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How To Bring Back the Dead
By Timothy Colman
for Neville Colman
The day after my mom called and said my dad was dying, I finally cried for the first time. I was walking home from class, across the snow-covered fields of my liberal arts college, headed to my off-campus apartment.
“I have some very bad news,” my mom had said slowly. She paused. “You have to come home this weekend.”
For twenty-four hours after I talked to her, I tried to think of ways to get out of it. I felt like if I just refused to come home, I could suspend what was happening to my dad’s brain and kidneys and liver. I didn’t tell anyone about the phone call because saying it out loud would make it real.
Walking home from class the next day, it finally hit me that I couldn’t refuse to go. I started crying for the first time since I’d gotten the news. I walked off the path, over to a grove of trees, fell down on the February ground and sobbed. I laid my head on the frozen dirt, wrapping my arms around the wide trunk of the tree like it would anchor me.
I was supposed to go out dancing that weekend. I was supposed to write a story for my new fiction workshop. I was supposed to read six chapters about early Christians in the Roman Empire. This was my life: a beautiful, strange apartment where I slept in a bedroom with lipstick red walls, and my four housemates and I made yogurt in a tin can with a light bulb and rotated nights cooking dinner for each other. I could smoke cigarettes on the rusty fire escape while blasting Modest Mouse on the tape deck from the kitchen window. I could drive around after midnight in the southwestern Philadelphia suburbs, through wooded areas and strip malls and displays of glittering, multi-colored, three-dimensional Christmas lights and installations unlike anything I had ever seen before, in search of the gas station that sold $2.00 packs of cigarettes or our favorite diner or Dunkin’ Donuts or Wawa.
Now I had to return to the apartment I had grown up in, where my father now lived in a hospital bed next to the table we ate dinner at every night – It won’t fit in our bedroom, my mom said by way of explanation. That had been my home briefly over Thanksgiving, and for four long weeks over winter break from school. But then I had returned to the snowy cocoon of school, where I didn’t have to watch my dad in various states of pain and confusion while I waited for him to get better.
I returned home that Friday. A few hours after I arrived in New York, around midnight, my dad fell in the bathroom and we had to rush him to the hospital. He never left. He died two weeks after I got the phone call telling me I had to come home. He was in a hospital in Washington Heights, in a room high above the Hudson River. He had an expensive private room with a beautiful view. It was a cold winter that year, and the river was covered in ice floes, shifting and cracking against each other.
My mom, my brother and I spent ten days in the hospital with him – a wizened, mutated version of the father I’d known my whole life. I would never get to meet him as an old man, but at 57, in the last few weeks of his life, I suddenly saw what he might have looked like if he had lived to 75. His eyelashes and eyebrows went white, then fell out. He lost that last hair on his head that he’d been so vain about, the crown around his bald patch. My dad had always been exuberant, energetic, hefty, strong, powerful. Now he was quiet and confused. One day he woke up from a morphine-induced sleep and asked “Why are we in Alaska?”
I had one year with him after knowing the word cancer. Three months after they found the tiny little tumors in his brain and he stopped being able to go to work or speak very much or really look you straight in the eye. Nine days in the hospital with him after it finally hit me that he was going to die.
I wish that I had understood earlier the gravity of the situation. I wish I had fractured and broke in those three months; I wish I had realized he was going to die and wailed it from the rooftops. I wish I had crashed and crescendoed a goodbye, oh god, goodbye, with all the force of my love and grief.
Sometimes I left the rest of my family in the hospital and walked up the few blocks up to Broadway, and just walked up and down through the crowds while I cried and cried until I had a headache from the dehydration. Something I have always appreciated about my hometown, something that makes me know I am still a little bit of a New Yorker at heart, is that you can cry as hard as you want in public and no one will stop you and ask what’s wrong, or even make eye contact really. I felt safe crying on Broadway. But I couldn’t cry in front of my family.
The months after my dad died took on a surreal quality. I couldn’t seem to get over the basic sense of disbelief. Was he really gone? Forever? Even though there was this cloud over dread hanging over me, a kind of sinking depression, I also had to remember the fact that he was dead over and over as if for the first time. Every morning I woke up and there was a second or two of feeling sort of okay until my stomach flipped and I remembered.
