My father used to tuck me in at night. It was a ritual I looked forward to throughout my childhood and even into adolescence, when my father became slightly repulsive to me — what with the errant hairs protruding from his nose and ears, and the smacking noise he made while eating. By thirteen I was mostly avoiding his hugs. But I would still agree to be tucked in now and then. Indeed, I would now, were he here to offer.
Here’s how it always went: First, feeling small and astray inside my covers, I would yell, “Will you tuck me in, Daddy?” And poof! A six-foot, burly, radiant man would appear, a genie in a business suit, his upper lip sweating from the way he took the stairs two at a time, his breath garlicky from my mother’s pot roast, his expression jocular, like Jackie Gleason’s. In fact, the whole effect was Gleason-like, except that my father wasn’t as fat, or as sarcastic, and he smiled as often as he hollered. He also wasn’t a celebrity, though he walked like one, with peacock strides and the assumption that people were happy to see him. I certainly was.
“You want the full, super-duper treatment?” he’d ask.
“Yes,” I’d say, and he’d begin gathering the bedclothes around me, smoothing them into one thick layer tucked neatly around neck, shoulders, arms, waist, hips, legs — not an inch of my outline ignored. He worked hard, smiling and panting, with a playful grunt now and then, until I looked like a swaddled babe, lovingly wrapped in wools and cottons from the Sears catalog, right down to my feet. Then he would lift my heels, sliding the remaining section of untamed fabric firmly underneath, the latch that would hold the rest secure.
“Good night,” he’d say, and he’d kiss my brow, just a light peck. Then out he’d go, well aware that this was no time to get me giggling or squirming, lest he break the spell and have to start all over. I’d lie there unmoving, sealed in material and absorbed in the memory of his careful, steady movements: a sculpture of sand he’d molded and left, until the tides of sleep washed me away.
Sometimes, if it wasn’t a school night, he would reappear ten minutes later, eager to find out if I was still in position, how well his folds were holding up, how distinct my outline was in the dim light. By then he’d smell of coffee and his favorite dessert, checkerboard cake from the bakery. His shirttail would be out, his shoes off. His smile would crinkle the corners of his eyes, and if I’d drifted from my spot, a booming laugh would bounce off the walls of my room. He would celebrate the moment with me, the pleasure of unfurling cloth, and we’d laugh at how lovely it is to let go, to let the tightly tucked moments end and the stretching, yawning moments begin.
It was one thing for an adult to like the early Beatles. “She Loves You” and “Love Me Do” weren’t a far cry from the Everly Brothers, after all. But to like the White Album, Abbey Road, Let It Be — that was different.
By then I was in high school and could take my father’s Cadillac out by myself. I was thrilled to find these tapes in his car (along with Man of La Mancha and Andy Williams’s Moon River). I was impressed that he might be listening to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” even when I wasn’t there. The eight-tracks were large and clunky by today’s standards, but back then only luxury vehicles came equipped with the players. My father took pride in owning that car and loved to share it with me. On New Year’s Day, regardless of the weather, we would drive around town with the windows down, Abbey Road blaring. He’d sit in the roomy driver’s seat as if it were an easy chair, the back slightly reclined, plenty of leg room, his feet tapping in white leather loafers. Each time he turned, his star-sapphire pinkie ring would clink against the steering wheel and catch the sun, sending off a spark of greeting. He sang in a smooth baritone, sometimes off-key, but always with gusto. I’d sit beside him, in patched jeans and a peasant blouse, hair in kinks, and howl along. It didn’t matter if I had friends waiting, or how late I’d stayed out the night before. By noon on New Year’s I was with Dad, coasting down Main Street, honoring a tradition only he and I gave two hoots about.
That’s how it often was. When I was in grade school, we spent autumn weekends collecting leaves for a scrapbook on trees, took trips to the art museum to study Degas’s ballerinas, Modigliani’s long-necked beauties, and Utrillo’s women with fat behinds. There were school-day breakfasts spent trying to guess the surprise endings to O. Henry stories and memorizing phrases in Yiddish. My older sister was too cool to care, my brother too young and, as he grew, unwilling to bow to my father’s demand for an audience. But I bought a lifetime membership in his fan club.
Sitting in the Cadillac’s passenger seat, the soft beige leather making me feel like a queen, I sang along, proud to have a father hip enough to listen to the Beatles, admiring the flush in his cheeks, the beard stubble rubbing his collar, his little row of yellow teeth, his polyester leisure suit — his mass, his wealth, his vigor. The whole length of him could have been painted in waterproof oils. Orange. Turquoise. Colors made to last.
By the time the cancer came, my father was no longer driving a Cadillac. He’d switched to Lincolns. I was thirty with a child of my own, an infant son who slept with me, holding my breasts between his tiny hands as if they were canteens filled for a long journey. My son spoke his first two syllables the evening before my father died. “Papa,” he said, pointing to the dwindling spirit in the bed, the faint figure drawn in tones of gray: skin a yellow-gray, eyes gray clouds, smile a thin slate line. When I said good night to my father that evening, I added the farewell wish that had become routine those last few weeks: “I hope you die tonight, Dad.”
It’s what he wanted. But I’d said it so many nights that I had grown bold in the assumption that he would still be there the next morning; that when he died, I would be by his side or hovering over him, not in my bed forty minutes away with his grandson sprawled across my belly.
