half-walked, half-ran down the street I had grown up on, my throat raw from shouting, face burning in shame. My hands were red and swollen from striking the table, all my limbs trembled in rage and sorrow. And I sobbed. I wept as I anger-walked, openly and baldly, aching with hurt, and mourning, and fear. I passed a man walking his dog; he looked at me curiously as I strode past shuddering with tears and barely able to breathe. I walked up the long street that arcs around Dad’s neighborhood like a rib, thinking one block would calm me. One block passed, then two, then three, then ten. I found myself turning near the elementary school none of us had attended. My steps had finally slowed, and the wracking sobs had smoothed out into steady tears. I could not make my eyes stop crying. The night was blacker than I remembered September nights being. I found myself in front of Dad’s house, afraid to go back inside. The light was low in his front room, the room we had converted to a hospital center. I sat on the curb and watched shadows flicker against the lowered blinds. My sister had called and left me a voicemail while I was storming through the neighborhood. “I’m driving around looking for you right now,” she said. “And for the record, I think you said exactly what needed to be said and exactly the way it needed to be said. Dad finally heard it.” I turned the message off and sat in the quiet air until I could see clearly. I felt no elation at having my explosion validated. Mostly I just felt deflated. I thought of the nine hundred better ways I could have said something to Dad. Or said nothing to Dad. I thought of times when I had behaved badly and he had refrained from lighting into me the way I had lit into him. And he was dying. The sentence came unbidden to my mind and once it was there I could not dislodge it. I was losing my father. My Daddy was dying.
I stood up, feeling about a hundred years old, and walked quietly back inside. My brother gave me a hug and a sympathetic look. Mom told me that she had been worried and was glad I was safe. She said Dad had gone to bed, but wanted to see me when I got back. She left and I squared my shoulders and walked down the hall. I heard his radio softly playing Bach, the oboe concerto. He lay on one side, distributing the pressure more evenly so his bedsore would get a break. Next to his hospital bed my brother had set up the buttery leather chair that made a set with the living-room couch, and had set up the little dog stairs leading up to it so Dexter would have a comfortable place to be near Dad. Dexter was curled up in the chair. I sat on the bottom step and watched Dad sleep, trying to remember him in his baseball-coach uniform, the fitted red polyester leggings; or in the suit he had worn when our family rented a limo to celebrate after my sister’s high school and my college graduation; or in his old brown corduroy shorts when we were kids, the only shorts he owned for years (because why would you replace perfectly good shorts?). I tried to see him hale and even a little jowly, his contented belly after one of our mother’s home-cooked dinners, the creases in his shirtless sunburn from the place where his chest folded over his gut. I heard his high falsetto singing to my baby sister as he lifted her up in the air; his quavering tenor trying to follow along in the aria from The Secret Garden when I had just discovered this music and begged him to sing while I played; his almost-breathless intonation, counting down “one … two … three …” before he whistled the first little song Violet would learn to dance to.
Dexter raised his head and looked at me blankly, a growl low in his throat.
I know, buddy, I whispered, stroking his head. I blew it. This is our Daddy, after all.
When I looked away from the dog I saw that Dad had opened his eyes. He looked at me slowly, as if gathering energy for words.
I’m sorry, he said again, and his lip trembled like a little boy’s.
No, Dad, I’m sorry, I said, and felt my eyes fill again. I should never have yelled at you like that. (I’m so afraid, Daddy, the quiet voice went on in my mind. I’m terrified that I’m losing you, and I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know who I am without you in the world. Can you stay long enough to teach me how to be here without you? Because you are my touchstone. You are my anchor. You’re my compass. Jesus, you’re every cartographical, masonic, and maritime metaphor there is. The point is, even thinking the words “lost without you” makes me lost. And I don’t want you to be gone before you’re gone. Can you hear this part, Daddy? I’m scared. I want the years back when I didn’t think you were special. I want to make sure I tell you how much you mean to me, every chance I get, so that when this moment comes I’ll know you know. I don’t want to be sitting here feeling guilty and selfish because I’m so afraid that you’re dying.)
He reached one swollen hand over toward the railing of his hospital bed and I sat on the floor so I could be closer to him.
No more fighting, Dad said, eyes spilling.
Do not go gentle into that good night, I heard. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
Yes, fighting, I told him. Just not me. Fight this. Because we need you. I need you.
He nodded. I wiped his eyes with my sleeve, then my own, and we both laughed tearily. The strains of the Bach filtered into our consciousness, the way I used to look up from homework in the living room as the sun began dipping down below the horizon, and suddenly saw afternoon light flicked with gold, the aspect of the world altered as dust took on color and shape. I stayed at Dad’s side, kneeling sideways on the floor next to his hospital bed, holding his hand through the railing. I closed my eyes and leaned against the cool metal bar. Dad stretched his fingers forward and scritched the top of my head, as he would have done with Dexter; as he did when I was a child, home with fever or a cough. My heart felt heavy and flat and full. And when Dad spoke next, it was to comment on the tone of the oboe : That is the most beautiful thing.
