Seven Steps to Reach Your Father Across the Great Divide
1. Eat and drink enough to keep body and soul together. Important: force yourself to eat if you have to, at least a piece of bread once a day. Try to avoid stuffing everything possible in your mouth without tasting or chewing when you finally do break down and eat every few days. Try to survive on one apple a day, a little water. After a while you’ll begin to float away. But watch out for the line: you still need to carry on for him, to complete his affairs, all those manuscripts to publish, and if you step too far, that big black line will grow deep as a pit and separate you forever.
2. Read books and listen to phonograph records you loved as a child, particularly those you associate with him. Sing songs he loved to sing. Immerse yourself in his laugh, his voice, his gentleness, the confiding way he’d tell you stories in the rocking chair before bed, to the sound of wind in the trees.
3. Sleep on a blanket on the floor. You can’t sleep anyway, and whenever you wake your heart stops, as it hits you again: his death. The hospital. Those labored breaths. You’re so cold. You hoped so much, right up until the end, and in your dreams he’s suffering still, but there’s some chance he’ll survive. Even a few more hours would mean the world. You’re crushed to the ground anyway, so the asceticism of a humble floor-bed suits your mood, your self-recriminations. There could never be enough time, but surely there were other things you could have given up to spend more with him. Now the hard floor, wedged in between the bathroom and the end of the bed and two bookshelves, with the bathroom light on all night so you don’t freak out, so you’ll be grounded when you wake up, remembering where you are–it’s oddly comforting, as if this narrow space to curl into, on the blanket, were the treat of sleeping at the foot of your parents’ bed when company comes.
4. Don’t let this pain get away. Cling to it with both hands, because every day will carry you a step further from Dad. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You can’t read. You can’t write. There’s no one to talk to–no one who understands but your family, who have burdens enough. Talking to friends is like treading on blazing rocks over an endless sea. No safe subject; if they don’t say something, you hate them; if they do, they make it worse. You’re only halfway through your life (how will you bear that second half without him?), and you’re already forgetting, things slipping past you like the black cat who mysteriously leaps on the bed after you thought you left him in the hall. He can have the bed. He can have everything. Make a new will. Leave everything to your cats. Don’t forget to appoint a new literary executor for Dad’s work. The farther away you get from everyone else, the closer you get to him, the more you can hear him: his voice in your ear, answering your questions, your grief; when the grief drowns him out, only the sound of his weeping because you won’t eat. He stopped you once before, when your fiancé left: a blow that felt like death at the time. Dad stood crying in the door–“I just want you to know how much I love you, honey. I don’t want to lose you”–straddling the threshold to block the way to death. He stands there still. You can’t do anything to hurt him. You only want to lie beside him–you picked your blue coffin the day the family chose his. You need to know: does hell meet the suicide, or only a father’s loving arms to stop the pain?
5. Read his manuscripts over. Typing or proofing them, you hear his voice, fresh and strong and deep as it was before the lung operation. Keep working on his literary project even when you can hardly see for tears, when you groan and call for Daddy, when there’s no answer except these words on the page, except this little slip of notepaper in his trembling handwriting slipped inside a conference folder–a conference you attended together, the draft a poem about you, about a child growing into a woman and fellow poet–silently writing about you, his love for you strong as you sat right next to him in the poetry workshop, unknowing. Now he touches your hand softly. Here’s an article he saved about a young MD who returned after being legally dead for thirty minutes–his wandering journey through time and space, seeing things he’d never known that later proved real. Hold onto the hope that these are messages–Dad’s voice from beyond the grave.
6. Be open to signs. Watch every movie and show that proves the existence of spirits, the unexplained. Even the evil or creepy ones don’t scare you now. There’s nothing worse than what’s already happened, and even zombies prove there’s something on the other side. That the spirit remains. That the light that left his eyes didn’t die, just migrated somewhere else. Maybe into your head. His last instructions concluded, “Be kind to each other. Love never dies! God bless you all!” This is the truth you pursue now in dreams–some hint, some message, the last few minutes wound back to the time he was still there. Time for all the words unsaid, the things undone–the plans you two made. Awake, you watch the shows you loved together, just for the hint he sits beside you. You can still hear him laugh. Sometimes you eat then, and you feel he’s happy, that he approves. He’s exerting all a spirit’s energy to keep you grounded, to keep you whole, to keep you from floating away after him. Blocking the doorway yet again.
7. If all else fails, drive dangerously. Howling tears after one too many sympathetic words, you can’t see the road, and the only thread holding you together is the wish not to extinguish another life. You might hit the guard rail solo through this wall of tears. You can’t lose: either you’ll fly across the divided highway to join him, or he’ll rush back to take the wheel. How loud must you scream for him to hear? “I’m here all along,” the words pop into your head, clear, strong: his voice, so certain, that solid presence you’ve felt since he died, beyond the need for faith. Even while he was alive you felt his presence beside you, his smile, his cheerful comments, while you wrote alone in tribute to your mentor or watched shows you both enjoyed. Did he feel you near when you thought of him? Do linked souls share each other’s spaces while still living? No one on earth loves you that much now, unquestionable, vast; no one’s that happy to see you, has that much time for you. Your brother says there’s a special bond between father and firstborn daughter, and God, you hope it’s true. You pray for an unbreakable golden cord, a musical string stretching as long as need be to reach the places you can’t see except in dreams. Dad’s every day was a living promise that love never lets go. So don’t forget. Hold on. Daddy loves you.
Daddy, where are you?
Cat-loving cataloging librarian Adele Gardner (www.gardnercastle.com) is a full member of SFWA and HWA. With a poetry collection (Dreaming of Days in Astophel) and over 400 poems, stories, art, and articles published in Strange Horizons, Deep Magic, Daily Science Fiction, PodCastle, and more, Gardner is a fond aunt, a fine arts b&w film photographer, and literary executor for father, mentor, and namesake Delbert R. Gardner.