Dreams of my father

June 24th, 2012

I dreamed about my father last night, which is unusual. I rarely dream about him; I cannot remember the last time I did. I think about him, off and on, irregularly but more often than I would have expected after half of a lifetime; he comes to mind more in the winter, in those hockey rinks that bring him so sharply into focus. Sometimes, the sound of a whistle at SB’s training will make me turn my head sharply as if he might be there on the bench. But he doesn’t come to me in dreams; he rarely did. Even in the months immediately following his death, I rarely dreamed of him.

Last night, I dreamed he had a heart attack, which is odd – of all the things that plagued him as his cancer progressed I do not recall a heart attack ever being one of them; he did have a series of small strokes, but not, that I can recall, a heart attack – and I ran into the room where he was. It was not a hospital room, and he was in a regular bed and nobody was treating him and there was no sense of medical urgency, although in the dream it was quite clear that he was having a heart attack even though he was clearly not having a heart attack. You know how dream are like that. He was lying down, and when I came rushing into the room he turned to me – his face was so clearly my father’s face, and sometimes I think I have forgotten what he looked like, but no, I have not forgotten – and said “I miss you.” I stroked his forehead and said “I’m here.”

And that’s all I remember.

When I think about my father these days, I think about all the things that he has missed. I myself have grown used to being a woman whose father died a long time ago. I used to think it was so unfair to me that my father died when I was still so young (and the older I get the more I realize how young twenty-one still is to lose a parent), but the unfairness that sticks with me now is how unfair to my father, what he missed and misses.

I dreamed about my father last night. He came to say that he misses me. It’s been a long time for both of us, I guess.

Forgetting, and remembering

September 20th, 2011

All things considered, our IVF experience was easy. I mean, compared to people who start their families unassisted it was a complete drag, but taking “IVF is your only chance for biological children” as a baseline, we had an easy time of it. I completed one fresh IVF cycle which netted 18 mature eggs, 13 of which fertilized. From these thirteen, we transferred two at our first transfer, only one of which implanted to become the Small Boy. The remaining embryos were stored for future transfers (a frozen embryo transfer, or FET). When we decided to try again, we decided only to transfer a single embryo on any given attempt – twins was no longer an outcome we were comfortable with.* Our first FET failed, our second FET failed, and our third FET became the Boychen. Four attempts, two healthy singletons pregnancies resulting in two live births. Compared to some people’s experience, it was almost laughably easy.

I forget, if forgetting is the right word, what we did to get these boys, to be this family. Forget, in the way I forget that my father is dead: it blends into my psychic background, an event I no longer dwell on every day because of the passage of time, because of the demands of the present, because if we are lucky we learn to wear our past lightly like the comfortable shirt you slip into at the end of the workday.

It’s there, though, as my father’s death is there, ready to be woken like a sleeping cat who notices the light has shifted and it is no longer dozing in a patch of sunlight. Today I revised some poems during the Small Boy’s hockey practice, and the poem I worked on the most was about that first, that only, fresh cycle. And I remembered it all: the drugs and the injections and the bruised thighs, the swollen ovaries swinging like a bunch of grapes with every step I took, egg retrieval, the transfer, the long long two week wait before we could do a blood test, the knowledge that it might not, might never, work; and I looked up from my notebook and there he was, that four-celled embryo, skating crossovers around the faceoff circle.

He is six and a half. He is in the first grade. He has a math test tomorrow. He plays hockey. He is bilingual. He is tall, and skinny, and blond, and asleep in his room. There he is.

My god, the wonder of it.

* Yes, identical twins could still have been possible and yes, I’ve seen some numbers that suggest that identical twins are marginally more likely to occur in an IVF using ICSI – which we did – than in unassisted pregnancies, and had that been the case, then so be it. But we didn’t want to risk fraternal twins. Given the crippling postpartum anxiety I suffered after the Boychen was born, it was a good thing twins weren’t in the picture.

This new day

July 30th, 2011

By the time my father died, I knew that he was dying; several days – a week? – in a coma, a shunt draining fluid from his brain had convinced even me. I think I still held out some stubborn hope, in the way of children – and to watch at twenty-one your father die is to be very much a child – but most of me was willing to accept what I was seeing.

