Image by Dawn Estrin
There are sleepwalkers who tread the dark rooms of their homes, speaking the dialogue of their dreams, moving through two worlds at once.
My father was one. His heavy footfalls in the hallway woke me before dawn. Eyes closed, I waited for the suction pop and creak of the refrigerator door, the signal that he’d reached his destination. While I drifted back to sleep, Dad ate in his sleep, mining yogurt cups and scooping out curls of sour, slippery white foam. He ate handfuls of sliced hard salami from the meat drawer, a cluster of celery from the hydrator. Dreaming, he drank orange juice, Hi-C, and iced tea from their containers, leaving sticky crayon-colored splashes on the linoleum.
In the morning, I scowled into my yogurt cup. A furrow had been dug across the top, my breakfast violated. I was thirteen. Nothing was ever right.
“How can you eat that stuff?” Dad complained. “It has no flavor.”
“You’re supposed to stick your spoon down into it,” I told him. Somnambulist, he didn’t see the promise of apricot or strawberry.
Only once in his sleep-eating years did my father not return to bed. He lay down instead on the cold floor in front of the open refrigerator. In the morning, Mom almost tripped over him there, curled on his side in the dark, surrounded by carrot tops and Roman Meal bread bags. She poked him with her toe. She was disappointed when he roused.
“I thought he’d had a heart attack,” she told me when I was grown.
I WROTE MY FATHER’S EULOGY on an airplane, my notepad on the tray table. The words came easily, although I’d never written a eulogy, had never imagined writing one. Even though my father had been actively dying for several years, this concluding task had suddenly, surprisingly, fallen to me.
In the years I was small, my father wanted out, to eat a hole to the door, to dig to China with a spoon. When I was nineteen, he got his chance. A job overseas, and a year later, a move to Los Angeles. My mother divorced him. He landed in rural Massachusetts, where he settled into a new life, on a country road with an old car and a new wife. My father lost half a dozen jobs and his first marriage during my teens and twenties. He lost his two youngest children to cancer. He lost me to a truculence that equally matched his.
HIS EULOGY BEGAN LIKE THIS. Good afternoon. Some of you know me; I’m Jack’s daughter, Jessica. The fact that we are today only a few weeks from Father’s Day does not escape me. I rarely sent my father cards on Father’s Day – we had a ‘hit or miss’ relationship for much of our lives.
“I want to hold your gla-a-a-a-ands,” Dad sang along with the Beatles’ first album. That they wanted to hold my hand was clear, but my father, a rock-and-roll fan, seemed to think that they wanted to hold something else, something less sunny and cheerful that I, a first-grader, couldn’t put my finger on.
In fourth grade, I fell for his other favorite joke.
“I’m going to Panama City to speak at a conference about hemorrhoids,” Dad said over dinner. “Want to come along?”
Eager to be his companion, I said yes, not questioning why a lawyer would give a speech about medicine.
“That’s great,” Dad said, “because I will need to show those guys an example of one perfect asshole.”
My mother said, “For Christ’s sake, Jack.” She leaned over to my sister Sarah and helped her cut her food. Sarah was four. Our sister Susie, who would have been nine, had been dead a year.
Eager to perform, seeking the spotlight like a moth seeks flame, Dad heard only his joke, not my silence.
MY FATHER’S LUNG CANCER had been eating at him longer than he knew. It’s likely he suspected cancer growing in him, and kept his eyes closed. Maybe he thought he was willing to die. Dad liked jokes, but he loved drama.
For more than a year, specks the color of dried chili flakes had dotted the corners of his mouth. Red-streaked handkerchiefs dried in the pockets of his khakis. He had been a four-pack-a-day smoker since his teens. Lori, his second wife, saw the omens, heard his lungs groan like a harmonium. Maybe she kept her mouth closed, making cup after cup of chamomile tea for him, making soup, and fudge cookies. Or she urged him to go to the doctor, insisting for months until he made the appointment. He left the house cursing, I’m certain, gunning the engine of his battered black Oldsmobile. I imagine that sparks skittered from the slack tail pipe as he backed over the curb.
My father lived for two years after he learned he would die.
“People die,” my mother said, when I phoned to tell her he had inoperable cancer. She hadn’t known he was sick, and I knew she wouldn’t care. They hadn’t spoken for a decade, and then only terse exchanges at my wedding, an event for which she broke her long silence toward him to write him, call him, cajole him to come and celebrate. “This is not,” she reminded him, “about you.”
In the months before he died, I dug through boxes of family memorabilia looking for items that would entertain him. Among the detritus of other lost parts of life, I found my little lock and key child’s diary.
STANDING SOLO AT THE PODIUM, I watch my father’s friends. Row after row of metal folding chairs, each cradling a respectful, sorrowful, aging adult. I don’t know most of them. A few small children cling to parents or run to play on the lawn. Early summer in Massachusetts smells green, like fresh cut grass and cool breeze. Something hot and oily bullies through: the hint of a cookout down the street. Here, beside my father’s house in the shadow of October Mountain, the words I pieced together on the plane flow easily.