The following day he did all his PT without complaint, even stood up and down in his wheelchair. We sat outside, he wearing a t-shirt that read “Musicians Duet Better” and a pair of pyjama bottoms that were too loose on him. On his head, the Harvard baseball cap I’d given him nearly twenty years earlier, when I had first been accepted to graduate school. He drank his Ensure. Mom had a heartfelt talk with him. My sister and I felt hopeful, a little. He’s just clueless, we decided. He’s got to realize that he’s not going to get better if he doesn’t do anything to help himself get better. I sat with Dad late into the night, drinking cup after cup of steaming tea long after he had fallen asleep. I flew back to Louisiana in the morning.
A month ago my sister called. Our brother had been hospitalized with a recurring severe stomach problem, and she had gone to be with him in the ER. Walking through the halls of the sadly familiar hospital, she had crossed the path of one of Dad’s respiratory therapists, a lovely mature woman who took extra time with Dad and asked him about his life as a jazz player, his family, his students, his music. Melissa was crying into the phone, her voice broken.
“She said he knew he was dying,” she told me. “He talked to her about it, late at night, when she would come in for his treatment. He would be awake and he would talk to her about it.”
Old age should burn and rage at close of day, I murmured to myself, wondering for the first time how David John Thomas had actually died and if he had gone through a long enfeebling illness beforehand. Did he aspirate his food, even milkshakes? Did his white-blood-cell count just keep mysteriously increasing, until it became clear the body was fighting itself at the end? Did his hands swell, his fingers so stretched and rough with bloat he could not play the clarinet or hold the dog? Did he know his poet son’s voice, did he ever read or hear the famous villanelle? Or was it the kind of poem that could only be written after loss? With absence itself as a sorrowful muse?
“He knew,” my sister insisted. “I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. But Dad knew. And it’s just so like him. He kept it to himself and protected all of us from the fact that he was dying. He knew he was dying, and he had to lie there all alone.”
He didn’t have to, I wanted to respond. God, he could have just told us. He could have told me. If I’d known he knew, I would have listened to him better. I would have paid more attention. I would have taken the semester off in full so I could be with him. I would never have shouted at him. I would have treasured every second.
But I knew I was wrong, that these thoughts were wishful thinking of the most egotistically revisionist kind. Dad had seen that he couldn’t tell me. My father, who always read me beyond the surface level, heard in my tantrum that September night all the terror and loss I could not express. And he kept his own terror and loss to himself, offering me the one illusion I could accept — that he still thought he could get better. As long as I thought he had that hope, Dad knew, I would be able to tell myself he hadn’t given up, and that would comfort me. When Melissa and I hung up that afternoon, I went outside and sat on my front porch. It was a beautiful afternoon, even at one hundred and four degrees. I watched a squirrel slink upward around the trunk of a tree across the street. A bright green anole climbed onto a leaf nearer the porch and thrust out its throat-bubble a few times when it saw me, then darted away. Dad would have loved that lizard, I thought. I wiped tears away surreptitiously, thankful for Louisiana’s August heat that made it look like I was sweating.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Last night’s GFC got me thinking. It so very earnestly, so meticulously, wanted something on the kitchen counter. I didn’t feel my usual horror at the sight of it. Mostly, I felt curious, and then a bit sad. It’s just not as easy to kill something now as it was a year ago at this time. Maybe that’s another thing that so much music does for a person : it brings more of life in, and closer, and makes it more relevant, and more interesting, and harder to isolate oneself from. What was the bug doing inside the house? It made me think of Dad, his fascination with insects and the ways they construct their universe. And it reminded me of some of the things I did not want to think about, as I try to write about Dad : my own ugliness, my own often confused place in the intricate harmonies that make up this world. Music is its own entomological force, sometimes. The ugly notes — the notes I can’t play well even after months, years, of practice, pull on pieces of memory I’d be more comfortable keeping buried. The music brings memory to the surface, and the surface doesn’t always have room for it — the kitchen counter is so exposed, so smooth and clean around the bug, which throws the whole illusion of order and hygiene into disarray, reminding a neat little world of things like grease traps, and sewers, and gutters. Anger. Selfishness. Hypocrisy. Cruelty, its deliberateness and its accidental afflictions. And memory : the unbelievable way I can still, even after the past year, push aside my own knowledge of the bug’s world because forgetting it makes my daily life one iota easier. And the way it judders back into visibility, with a shock and a late-night gasp, the recognition of this place I thought I was safe from. Without the cockroach on my counter, I am telling the story of my Daddy the hero, and of myself his devoted daughter learning to remember his voice through a dozen things he gave me the inspiration to learn. This is my hidden treasure, and music its cipher. It is a sad, funny, quirky, cool project, and I like being its narrator. And it’s true. The backstory is also true, the cockroach lurking just at the edge of that familiar picture. That my Dad could be a terrific asshole : a demanding, cantankerous, brutal, callous jerk from whom I inherited a raging temper I am ashamed of and a remarkable capacity for stepping into emotional quicksand. And that I can be a terrific asshole too, so blinded by my own need that I could blow up at the mere shadow of his.
I have not called the bug guy just yet. I’m not entirely sure why; I don’t want to have a nightly showdown with the GFCs in my kitchen, or living room, or anywhere really. But something tells me to let the bug’s life play out. Because you have to live with them, the bugs. Our time together is so limited. A theme and variations rippling out through the rooms, across freeways and backyards and time, in the shadow of a giant tree whose leaves hold more green than the eye can measure.