We lived in a place between mountains in the trout lands. The fish dwelt in the chill of eternal movement, slick and lithe and beautiful, in the curve of sapphire rivers twinkling with western sun. This was why we’d moved to Montana when I was a boy — to chase fish, in the church of my father’s religion. Prayers were delivered thigh-deep in moving water, catechism received in the sudden bending of a nine-foot bamboo pole. Pine-forest canyons, rattlesnake scrubland, the wide valley and distant snowcaps. Eagle above, elk upriver. Once, he said, he’d seen a bobcat.
As a young man my father read the mystic Gurdjieff and thought the big answer lay in some unexplored corner of Central Asia. He never made it that far, but he did end up in England, where in the seventies he joined a spiritual group that blended new-age beliefs with the occultism of antiquity. He studied under, by all accounts, an eminent teacher, and learned the secrets of the pyramids and how to see auras. I don’t know the details, but sometime later my father came back to the United States, having decided that occultism was fine but all the answers he needed could be found in a fish pirouetting at the end of his line.
When I was young, my parents attended some gatherings in Boulder, Colorado, of my father’s spiritual group from England, and they both retained some of the group’s beliefs, if not its practices. I was raised on the lukewarm remnants of this past fascination, on stories of ancient something-or-others in the Nazca Desert, spiritual ascendancy, elementals in nature, and the existence of some kind of God. With that I tried to make sense of life — and what comes after.
The summer before I entered high school, my father descended into something resembling insanity. From the month of May on, he ignored me; he said more words to the dogs. Then, halfway through June, I became the scapegoat for every slight — real, imagined, or potential — in his daily affairs. I would hear my name called; I would come upstairs from my bedroom, where I’d retreated behind a closed door and a pulp fantasy novel; I would be told to sit down on the couch. The ensuing accusations and acerbic observations about my character could last an hour: I was inconsiderate, self-involved, lacking in initiative, and ruining the family — all because I’d forgotten to take out the trash.
Growing up, I hadn’t been afraid of my father. As dads go, he’d been pretty great. He took me to the alley behind our house to catch grasshoppers. When I graduated to toads at the local pond, he showed me how to handle them so that, after I’d briefly marveled at their tiny eyes and bumpy, velveteen skin, I could release them unharmed to hop off into the tall grass. At night he took turns with my mother reading to me from the crammed bookshelf, and when we read Tolkien and I was too scared of Gollum’s pattering feet to continue The Fellowship of the Ring, he didn’t chide me. He sometimes worked twelve-hour days at the online business he ran from home, but even so he made sure we spent time together, if only in the kitchen, where he taught me to sprinkle paprika on chicken. When I turned ten, he told me about sex, and two years later he taught me how to drive. We went skiing, hiking, and fishing. Once, we saw a UFO. He talked to me about girls and travel and the true age of the Sphinx. He loved my mother immensely, and he wasn’t afraid to tell me so.
But over the summer that gentle, munificent father had become obscured behind a carapace of mistrust and fear. In the fall, four days after my fifteenth birthday and still in my first week of school, I came home one day to find my parents waiting. They sat me down at the kitchen table. On guard, I reluctantly lowered myself into the chair. I’d already gleaned from their expressions that something was wrong: my mother looked as if she’d broken some precious artifact of my childhood. After a moment she said, Your father has cancer.
The optometrist had discovered that something was slowly forcing my father’s left eye from its socket. An MRI had revealed a cancer called hemangiopericytoma — a type of brain tumor.
My memory of what followed is a dropped vase, of which I’ve scraped together only a few shards: Me crying in the kitchen. The bright-white hospital. A brief encounter with my sedated father in the fluorescent-lit corridor as he was wheeled in for surgery — just enough time for a quick press of his hand and a prayer to Something. Seeing him in the intensive-care unit, kept alive by the hiss and murmur of tubes, a metal rod penetrating his head, pushed between the severed plates of his skull. His arrival home and hobble up the front steps. His swollen face and month-long silence before he could face a mirror and laugh at it.
The surgeon had needed ten hours in the operating room to dig out the cancer, and my father’s recovery was slow. While his skull knitted itself together, his brain inched back to its rightful place. The tumor itself was years, maybe decades, old, and as it had approached critical mass through the summer months, the undue compression of his frontal lobe had brought on the shifts in temperament. The tumor would have killed him, but not before turning him into a real Mr. Hyde.