I don’t remember the very last thing I said to my father, as I ended my visit to the hospital, because although I was willing to accept that he was dying I also suspected that he could linger like that for a long time yet and I suspected there would be more visits, more one-way conversations. It would not have been what my father wanted, lingering; my father the fisherman, my father the hockey coach, my father the man who belonged under Idaho skies if ever a man did. It would not have been what he wanted, lingering in between.

I don’t remember the very last words I said, as I was leaving, but I remember what I said to him on that visit. I told him that it would be okay. To die. It would be okay, if he wanted to, to just go ahead and stop fighting. I told him I would be okay, and that for once in his lifetime of putting his children first he should just think about himself and do what he wanted, only what he wanted. And if he wanted to keep on fighting, I would visit, and read him the newspaper, and clip his nails and it would be okay. And if he wanted to stop, to just stop and rest at last, that he should do that. It would be okay, and I would be okay, whatever he did. But he should do what he wanted and not think about anybody else.

In a lifetime of adoring my father, in that conversation I understood what it meant to truly love him. He died that night, as if he had been waiting for my permission.

I do not believe in the resurrection, so I do not believe that I will ever see my father again. I do not think, in the manner of Field of Dreams, that my father is going to appear in the river grass so that we might fish the Madison together just one more time. I know that I will never look up during a hockey game and see my father in the stands across from me, watching his grandson play the game he loved.

And yet he is always there on the far bank, always hovering in the corner behind the goal. Today I cross over to that strange new life in which the after is longer than the before. The days will stack up on top of each other like stones on a cairn taking me further and further away from my father and this can’t be helped. I’m in no hurry to die. This after is also my now: my garden and my poems and my boys and the pink light of sunset on the Swiss Alps. Today. This new day.

For one day, equilibrium

July 29th, 2011

Today is the day. Today is the balancing point, perfect equilibrium, and then tomorrow I will wake for the first time into a life from which my father has been absent for longer than he had been present. Tomorrow I will wake up and I will have been fatherless for more than half my life.

The last time I visited my father in the hospital, he was in a coma. I talked to him, and clipped his fingernails, and read to him from The Sporting News – there were some summer hockey trades going on, as there are now, teams finalizing their rosters, and twenty-one years later I still remember reading to my father the news that Pat LaFontaine was transferring to Buffalo. This is what I remember. The sound of my father’s voice is lost, the last thing he said to me is lost, but I remember telling him that Pat LaFontaine was transferring to the Buffalo Sabres.

I remember nothing about his hospital room, not even if he had a private room, but I remember that a print of Matisse’s Goldfish hung in the corridor and that I passed it every day. I remember the day he was given a shunt; I remember the doctor asking me, in the hallway, “What do you want me to tell you?” and I remember replying “I want you to tell me he’s going to live” and I remember the doctor answering, gravely, “I can’t tell you that.” All of this I remember, this and Pat LaFontaine, but I do not remember the last thing my father said to me.

I would not have been aware, when he said it, that it would turn out to be the last thing, of course. It was probably “Goodbye” or “Thanks for stopping by” or “See you tomorrow” – maybe, being aware that he was dying, he took care to say “I love you.” I refused to believe that he was dying, even during that final hospital stay; even when he slipped into a coma, from one day to the next, I refused to believe that he was dying and so I did not think to press the day before into my memory, the last thing he said. That is the way of last things – we rarely know, at the time, that they are the last. First things are easy to mark: first dates, first steps, first words, first hockey games – but lasts? They take us by surprise and so often go unrecorded.

I do not remember the last my father said to me, nor can I be certain of the last thing I said to him, although I believe it might have been “See you tomorrow.”

I didn’t, of course.

Most Improved

January 17th, 2011

I had a moment Thursday night, at hockey practice, when I felt tears coming to my eyes. Right there in the stadium the professional team plays in, with all the parents crowded into the players bench and the little ones on the ice and the sixteen and seventeen year old players running stairs in the empty stadium.

I thought, My father will never see my son play hockey.

