I'll Be Seeing You
Intermittently, I think that I see my father. Walking down a street in the summer. Jogging across a field, or strolling over a bridge; his arm linked with a stranger, laughing down into her face as she says something clever and endearing. But usually, I catch him by himself. Fracturing my world when I least expect it. Disrupting the normal flow of my day with a primal, emotional blow. And so it was today, when I saw him on the sidewalk, as I followed the rush hour traffic home.
I slowed down abruptly. Not slamming on my brakes. No screeching of tires; just lifting my foot from the accelerator. A sudden halt in the forward motion of my vehicle. Unexpected. With no warning...like the sight of him...tossed into my day...grabbing my attention, away from the road, away from this massive, metal monster, hurtling down the street, momentarily out of my conscious control.
I drifted by him. He was hunched over; a non-descript, dark coat enclosed his form as he scurried along the sidewalk, his profile the only portion of skin available for my assessment. Thinning, grey-brown hair. Large, somewhat hooked nose, with what we would call a reverse 'ski-jump' kind of take-off at the bridge, flowing down to the familiar lips. Thin but soft. Gentle but sometimes hard. His broad shoulders were folded under the coat, sort of creased over, as if his arms were supporting a great weight, dragging him down toward the ground as he struggled to maintain balance.
Turn and look. Turn and look at me. Let me see your eyes. The clear light, the intelligence, the humour, emanating from behind the bright blue, crinkling up with love and amusement as you take me in. But you do not turn.
A sudden movement off to the side causes me to swing around and look back at the road. The light ahead of me has turned red and several cars have stopped, less than ten feet from the front of my car. I am creeping now, my speed almost nothing as I pause to observe the man on the sidewalk. I can slam on my brakes and avoid a collision with no more than a fleeting surge of panic.
Okay, okay. Pay attention. Turn off the radio. Readjust the seatbelt. Wait for the light to turn green. A little boy in a navy blue jacket and blue and green wool toque lopes across the street, overwhelmed by a too-large school backpack swinging off his shoulders and back on again as he runs; his small face attentive, energetic, enthusiastic as he races for his friends on the other side of the street.
As the cars in front of me begin to ease forward, my eyes do an automatic, unasked for readjustment, leaving me momentarily dizzy. The feeling is similar to the jarring, uncomfortable sensation that smacks your brain when you move suddenly from your position over a microscope, staring fixedly at the tiny, entrancing world, only to be dragged back, acutely, to the actuality of the boringly staid, fixed, immobile world of the everyday room around you; summoned when a colleague requests your attention.
The streets, the buildings, come rushing at me; growing rapidly larger as my focus is swallowed up by the immensity of the anonymous city. It was raining only a few minutes ago and my tires splash through muddy puddles that have collected along the sidewalks; the tires squelching on the gravel and spraying dirty splotches of water up onto the grimy cement walkways.
It's late fall in the city and at five thirty in the afternoon the sun has fallen low behind the tall buildings, leaving the streets in early evening shadow; the darkness compounded by the grey, slightly swaying, ceiling of dense clouds. My driving lights bounce along the road in front of me as the car tires dip into the ubiquitous potholes, interrupting the smooth, damp pavement every ten feet or so. I shiver slightly and turn on the car heater, wrapping my fingers around the nearby vent and drawing the initial, tentative warmth up into my palm.
Where did he go? How did the object of my intense focus vacate the premises so completely and so quickly? He disappeared around a corner...missing before I had even accepted the reality of his presence. Maybe if I circle around the block, I can interrupt his progression down some side street, cut off his inadvertent escape route, and confront him in the fact of his unbelievable, unacceptable presence. What are you doing here? How is it possible? Why have you chosen to be here, without us, without me?
I have dealt with death more than the average person in our society has; in our western world, where good health and longevity have become expected by much of the general populace. As a physician, I have witnessed the grief displayed by family members of dying patients. I have delivered bad news of inevitable, imminent demise to other souls as they searched my face with their anxious eyes; looking for some sign of hope that they might find, emerging from behind the cold, stark, matter of fact statements about the reality of the situation. And I have called out to a number of pale, rubbery, slightly damp bodies, lying still and unresponsive, bits of caked-on drool stuck to the corners of the dry, motionless lips, cracked and swollen from hours of respiratory effort; lids partly open and a film of egg-white-like solution marring the previously clear stare of the now unmoving eyes.
"Hello...Mr...Mrs...Miss...hello"...shaking the rigid shoulder...my stethoscope sliding over the bony frame, listening for a heart beat, a respiratory effort, any sign of the residual effort of life. Standing quietly in the empty room. Just me and the recently dead. Anxious to confirm death...to not miss a still slowly beating heart. To be absolutely, irrevocably sure that my pronouncement of death is not premature.