Half of all men in the developed world are destined to end up with some kind of cancer. A coin toss. Most cancers are treatable; others, you’re doomed from the start. My father’s four-year “battle” was a familiar story: An operation. Convalescence. A fishing trip where we have to turn around before we get to the river. Metastasization. Impossible hope in some celebrated new technology. A flight and a hotel and a hospital. A thank-God-we-have-insurance treatment. Home. Recovery. Remission? A fishing trip. Shit, he threw up on the fly rods. Another doctor, this one with pills — lots of them; better get one of those weekly organizers with the little boxes labeled M, T, W, . . . Wait. Metastasization. Let’s try radiation. Don’t worry about his hair; it didn’t grow back after the operation. Fishing? We wish we could do lunch. If he’s awake by then. Bedtime, 6 PM. Let’s just try walking by a river. OK, the park. The goddamn backyard. Metastasization. It’s everywhere: liver, spine, ribs, bones — right in the very marrow. Call the kid; it’s time for him to come home. Time to get together and wait.
The last conversation I remember having with my father was in my freshman year of college. I was in a friend’s dorm room in Boston when I got a call from the hospital in Montana; my friend waited outside in the hallway while I pressed the phone to my ear. My father told me to take care of my mother. He said that he loved me, that it had been one hell of a ride — and it wasn’t over yet. Toward the end of an hour, he began to forget who I was — a hint of what was to come.
I made it through the night with help. My friend let me sleep in her bed, and we woke up and kissed. I flew to Montana the following day.
Memory can be a fickle son of a bitch. The two-week finale to this almost-five-year saga ought to occupy some hallowed place in what was my youth. Instead it’s commemorated by a half-dozen recollections of piercing acuity, coupled with the foggy jetsam of what might be true. I remember my friend’s kiss but have forgotten so much of my father’s death.
By the time I got home, my father hadn’t merely begun to inch into the great beyond; he was in it thigh-deep, as if chasing some great hulk of a brown trout lurking along the opposite bank. He wandered slowly around the house with the wide eyes and goofy smile of a Looney Tunes character who’s had an anvil dropped on his head. He lacked conviction and needed help with almost everything. And though he didn’t always make sense, there were times when he seemed to have a better grasp of what was happening than my mother and I did.
Mom greeted me with a firm hug and told me in level terms how he was. Though her hair had gone gray and she’d wisped away to a point of malnourishment over the previous four years, I had not seen her cry yet, and the soft glint in her eyes told me she wasn’t about to start. (I do not remember seeing her cry at all before he died, but there must have been tears: when no one else was around, and it hit her that soon she would be alone, with her only child two thousand miles away.)
That first week Dad was happy to have me home. Most of the time he thought I’d quit college and that he, my mother, and I were continuing our lives as usual in Montana. The only reason we hadn’t been fishing in a while, we let him believe, was on account of the winter weather. His skin and muscles hung loose as I hugged him, and I could feel coin-sized bumps on his back and arms. (There were bigger tumors, too, including one in his lower vertebrae that was poised to slice through his spinal column.) We sat on the couch a lot. I read to him. In his final year he put down his leftist political literature and began to root through my childhood bookshelf, suddenly preferring fantasy and science fiction. So it must have been Harry Potter or Philip Pullman that we read — something thick that we never finished.
One afternoon the birds outside began to fly circles around the house. Swallows, presumably, massed in the hundreds and soared and swirled, each bird somehow avoiding every other. I watched with my father from the couch, through the big bay windows on the second floor, as the birds twisted and dove.
That’s a dragon, my father said.
Many months after he’d passed, during that bitter reordering of the house after someone dies — to make their absence a little less obvious — I found a drawer of books left over from my father’s days in England. In one black hardbound copy with faded gold lettering on the front I found an image of a cluster of birds in flight above a woodland pond. A “dragon,” I read, is one of many unseen elemental spirits in nature and is sometimes given physical form when a flock of birds temporarily reveals the shape of the dragon’s invisible “body.”
Now, whether with his waning mental faculties he was recalling the mythology of his youth or he was actually beginning to see such things, I’m not sure. Sometimes the dying really appear to be wandering aimlessly in the ether, but I wonder if occasionally they aren’t privy to goings-on that the rest of us aren’t; if being thigh-deep in the great beyond doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It might just mean you’re halfway there.
After a week my father couldn’t sit with me on the couch anymore. He would lie there sometimes, but more often he was in the bedroom. His brother had arrived, and my uncle, my mother, and I would take turns at the bedside.
Late one night I sat up with my father while my mother slept. Dad was hallucinating — nothing unusual, just that I was someone named Fred and how proud he was that I was running such a successful consignment clothing store, and that at this rate I’d be able to open a laundromat soon. Then he fell quiet, and without warning the room was filled with an astonishing energy. The hairs on my arms sprang up, as if exposed to a static charge, and my heart started to pound as the room was bathed in a rush of warmth. Though I couldn’t see it, I felt there was something standing at the foot of the bed, thin and nearly as tall as the ceiling. My father’s face broke into a beatific smile, his half-closed eyelids fluttering. He might have been listening.