My father coached high school hockey, and he expected a lot from those boys. He expected them to show up to practice ready to play. He expected them, high school kids, to wear collared shirts and jackets to the rink on game night. He expected them to play hard and to shake hands at the end of the game. He expected them to take defeat with grace. He expected them to win with modesty. He expected them to be a team, to act like a team, and to win or lose as one. He expected them to respect their coaches, each other, the referees, and the opposing team. The worst penalty a player on my father’s team could get was for unsportsmanlike conduct.

At the end of each year, my father and the other coaches organized an awards dinner for the team. They’d book a room in a restaurant and the players and families would be treated to dinner. My dad would make a speech summarizing the season, and sometimes by the numbers it would have been a really good season and sometimes by the numbers it would have been a less than successful season but either way by the end of that speech those kids probably felt like Stanley Cup champions. He always found something shining about the season. There were plaques and certificates of recognition for the players, and my dad found a way to make sure each boy got something. There was recognition for the Most Valuable Player, Most Goals Scored, Most Assists, Fewest Penalty Minutes, Perfect Attendance at Practice and Games, you name it.

His favorite award to give, though, the one that meant the most to him, was Most Improved Player. This was always a plaque, and it went to the boy who distinguished himself not by points, but by effort. The kid who played every practice like it was a game. Who never stopped the drill until he heard the whistle. Who hustled back to the coach to find out what the next drill was. Who was not, perhaps, naturally talented the way some of the other kids were, but who made up for that with effort. The kid who was a workhorse. By the end of the season the Most Improved Player still might not be one of the best on the team, but he had distinguished himself by never believing that he couldn’t, one day, be one of those top players. My father truly loved those ones, the Rudys of this world.

Small Boy is a Rudy. He is not the best player on the ice. He is not naturally gifted at this awkward sport. He is not the fastest, and he doesn’t make you think: That kid is going places. But Small Boy, even at six, works as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen. He has made so much progress this year and though he is still not one of the best six year olds on the ice he is so much better than he was at the beginning of the year, and he does it by trying. He hurries to get on the ice as soon as they open the doors. He listens to the trainers and he tries to do exactly what they say. He takes the drills so seriously. He never stops halfway through, or cuts corners, or hangs back trying to be last in line so maybe they won’t get to him. If he loses control of the puck halfway through a drill he recovers his puck and picks up in the exact spot on the ice where he lost it. He’s not the best on the ice, but he’s the hardest working. Of that I am sure.

My father would be so proud of his grandson, this workhorse, and on Thursday I started to cry thinking that he will never see him, my Most Improved Player.

It’s not fair.

Expat Thanksgiving. And Pie.

November 27th, 2010

This afternoon we had fifteen people in the house: nine adults and six children with a total of 22 passports, four mother tongues, and seven working languages between us. The kids alone account for twelve passports and four languages – five if you make a distinction between Swiss and German. None of the kids have entered the first grade, when standard German is introduced with the beginning of reading and writing, so they have very little German compared to a German kid but they might know more than their full Swiss kindergarten friends who do not hear their Ausländerin mamas speaking high German out in the world.

I love these expat Thanksgivings, filling the house with people who miss the turkey, the sweet potatoes, the cranberry sauce, the gathering of family and friends together for a celebration of gratitude. It is the holiday when I feel most foreign, most far away, for it is the quintessential American holiday and it is the one I miss the most living abroad. It might be the holiday all Americans living abroad miss the most. It’s the day we know our families back in the States are all getting together, without us. It’s a day full of family traditions that carry over generations more, it seems to me, than on other holidays so even though I wasn’t there I know my brother used our mother’s china and made his pecan pie. Unless they went to his in-laws – then he still brought the pie but they used his mother-in-law’s cut-glass goblets, one of the few things she still has from her childhood in East Prussia. I know these things. I remember that china, I have drunk from those goblets.

Traditions, carrying on without me.

* * *

You have to make your own traditions, living abroad. You have to get your own china, your own goblets. You have to hold on to the holidays that are dear to you and make the effort to celebrate them. You have to roast turkey on Saturday.

