American Incognitum

by Matthew Brent Jackson

As far as I can determine, my father apparently died in my arms on the evening of April 15, 2015. As a career CPA, this seemed fitting, but at the time it was only shocking and awkward. My father had Parkinson’s and Prostate Cancer, and he was brought to my home to visit. He was in the front yard where he was standing but unable to walk. My brother was a few feet away getting my dad’s walker to help him move. I felt that if I pulled him forward some, he would step on his own and begin to climb the yard’s slow rise. Instead, my pulling had the opposite effect: my dad’s legs flipped back like a card table, and I held him up limp. I called to my brother who came running back.

It was not the fact that my dad was not ambulatory that was the concern. It was his color. Without simile, he looked like a corpse. That color that only the dead have—a yellow white in Caucasians—a sallowness suggestive of absolutely no oxygen: think of the cadaver in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, that was my Dad’s color.

He was dead in my front yard and though there may be more appropriate responses, all I could think of was the literal dead body my brother and I now had between us. I was not thinking of my father: I was thinking of the inconvenient object in my front yard. A dead body there in the suburbs. He had to be moved quickly. It was against all proprieties. I don’t know the schedule of events. It was all in the terms of seconds. I don’t know how, but my brother had come behind my dad and had him under the arms. We were going to put him in his walker’s seat, but it seemed too late. I thought he must be moved. He couldn’t be dead in the yard with the suburbs driving by. I picked him up by the feet as my brother had him under the arms. When I lifted him and carried him forward, something happened.

I am not a scientist. I am not in a health care profession. But when I lifted my Dad’s legs something happened. The action of lifting him had folded him some, and I saw his skin fill with blood. He turned ruddy as if the motion had been like the squeezing of an accordion. And then he was alive.

He had turned red, and we got him inside. He paled up again, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t like Rembrandt’s cadaver. We tried to keep him vertical though he was wobbly and held him so he could sit upright. My two year old daughter brought him something like a cracker, and he ate it. My dad was alive, but it seemed like he could die again at any moment. My mom and brother debated what to do. Call an ambulance? Call Hospice? They decided to go home, back to the farm where he would want to be if it was the end.

He slept awhile in the chair and then we got him to the car. There were hugs: my two children patted him; I told him I loved him, and I wondered if he would die that night. Yet I didn’t think so. My dad had been apparently dying for years. Battling his body, battling his brain, but battling and continuing on.

The next morning my dad was standing on his own. My mom asked how he felt. He said he felt awful but that he needed to eat, to exercise. She told him he had five grandchildren and that he must work if he wanted to see them in their activities like soccer, etc. He had to eat, had to exercise. My dad understood.

For however many years, a disease had been eating at my dad’s frontal lobe. After many years of anger towards him, I had come to peace with my dad because it had become clear that many of his destructive decisions were being made by a brain that had gone off on business of its own. And yet there was no easy answer. What was neurology? What was psychology? What was personality? What was personal background? What belonged to my dad, and what exactly belonged to Parkinson’s?

My dad had many skills that he had neglected to pass on: a man of precision who loaded his own rifle shells to the grain of gunpowder so that he could have utter faith in the rounds he shot. A man who carved his own gunstocks and customized his gun barrels. A man who was still on the record lists for a Rocky Mountain Goat he shot in 1965.

Yet he never took me hunting, nor did he show me how to do my taxes despite a lifetime in accounting. He wasn’t engaged in giving lessons or offering dictums, but at 79, at the apparent end of his life, he decided he must teach, even if he didn’t discuss the instruction explicitly. For anyone willing to pay attention, my dad’s curriculum was clear: don’t die, if you can help it. Keep living. Find a way to keep going. Dying is not our business.

I had a friend who was an artist. His life went sideways. He concluded that the only way out was out. He was a sculptor and apparently his final piece was his own death on a gallows he had constructed. There were elaborate issues connected to his end of life not worth discussing, and when I heard of his death I was greatly affected even though I had not spoken to him in at least a year. He was one of those people you liked. Like everyone I know who have killed themselves, he was kind to me. He may have made mistakes with other people, but he was always kind to me.

Not long after he died, he came to me in a dream, or if you prefer, I dreamed about him. In the dream I asked him: aren’t you dead? He told me he was but that it was like a tube amplifier being turned off—the switch had been switched but that lingering power remained. That sound that slowly buzzed down to nothingness. But he said, I can feel prayer.

I hope so. I don’t remember the dream after that, but the end of his life served as a warning. So much energy can be spent, so much effort on trying to die. Literal or metaphoric gallows get constructed. I’m not judging my friend who went away. Lostness is powerful. Overwhelming. It can devour you. But you have to find a way. Somehow.

I don’t know when I became a desperate person. It probably has been building my whole life through, but as the natural shocks that flesh is heir to increase so do the limits of our resistance.

But my dad still teaches. Don’t die. Not yet. A few years ago I was in a very bad place. The world around me had become beyond impossible. We never knew at what level my dad understood things. We never knew when he grasped the conversation around him. We tried not to burden him with specifics. We also didn’t want him trying to get involved. Trying to solve problems he didn’t understand. Context was forever unclear to him. His thoughts always seemed bossy or out of place, yet my dad could feel the tremors. Whether my mom had told him what was going on in my life or not, he asked me how I was doing. I told him I was having a very hard time. He said he understood. But he told me I must win.

My dad with cancer and Parkinson’s, who had basically lost everything he owned, who some days could walk and some days could not, who could sometimes make it to the bathroom and sometimes couldn’t; my dad told me I must win. I’m trying.

And my dad told me don’t die. I’m trying. I can get lost, but I try to find a way. You are reading the beginning of my attempt. You are reading writing begun two years ago, and around eighteen months ago my dad actually did die, and he didn’t come back that time. But my dad still teaches. I am often lost, but I am trying to find a way. You are reading my attempt. I am making a map. I am marking a trail. I am trying to find a way out. My map is for me. If you find it helpful, keep it.

This is what we do as human beings. We leave marks. We leave a trail that gets erased as conditions change. Writing, blessed writing, offers a relative permanence. Something might be retained. Something might be useful.


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