For years after, every time someone asked me about my dad there was that flash of remembering he was dead again. My dad himself, the fact of his death and my grief were these guarded, painful truths that I held separate from the rest of my life.
Four years after he died I decided to do a project where I would write about him every day for a month. Writing about him began to bring him closer into my life. I put together the writing from that month into a zine, which I gave it to friends and strangers and my mom. Something began to shift. I had already said so many of the hardest things, and even made some of them public. Now I could move a little more freely, talk about him more casually. Before, I felt afraid of burdening people if I brought him up, because the intensity of my sense of loss scared me. But suddenly I didn’t have to be fake casual when I brought him up, I really could mention him casually. I had released a lot of my grief into the world through the zine. I didn’t need a listener in the same way.
I found a picture of my dad recently while going through a box of old newspapers that he’d squirreled away from university. The photograph accompanied his pitch for a student council position. He is maybe nineteen or twenty years old in the picture. My dad is from South Africa, and was very involved in the anti-apartheid struggle there. Because people in the struggle couldn’t be caught associating with anyone after the mass bannings of the early 1960s, they were careful not to take photographs of each other. There are almost no photographs of my dad before he immigrated to the United States at the age of thirty. Until I found the newspaper, I had seen one photo of him with his brothers as a child, and one photo of him in blue jeans, in his late twenties, sitting on a log over a river in Mozambique, looking very happy.
It’s strange that I didn’t know what my dad looked like as a young person until I saw this photograph in the university newspaper. He is handsome, and sweet, and contemplative. He looks a little bit like me and so much like my brother that it is a bit eerie. Seeing the photo, I understood why my dad’s old friends from South Africa suck their breath in sharply when they meet my brother today.
I would give anything to have my dad back and yet I barely ever even let myself go down that grief spiral anymore. Cheryl Strayed wrote in her advice column, Dear Sugar, “It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother’s life was 45 years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be—my mother at 89, my mother at 63, my mother at 46. Those things don’t exist. They never did.” It’s strange how healing it felt to read this, and to say the simple sentence: “My dad’s life was 57 years long.”
But finding the newspaper with that photograph was healing in a different way. I have felt since my dad died that I’ve been searching for all the things he didn’t get to teach me, and in a strange way, all the pieces of his life that I missed out on before I was born. I didn’t get to have all those fifty-seven years with him – I got nineteen. But finding that photograph gave me access to a small piece of who he was long before he moved to New York, before he had children, or became a doctor, or came into his powerful sense of self. Just being able to see what he looked like, in a small, strange way, gave me back a little of that lost time.
Learning how to live without my father these last ten years has been a process of learning how to grieve – learning how to feel my love for him and my sense of loss in a way that honors him and what he gave to me. These days, sometimes I love people because they remind me of him: so fierce, so loving, so sweet, so brilliant.
Each year, in July and February, my dad’s birthday and the anniversary of the day that he died remind me to check in with my connection to him. I write him letters, I talk to his ghost, and I try to follow my instincts for what I want on those days: to be held, to be whispered to, to be allowed to be silent. To wander alone in the forest, or stand on a high bridge, the wind whipping around me. To read poetry by myself on a roof and cry and then crawl downstairs, into calm quiet arms, into a cool silent house filled with people who will just sit in the same room with me but let me huddle alone under a blanket. To sing songs sweetly, quietly, over a stream in the woods. To walk along the ocean’s edge in Durban, to dip my feet in the spot where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet on the Cape Peninsula. To be with my dad’s best friend Paul in Johannesburg. To be in Germiston, the town he grew up, the town I barely know. To drive for hours with my mom. To cook dinner for hours, alone, singing over the stove, and when it’s done, feed it to people I love.
Timothy Colman is a retired astrologer and aspiring advice columnist. He also writes fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Make/shift magazine, Tikkun magazine, Certain Days, In the Middle of a Whirlwind, The Revolution Starts at Home, and The Zine Yearbook. He lives in Philadelphia.
(Photo credit: Berndnaut Smilde)