* * *

Slicing apples for the pie, for my mother’s apple pie that makes the house smell like childhood and without which no Thanksgiving is complete, I realize I am singing to myself in Mundart (dialect), singing a Swiss pop song that I often hear on the radio and which makes me happy. If that doesn’t sum up this expat life, I don’t know what does.

* * *

When I lived in DC I had a friend who always opened up his apartment to the “strays” on Thanksgiving. Those of us who couldn’t afford to fly home, who worked retail and didn’t get the time off, who were estranged from our families, whose parents had died. His apartment was no bigger than the rest of ours, but his heart was, and we gathered there for pot-luck Thanksgivings and his good Cuban coffee. It was always warm, and welcoming, and I spent a few Thanksgivings there after my mother died, in my rootless years: no parents, no spouse, no children. No past, no future, a twig that had fallen off the family tree. I always brought pie.

* * *

The first year I hosted Thanksgiving in Switzerland, I decided on Wednesday night to do it. We held it on actual Thanksgiving Day – I don’t remember how R and California Husband got the time off on such short notice, but this is Switzerland and they did. We were five, and there was chicken instead of turkey because I had decided at 8pm the night before to invite people over. There was my mother’s pie; one was enough.

Today there were fifteen people in the house, and two pies, and a chocolate cake from the bakery and no left-overs. And much gratitude.

* * *

Australian Friend likes to say, “Bloom where you’re planted.” It’s good advice for anybody, but I think it applies double to expats. Even after ten years, I will have a day when I can’t find what I am looking for in the gardening supply store and I will go home empty-handed rather than ask, in German, where it might be located. And my German is good. Quite good. I read novels in German. But some days I don’t want to deal with it, some days I don’t want to live my life in a foreign language no matter how well I might speak that language. Some days, I don’t want to be the foreign lady. I just want it all to be easy.

But we are here. We are making lives here and so we have to – if we want to be happy, if we want to live genuine lives, lives with opportunities approximating those we might have in the countries of our birth – bloom where we are planted. Live here, live our lives here, embrace our lives here. We integrate and learn the language and go to the local festivals. But we also hold on to who we are and to the things that made us. We sing happy birthday to our kids in English, or Dutch, or Italian. We put out the flag on Australia Day. We wear orange when Netherlands reaches the final of the football world championships. We host Thanksgiving. We make pie.

* * *

We ended up sitting in clusters, the girlfriends all together at one end and the men – who are all Swiss and who are thrown together in these crazy Thanksgiving dinners because their wives are girlfriends – at the other. This led to a language division with the women (who are not all American but are all native English speakers) speaking English and the men speaking Swiss (even though one of them is Swiss-Italian and might have preferred English).

* * *

We moved the kitchen table into the living room, pulled in the table from the balcony. Dusted the snow off it. We set up two tables for the kids. We ate turkey with stuffing – made by Australian Friend and may I say, you’d  think she’d grown up eating Thanksgiving stuffing her whole life – and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and scalloped potatoes and green beans and salad and cranberry sauce. We went back for seconds. We drank sparkling wine, and white wine, and red wine and finished off with apple pie and pumpkin pie and chocolate cake and coffee and port and grappa. The kids stayed up way past bedtime, and ate too much dessert, and got over-excited. I snuck some extra apple pie. Outside, the snow fell all evening.

Thanksgiving, in other words. Even in Switzerland, Thanksgiving. Grateful for the lives we have made here, the friends we have found, the new country we have come to love even as we miss our old ones. Stuffed with food and drink and fellowship. Fifteen people, twenty-two passports, seven languages. One turkey. Pie. Thanksgiving.

* * *

The secret to a good pie crust is this: the water you add to your flour mixture should be iced. And you have to add it gradually. A tablespoon at a time. Add, mix, check. Add again. Mix. Patience. The real secret is patience.

A river runs through it

September 28th, 2010

I wish I could explain, if only to myself, why these places have such a hold on my heart. It is more than that my father’s spirit continues to visit these rivers, though there is surely that. Summer after summer I watched my father fish these waters; summer after summer these rivers flowed their way into my father’s story and so, into mine. To this day I cannot look at a trout stream without assessing it with an angler’s eye it for the perfect spot to cast a line. In this, as in so much, I am my father’s daughter.

