My father died with sugar in the bottom of his coffee cup. I can’t remember how I know this - who would’ve told me? - but some details just stay with you.
The day it happened, like every other day, he walked up the driveway in his robe and slippers and retrieved the daily paper. It was his habit to heat the sugar and milk in his mug before adding coffee, but on this particular day, he didn’t get that far. Instead he wound up on the hardwood floor, gently correcting my frantic mother for placing the wrong kind of aspirin on his tongue. Baby aspirin, it turns out, is easier to swallow during a heart attack.
My father was a gifted doctor, and we all marveled at his ability to diagnose any ailment with spare, well-placed questions, even over the phone. He surely knew what was happening to his body that nondescript January morning, and I find it comforting, imagining him issuing directives to my mother from the ground. Perhaps it calmed him, treating himself, the illusion of control enough to begin relinquishing it. As a doctor, maybe he simply recognized a patient who couldn’t be saved.
From the days surrounding his death, I recall nothing and everything. The world splintered into silence and noise, color and shadow, fog and lucidity. My father was alive, making coffee, and then he wasn’t.
The second call came as I waited in line at the airport, trying to get home. My brother’s voice broke over the line: “He didn’t make it. He just didn’t make it.” I felt myself stumble around roped-off plastic poles, faces melding as I pushed my way back to the curb and collapsed onto my bag. I put my face between my knees and pulled my coat up over my head, yearning for darkness, smallness, nothingness. It felt safer to feel alone. Eventually I became aware of a hand prodding my shoulder. Still and focused as a shuttered horse, I tested the words, words my heart screamed were lies, on the nervously hovering Delta employee: “My father is dead.” I stared with wet, stony eyes as her stern face crumbled, glad to wound someone, anyone.
The rest comes in snippets. In the middle seat on the plane, cutting off an affable fellow mid-sentence by putting on headphones, unable or unwilling to share the truth with a new stranger. Stepping onto the escalator, an involuntary snort escaping my nose and lungs as I heard my oldest brother say into the phone, “I’ve got you. I’m here. I see you.” The silver-haired gentleman watching us embrace, eyes telegraphing compassion, face reflecting experiential knowledge. My brother and I, talking over each other in the rental car, laughing with giddy urgency, as if any remaining joy had to be crammed into these moments before arriving home, before grief swallowed us whole.
Once, about a year later, my dead father came to me. I wasn’t asleep. I’d just turned off the lamp and taken off my glasses, and was curling up sideways in bed. The bathroom door was cracked, and light streamed around the doorframe, dusty like rays from an old school projector. For no reason, I knew in my bones it was him.
He just stayed like that, inanimate, a door. But whatever made Dad “Dad” originated and emanated from the wood, transforming it into something soft and light and malleable. I thought maybe I should get up, but something about the whole experience made me feel so peaceful I just stayed where I was. When I was little, afraid of shadows in the night, I’d reach behind my headboard, banging on the wall separating our rooms until he came to soothe me back to sleep. He’d sit on my bed, waiting until I calmed down, and then he’d leave again. The next time I opened my eyes, the door was just a door.
A wall, a door, a death. Who’s to know if what separates us is permanent. I once saw a photograph of a bicyclist, moments after a fatal crash. It was grainy newspaper print, black and white. The rider was curled up fetus-style, the surrounding pavement darker and wetter and somehow warmer, for all the world like a womb. He looked pure - untroubled and untouchable. It made me think of space and time, but not of death. Years later, I came across the photo again, this time in color, and saw that the road was actually smeared thick with blood. All of the beauty had vanished.