Giving speeches was my father’s skill before it was mine. When I was nine, he expected me to hold up my half of conversations that were part parry, part dazzle, and all lush, labyrinthine language. Dad introduced me to people well known in the news. I curtsied to the widow of a martyred Civil Rights leader, unsure how to greet her. Black netting hung from her hat. The fact that I could not see her face made me want to look away.
A gaping hole spreads between there and here, this stage from which I have been asked to explain my father, to love my father publicly.
MY FATHER DIED AT HOME, in the minutes when Lori left his side for what she thought would be an insignificant errand. The living room, with its rented hospital bed and oxygen tank, had become his dying room. Lori went to press the repeat button on the CD player, which my father called the hi-fi. Jessye Norman singing Amazing Grace lifted my father into the next world.
That autumn, Dad had announced that he wanted to be cremated. So much more efficient than a plain pine coffin, he said.
“Dad, we’re Jewish,” I said. “Can you even do that?”
We were not even slightly observant Jews. Every Passover, my father intoned “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” before passing loaded dinner plates to my mother, my sisters, and me.
The funeral home carried my father’s body out of his front door in the dead of winter.
Days later, they delivered his body to the cemetery in a brown cardboard box. Lori and I trailed behind in my father’s car. We made small talk—good thing the snow was gone, because she had never gotten around to having chains put on the tires. Glad that Dad had a chance to see this friend or that before, well, you know. She parked at the cemetery and got out. She sat on the hood. I felt crazy-brave, the kind where you’ll do almost anything because for that moment, all the rules are suspended. We were in the country, not far from where my father and I had once pulled over to watch a red fox lope across a field.
Look and see, I told myself.
I peered into the tinted window of the van.
Human Remains, the box read, stamped in black type. This End Up.
My father had been six foot one: the box was narrow and long.
Cardboard boxes that ride a conveyor belt into a fire resemble the cardboard boxes used for shipping refrigerators.
In my diary were breathless comments like ‘Dad chased me with a water gun!’ In these notes is a Dad I had forgotten, who made up bedtime stories, taught me poems, and watched the Beatles at Shea with me on television when I was six.
While I speak, I remember not cardboard, but wood. I had gotten a splinter during one of my visits to my dying father. Seeing me gnaw at my fingertip, Dad asked what was wrong. “Splinter,” I told him, picking at the spot. “Let me try,” he said. My father’s hands shook, from medication or anxiety I didn’t know. I doubted his ability to extract the wood fragment, but I held out my hand. I couldn’t remember the last time my father had held my hand, and the pain in that thought made me look away. I stared at a potted plant while Dad dug at my finger with a tweezers, delivering a thin, dark shred of foreign matter. A spot of blood rose from the tiny hole in my skin.
LORI CALLED Dad’s memorial service a “planting party.” She planted a weeping cherry tree outside her dining room window, and left an open furrow around the roots to receive my father’s ashes. Dad had been delivered back to her in a clear plastic bag, the kind that might have held half a dozen oranges at the Price Chopper market. Lori put the bag away, and waited until spring for the ground to thaw.
On the morning of the planting party, I slipped into the hallway outside the living room. The rented bed was long gone, but the shelves still sagged under my father’s books and music. Lori had put his ashes inside a clay tureen.
I lifted the tureen’s lid.It formed a shape like a gaping mouth.
The voice of Señor Wences and his hand-shaped puppet Pedro emerged from the memory of the black and white television screen of my youth. The tureen’s interior was dark and smooth, the plastic bag stuffed inside, along with, inexplicably, a partially used box of Chanukah candles.
“T’saright?” I thought.
“T’saright,” I heard my father agree.
I unrolled the black twist-tie and pressed the pads of my fingers against the basest form of my father, powder gray as cigarette ash. I bent my fingertips against what had been his bones. They felt gritty, studded with hard, star-shaped flecks. My father’s bones looked like the calcified shards I had picked out of sand dollars at Panama City Beach in the fourth grade.
With fragments of my father under my fingernails, I said the Sh’ma for him, the most basic prayer in Judaism, the only one I knew by heart.
Sh’ma Israel, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one.”
My father believed that all Jews know the sh’ma, even those who were never formally taught the prayer.
There is a concept in Judaism called l’dor v’dor, meaning “from one generation to the next.” I am not religious. When I spoke the word “one,” my fingers rubbing something like sand, what I thought of was my father, my sisters, my mother, and myself.
WOMEN WEARING EMBROIDERED BLOUSES carried pots of flowers to the planting party, setting them on picnic tables before taking seats under the tent. They brought chili, lasagna, homemade three-bean salad. Men with hair like squirrel tails brought poetry and cookies. After the planting, we would eat and make toasts to my father. We would sing “We Shall Overcome” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.” A videotape of Dad’s last birthday before he got sick would roll along in the VCR.