When we got home, I nursed the baby to sleep and tucked the covers around him with the hope that maybe he’d stay down for more than his usual few hours. The call came just moments later.
“Dad may be dying,” my sister said. “We called the hospice nurse. Do you want to come back?”
My answer would later haunt me. It was a tired, convoluted, distracted response, a tortured trail of rationales for why he would most likely not die during the night and why I was better off letting the baby sleep and coming early the next morning. If I came now, my son would be a disturbance, waking every hour and crying for me, as he was apt to do, accepting no one in my stead, and I wouldn’t be able to attend to my father the way my sister and brother could. I would wait till morning.
There was no sleep for me. I couldn’t even lie down. I sat cross-legged in agitated prayer, an eerie mix of doubt and stillness. I opened the Buddhist book about dying that I’d read to my father a day earlier. He’d asked me to recite a dying meditation while he closed his eyes to listen. At one point, he lay perfectly still for several minutes, and when he came to, he told me he thought he’d actually died. Now I stared at the photographs of the sand mandalas, beautiful circular designs that symbolize the universe and its energy. Monks painstakingly construct these artworks out of colored sand and then sweep them up and offer them to the sea to train themselves to accept life’s transience. I thought about how my father had touched that acceptance the other day. In his eyes, somewhere behind the sadness and pain, there had been a flicker of peace.
As the hours passed, my son slept and slept, breaking all records, and I tried to focus on my father’s spirit. In my thoughts, though, I kept pulling on my jeans, leaping for my keys, wedging my screaming baby into his car seat, and speeding down the expressway.
The second call came at dawn: “He’s gone,” my sister said, and she wept. “He asked for you.”
My disappointment in myself ran too deep for there to be any chance of forgiveness. My son was still asleep, moons, planets, and biorhythms all conspiring to keep his dreams calm, his tummy quiet, and my breasts streaming milk onto a nightgown already damp with tears.
Papa. His first word. It’s not what I called my father. To me he was “Daddy” — a bright and sunny, stand-up name. Daddy, will you pick me up? Daddy, will you tie my shoe? Daddy, will you tuck me in? “Papa” was for the grandfather he barely got to be. He played the role for a few months, an ashen, sad man in baggy pants, the too-large waistband puckering behind his belt, my baby boy balanced precariously on his bony knee.
When my son and I entered my father’s room early that morning, his bed had already been stripped. Gone was the inventory of pillows in different shapes and sizes to help keep him comfortable and prevent bedsores. Gone was the army of pharmaceuticals that had crowded the top of his night table. A bare king-size mattress filled the room like a sad, still lake, and my son’s little finger pointed toward it as he tried out his new word: “Papa. Papa?” My chest heaved with sadness. I’d screwed up. Why hadn’t I raced back to my father’s side after my sister’s phone call? My father had asked for me, and I hadn’t been there. How could I have let my son’s sleep schedule stop me? How would I survive the regret?
Looking back, I know it was less about my baby and more about my fear. I wasn’t there to see my father’s face turn to stone because I didn’t want to be.
When I think of my father’s funeral, I picture him there, clad in his Jackie Gleason best. He could be Gleason at the Oscars, red and ruddy in a starched white shirt and black linen suit, his pinkie ring glinting, the man of the hour.
When the eulogy begins, he leans back in the front row to listen. There is sweat on his brow from all the excitement; his legs are crossed with relaxed confidence, his chest filled with pride. He was a good man, and well liked. The place is packed, and only a few have come out of obligation. Eyes glisten, and chuckles punctuate fond remembrances.
Next to him, his middle child (me) sits folded into herself with grief. This is more than sorrow or shock. Swirling around her are remorse, guilt, rage at herself and at her son, his only grandchild. Her full breasts hang in resignation, not belonging to her.
He remembers a time, at the height of his fatherhood, when he had a special game with this child. A tucking-in game. How he loved it. How he poured on the charm. And how still she lay, sealed in bedclothes, trying hard not to giggle as his fingers ran the length of her. Now, in death, his fingers have new life. They can penetrate the barrier between worlds. They can reach for her, and she will feel them — not quite a touch, or even a gentle pressure against clothing or skin, but a gathering of vapors, a halo of warmth. He will stand behind her and wrap her in his arms. He will whisper words, and she will not hear them as mere words but as perfect understandings. And this terrible regret of hers will lift.
As my father’s spirit held me, I suspect I looked quite crazed. Any who might have glanced my way probably thought I had entered into a hysterical grief beyond tears. My eyes were unnaturally wide, and my body was leaning forward and still, arrested in a motion that seemed to go on and on. At one point I grew worried he might never leave — worried not for my sake, but for his. They say departed souls sometimes need a little push into the next world.
And so I gave him one. You can go now, Dad, I thought. I’m OK. Thank you. Thank you.
His departure was almost instant, and yet I could detect each receding pulse of his presence: still there, still there, less so, less so, gone — like a light rain that gives way to heavy mist and then empty air. I wonder now at how easily I let him go. Why did I initiate his leaving? Why didn’t I linger while I could, tightly folded into his grasp? Instead I gave way willingly, joyfully, to the inevitable ending of one reality and the beginning of the next.