But these waters are more than a repository for my father’s memory; they have been in my life, for as long as I can remember, riffling in the sunshine with a life of their own, one that has nothing to do with my father. They speak to my heart. I do not know why. I have never known, with a logical kind of knowing, why. There is my father, of course. But I believe now that that came later. I think, having had two decades now to think about it, that it was after the rivers had already laid their claim that I grafted on to the pull I cannot explain the pull that I could. I think my love of these rivers is so inexplicable even to myself that I decided that I love them because they remind me so uniquely, so precisely, of my father. Twenty years on I can see my father in his waders and fishing vest, I can hear his voice asking at Bud Lilly’s what flies are fishing well. Some of my most vivid images of my father are from here, from this place of rivers lined with aspen and cottonwoods that blaze yellow under an autumn sky. My memory of my father is forever tied up with these rivers.  

And yet.

And yet I know the rivers have their own voice. I know that even without the image of my father forever in the corner of my eye, casting from the far bank of memory, these rivers, these glorious golden rivers in the last dying hours of summer, speak to me with their own voice, and it is with that voice that they call me home.

When grief ages

July 29th, 2010

I have been writing this post for days; I have been writing this post all month; I have been writing this post for twenty years. My father died twenty years ago today of lung cancer. He didn’t even live a year past his diagnosis, the diagnosis he received while I was in my junior year of college. The diagnosis he and my mother weren’t going to tell me about until my brother threatened to tell me himself if they didn’t. They told me when I came home over the long Thanksgiving weekend, and he was dead the following July. Eight months. Eight months, more half of which I missed finishing out my junior year. My father wouldn’t hear of me taking time off and coming back home. He wanted no part of me putting college on hold. (I can’t recall if I actually suggested doing that. If I did, I can well imagine I said it knowing he would refuse.) It was the pride of his life that he, a high school drop-out, put both his kids through college debt free. He didn’t live to see my senior year, but by the time he died he knew the tuition had been covered; he knew I’d be able to finish without having to work. He was quietly but implacably opposed to me holding a part time job during the academic year. “No, you won’t get a job,” he told me when I said I could work part time to help make up the difference between in-state tuition at the University of Illinois, where my brother went and where I could not, would not follow, and the out-of-state tuition at Indiana University where I wanted to go. “Your job is to be a student. My job is to pay for it.” He wanted me to be a student. He wanted me to take classes and study and make friends and play sports and have the time to do whatever it was that kids did in college. (Things he didn’t get to do; I’m well aware that he needed me to have the full co-ed experience because he never had it. There are worse dreams to pin on your children and god knows I don’t hold it against him. I found my best self in those four years, and I owe that to him.)  

So I went to Indiana, with its collegiate cycling tradition, and I had the time to be a cyclist in college because my father was an old-fashioned mid-Western man who believed that putting his kids through college was a man’s job; and being a cyclist in college was the best thing I did in those four years. It was where I found my best self. It was also the thing that carried me after he died. The spring of my junior year, when he was dying, and my whole senior year, when his death was raw and unbelievable, cycling saved me. Racing saved me. I rode my bike hard that year and a half, grinding out time trials on Flat Bottom Road, climbing Firehouse Hill then coasting back to the base to climb it again. Riding full of sorrow and anger and self-pity, riding as if I could leave first his cancer and later his death behind me. Riding with my team, who were the only ones who knew what was going on with me. Who were the ones who knew that I wanted it to hurt, I needed it to hurt, I wanted to finish those workouts, those sprinting drills, those team time trails, those spinning drills, and fall over on the side of the road and throw up from the effort. Because if it hurt, if I was gasping for breath, I was still alive.