Lori emerged from the kitchen, cradling the tureen. My father’s black dog ran behind her. The screen door banged. Lori drifted barefoot across the lawn. Arriving at the tree, she ladled a scoop of ashes over the upturned earth.
The tureen and ladle made their way around the circle of Dad’s friends. A warm breeze puffed the hem of my dress. A bird flew over. A motorcycle thrummed past on the road. When my turn came, I did what the others had done; dipped the ladle into the gritty ash and upended the contents over the roots. I was embarrassed. This felt like a made-up ceremony from summer camp, not a real funeral.
What I left out of Dad’s eulogy were the three funerals in my life before his. The first was my sister Susie’s, she eight to my ten, on a brittle cold day after her blindingly fast spin with cancer. The second, less shocking only because he was not a child, was the funeral of our father’s father. It was my hand that sprinkled the dirt over his casket. Dad was away, couldn’t be reached, did not come. My father’s ritual task fell to me. And the last funeral, my youngest sister Sarah, dead after twenty-seven years with an unconquerable illness, the lights from the medical examiner’s car and the ambulance spilling into her driveway.
This was our story, the father made empty.
WHEN THE LADLE TRAVELED full circle, we returned to the house to eat. Dad’s friends chuckled at the videotape, filled plates with food, and piled beer bottles on top of the TV set. They were comfortable in this house I couldn’t look at closely, where the ceilings were spotted tobacco-brown from leaking pipes, and chairs were piled deep with unopened mail and unwashed clothes.
In the kitchen, I took a beer from the picnic cooler. The kitchen was empty – just the drip of the faucet, the clunk and whine of the greasy yellow refrigerator, and a long view of the empty road outside.
I wanted that silence, and I wanted something to eat. I picked a wedge of tomato from a puddle of salad oil in the bottom of a wooden bowl. A heel of homemade bread sopped up the oil. I lifted the ladle from a pot of chili.
I knew what I saw. I wanted to look away.
The ladle was familiar, the kind of memory you feel in your muscles before your mind can identify why. This ladle had dispensed my father’s ashes into the earth.
I held it toward the daylight coming from the window. Chili streaked the spoon and the handle. A gray, grainy crust outlined the sauce along the dull metal shoulders of the spoon. The ladle that had served my father’s ashes to the earth had served the chili.
The things my father believed in life—justice, human rights, marvelous language—he gave to me. And the last earthly sign of my father I have is a streak of his ashes on a serving spoon. I remember my mother’s mornings, wondering if she would have to sweep him up from our kitchen floor. You are not, I thought, going to believe what I’m left to clean up now.
A BURST OF LAUGHTER flared from the other room. The phone rang somewhere in the house. I was alone in the kitchen with remnants of my father—he and I, and our horrible secret. I considered throwing the spoon on the counter and running out to my rental car, hitting the door-lock button and rolling up the windows: damsel in a horror movie. Then I imagined holding the spoon close and pressing it to my chest in a belated embrace for my father.
I watched the spoon as if it were an oracle. Do I wash it and return the ladle, clean and dry, to the drawer? Should I stuff it into the trashcan by the back door? That seemed wrong: I would be throwing my father in the garbage. Should I stick the ladle back in the bowl, return to the party, and avert my eyes from every plate? My father has returned from the dead stuck to a spoon.
Dad would laugh. I heard him in my memory, loud and jittery. He would relish the idea that his friends were at that moment pressing specks of him against their palates, assuming, perhaps, that the grit they felt in their mouths was merely roadside gravel, blown into their chili by the wind.
Sounds from the party grew louder; the chipmunk squeaks of the videotape rewinding, the swell and fall of conversation, some Bob Dylan or the Beatles from the hi-fi. These were the sounds of the parties my parents gave when I was a child, when I hung back from the crowd and picked black olives from the hors d’oeuvres tray. The pitted olives fit neatly on my fingertips. My habit was to take one for each finger. Nibbling ten olives, I watched and hungered to be an adult.
What do children believe adults can see that they cannot? Can adults see where the edge lies, the horizon starts, where the answers are found? What fills the holes in their hearts? Children believe that adults know what happens next. Adults know that they can’t.
I am here to respect my father. Go ahead and look.
I set the ladle in the sink beside coffee cups and a wine cork. The grit of my father circled in eddies of water, finally settling in the dark.
Jessica Handler’s first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Eight Great Southern Books in 2009” and Atlanta Magazine’s “Best Memoir of 2009,” as well as one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read” for 2010. Her nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, Brevity, More Magazine, Southern Arts Journal, and Ars Medica, and is forthcoming in New South and Defunct Magazine. She received the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and a special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Handler teaches creative writing in Atlanta, Georgia.