Your death, however...your death, as might be predicted, led me to a much deeper understanding of the experiences of my patients; a more thorough realization of the despair that accompanies the notification of imminent death. And it left me with a feeling that I hadn't really thought about - hadn't expected: the feeling of irrational disbelief. It still doesn't seem quite real. I still haven't accepted the finality of your death on an emotional, rather than an intellectual, level.
I circle back around, looking for you, looking for the person that I thought...that I believed, could be you, against all odds, possibly...I need to check for sure. I remember the you of years ago, the more recent, deteriorated, form relegated to the background; pushed out of the way in favour of the being embraced in my mind with love and happy, cherished, memories.
I see you running down the dock at the lake, laughing, grinning..."watch...watch me do this"...flipping off the end of the dock, your long 'comb-over' flying through the air in an arc, following your compact, energetic form as you push out into the air-turning-your tanned figure spinning and then stretching out, embracing the splash and the coldness of the water as it swallows up your vibrancy, momentarily, before you surface, laughing once more, looking for me, and my brother, looking to see if we were watching. "You try now!"
Tears suddenly obscure my vision and I brush away the drops with my left hand, steadying the wheel of the car as I turn down fifteenth street and start back toward the center of town, my ridiculous obsession with your look-alike still holding strong in my mind. I could have been home in ten minutes but instead I'm chasing this recurring fantasy that grips me whenever I see someone with your body type, walking with just your stride or moving their head with that characteristic little, purposeful jerk.
There he is. There goes the man I saw on Central Avenue. He's walking quickly now, holding a newspaper over his head as he attempts to ward off the cold rain, spitting down on him. I slow my car until I'm creeping along at about ten miles per hour, oblivious to the stream of traffic gradually backing up behind me. The man hasn't noticed me, hasn't realized that he's causing a traffic jam in the late afternoon as he tortures me with his astonishing familiarity.
Someone honks a horn. I glance in my rear view mirror and see the row of cars behind me; a line of flapping windshield wipers synchronously beating out a message of intense irritation. My quarry turns and glances briefly over his shoulder. He sees the line of traffic and then looks back at my car, and then at me...staring at him...obviously pursuing him as he pads along the pavement.
Could it be? No, it's not quite right. His hair is a bit too grey. His chin has softened at the edges with the extra weight he has put back on since...since he escaped from the nightmare that consumed him, returned to the real world, and started living again.
My father was young when he began to forget. The deterioration was so gradual that, at first, we didn't recognize it. You can be too familiar with someone. Too accepting of their small foibles and weaknesses. Complacent...tolerant...as their odd behaviour becomes a bit more extreme.
"Oh that's just Dad. He's always been like that...always forgetting things...never quite sure where he left his keys, his papers...his car. That's just him. I don't think there's been any significant change."
Not that we really discussed it. Out loud. Analyzed my father's behaviour. It was only in retrospect, when I looked back on some of the things that I had accepted as 'normal', as just an extreme of his usual idiosyncrasies, that I realized how gradually the decline in this person I loved had occurred. And living away from him magnified these abnormalities for me...brought them into focus, measured them, unfavourably, against the more normal world that I was now, regularly, inhabiting.
Where did you go? Where is the you that I saw disappear, so gradually? Tiny fragments of your personality chipped away, sliced off of the whole and blown away into oblivion. Never to be reclaimed. Not housed in thousands of tiny boxes in some far away place. Not waiting, like a puzzle, to be put back together again at the end of it all.
I don't anticipate that you'll be waiting, slightly worse for wear, neatly reconfigured and realigned, at the end of my time on this earth. Waiting to embrace me and smooth away my distress.
Your death only confirmed the rational, the unavoidable, in my mind. Painful, irreversible, deterioration. Almost ten years, watching the demolition of a human mind, and the associated physical destruction that accompanies it. You tried to resist. You were young and strong, and incredulous...when you were still well enough to grasp what was going on. But this horrible disease lingered, waited for you, ultimately, to give in to its persistence, to accept that no attempt at resistance could forestall the fucking inevitable....
On the last day, mom and I sat with you. Wiped the spit away from your open, slack-jawed mouth as you panted toward the finish line. Rearranged the sheets and soothed your oblivious, exhausted shell with proclamations of love. You didn't answer. You moaned and sighed and struggled against death. You fought to live on in this hell. Tried, irrationally, to continue on living in this stark, ascetic environment, with its linoleum floors, washable furniture and automatic locking doors. Unwilling to give in, physiologically, to the permanence of death.
You are, fundamentally, irretrievable. You live on, figuratively, in the memories of those who loved you. Hard wired into our perceptions of reality. Etched into our beings; the exact memory of you, sought out in every other person who, briefly, temporarily, replicates some well-remembered facet of you.
I moved along. I pressed on the accelerator and sailed on by, leaving your spurious twin behind; allowing him to disappear around the next corner, unable to find an exact duplicate of you, in him.