Now, unbelievably, it’s been twenty years – twenty years! I have been fatherless almost half my life – and the sharp and jagged edges of grief have been worn away; I don’t have loose pieces of glass rattling around inside of me anymore, cutting me anytime I make a sudden move. I don’t wake up from dreams of my father believing for that first confused second that he’s still alive. I don’t miss him every day. I probably do miss him every day but it’s not all-consuming; it’s background music. A kind of emotional white noise. What I miss now are the things I miss on my father’s behalf. The things he missed. He never met my brother’s wife, or my husband, or any of his grandchildren. My father coached hockey, and of his four grandchildren my Small Boy is the only one who plays. My father missed that, his grandson learning to skate. He would have liked my father-in-law. Sharing no common language, they wouldn’t have understood a word the other had to say, but my father-in-law would have taken my dad to an SCB hockey game and they would have been great friends. He would have thought R was a fine man and he would have enjoyed teaching him to fly-fish. He would have laughed when I moved to the farm last year, the laugh of a father sharing with his daughter a private thirty year old joke about living on a farm. I miss these things on his behalf, I mourn for everything he missed and not, I think, for myself anymore. I have had, after all, twenty years to get used to his absence. Grief and I have come to terms.

It still sneaks up on me though. I expect it on days like today, on my father’s birthday or on Thanksgiving, but grief sneaks up on me sometimes, too, at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places. In the locker room lacing up the Small Boy’s skates. Racing popsicle stick boats in the creek with the boys. Catching a whiff of coffee beans grinding at the grocery store. It’s there, suddenly, over my shoulder, like a cyclist I can’t drop. It’s not fierce and urgent anymore, though; it’s not racing me to the mountain top. We don’t grind it out, grief and I. It doesn’t taunt me, and I don’t need to beat it. I don’t need to push, and push, and push. I no longer need to be the fastest girl on the track, racing away from my loss.

You can’t out-race grief anyway; it’s got a better bike.

Holding it in my hand

June 1st, 2010

My copy of Walden and Other Writings is the copy I gave my father for Father’s Day in 1988. I am sure that somewhere in a box sits my first paperback copy from high school with its underlinings and marginalia, but the copy I keep in my library is the one I gave my father and which I took for my own after he died. I inscribed it with a quote of Thoreau’s, his most over-quoted quote, no doubt, but one I chose for a reason:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

Then I wrote “Happy Father’s Day to the man who taught me the above long before I ever picked up Thoreau. Thank you,”

Twenty years on, it is hard sometimes to distinguish between memories of the actual relationship I had with my father, the real feeling that was there at the time, and the glossed over glow the memory of a dead loved one can take on. Especially after twenty years it would be easy to have created in my mind a relationship far different from the one that really existed at the time. In light of some of my other memories that have revealed themselves as false, I hold this copy of Thoreau with my school-girl’s writing on the fly-leaf, this piece of my love for my father that I can hold in my hand, especially dear.

It was real. He was my father, and I loved and admired him. And I know, and will always know, that at least once in my life before he died, I told him clearly that he taught me how to live a true life, and that I was grateful.

This brings me some peace when the memories shift like mist over the river.

Speak, memory?

May 10th, 2010

I recently realized that for years I have been misremembering something about the day my father died. It’s a detail, a secondary detail, but it was a detail about the day my father moved from being here to being not-here, and it hit me, after all these years, that it is inaccurate. It is as if for years I have associated the day my father died with the crescent moon in the sky only to consult a lunar calendar and discover that on that day the moon was in fact waxing gibbous. 

I don’t know how I came to associate this false detail with that morning, the conflating of two memories over time, probably, but now I am forced to wonder: what else have I misremembered, or forgotten altogether, about that day? And worse, this: what have I misremembered, or forgotten altogether, about my father? Twenty years, my father died twenty years ago this July, twenty years is a long time to hold on to the weather, the phases of the moon, the leaves on the tree outside my bedroom window. It’s a long time to hold on to how he dressed, what he ate for breakfast, the nicknames he gave me, the sound of his voice. I lost that one, the sound of his voice, I lost that already  years ago. Is this my fate, to slowly forget the details? Is this his fate, to fade away into photographs that never change, but don’t tell the whole story, either?

And what of that false memory? The fact is inaccurate, but that I held on to it for so long that I came to believe it was true, that happened. That’s real. It became my detail, and though it does not correspond to the world as it existed that morning, it belongs to the world as it exists now within me; it is inaccurate, yet true. What do we call the space between what happened and the way we remember it? The detail is factually inaccurate, I see now that it must be, but I still believe that some part of it is true.