Is there something here? I murmured.
He pulled his chin down in a slight nod.
What is it? I asked.
He gave an unintelligible, whispered response.
Skin buzzing, I stopped talking and sat silently in the presence of my father’s visitor. It might have remained almost a minute in total; then I felt its sudden absence. The room slowly cooled, like a kettle taken off the flame. The hair settled along my arms. My father’s face remained rapt as I waited for the residual traces of the visitor to evaporate. When his smile had faded, I asked him what had happened — to which he replied, You’re going to have a great business, Fred.
My father’s rapid decline continued. I don’t remember any other moments of lucidity in which I could have posed a question about the visitor, even if I had remembered to do so. Only after someone is gone, it seems, do we remember everything we want to ask, and the memory of that night was soon usurped by the approach of death.
Hospice nurses were now coming by several times a day to administer medications. They buoyed our spirits, these semistrangers who continued to look us in the eye after the conversation turned to cancer. While I had been away at college, my parents had been slowly losing friendships due to my father’s sickness. Few wanted to hear about his cancer, to see the pinched white surgical scar across his forehead or the lopsided eyebrows beneath it. Not that my parents were looking to dwell on the worst. They just wanted a cup of coffee and a laugh and something like normality — an hour’s innocent amnesia before returning to the field of a losing battle. It must have been months, maybe years, since they’d had a social life. A few moments’ unhurried conversation with the hospice nurse offered some meager assurance that the world had not forgotten them.
A nurse hooked Dad up to a CADD pump, an IV-like device for administering pain medications. He was confined to his bed almost all the time now and required assistance to use the bathroom. The house had grown quiet. Dad wasn’t talking much, and my mother, my uncle, and I lacked the energy to discuss much more than affairs of the household: feeding the dogs, feeding ourselves, taking turns at the bedside. One night the three of us were downstairs when we heard a crash. I ran to find Dad ambling into the bathroom. The CADD pump was sideways on the floor, metal rods scraping the linoleum as he dragged the whole contraption along by the needles piercing his chest. It looked painful, but he was smiling, attesting to the strength of whatever pain meds they had pumped him with. I helped him piss and brought him back to bed.
He was prescribed a new drug after that. It was supposed to keep him sedated for the few days he might have left. That evening, before the nurse gave him the sleeping meds, everyone gathered in the bedroom to say goodbye: my grandfather and grandmother, my uncle, my mother, me. The attending nurse was gracious and professional. Dad was conscious, cheery, tender, beneficent — he had never been afraid to die. He and the nurse were the only ones not in tears. Bye, we said. Or maybe we just said, I love you, bending down for a hug and a kiss. My relatives and I left the room to give my mother and father a few minutes alone. The next time I saw him, he was asleep.
In the middle of the night I awoke to my mother calling me. In the bedroom my father was still unconscious, but his eyes were open, bulging.
We need to change him, she said. Can you help me?
He had to be turned from one side to the other to maneuver his undergarments off and on, and I feared we were causing him pain. Even as sedated as he was, my father made small noises of distress when we turned him, as if he were choking but also embarrassed about making a fuss. Left side, right side, grab the moist towelette, right side, left. A dreadful, sibilant aah-aah-aah.
Dear God, how much longer can we do this?
Death is a rupture. For my father there were no last words, no gently exhaled breath and slow settling of the chest. Death came graceless and unforgiving, and he did not depart so much as become irremediably and exquisitely gone. The end was frightening and beautiful and altogether divine:
Late morning. Numb, nerves shredded, I go on an errand with my grandfather — something about skis. I go just to leave the house, to feel the cold November air and hear the whisper of dead grass on snowless ground; to see the world going on as normal. The traffic lights still work. Green still means go; red means stop. Is it Thursday? The sky is ashen. My grandfather drops me back at home. I walk upstairs — Hi, Dad, still sleeping? — then back down to the kitchen, pour a glass of water, sit.
Mom calls frantically, Come! Come!
Upstairs my father is dying. His chest heaves, yearning for air in drawn-out, gravelly gasps, his eyes agape. My uncle is at the foot of the bed. Mom and I sit by Dad’s sides, holding his hands.
Say something, Mom says to me, and of all things, I think, Grasshoppers.
Remember, Dad? I say. Catching them behind the house in Colorado? Remember the grasshoppers? And fishing, do you remember?
Eyes streaming, voice breaking: Do you remember? The fishing trips?
There is no death rattle, no sign of life’s ending — just the next breath that never comes and wide eyes and a body that used to be my father.
He died exactly at noon. Outside the window fat snowflakes drifted to the earth.
We had no prayers for the occasion, no bells or incense. We closed his eyes, brought the sheets to his chin. His skin felt damp, cool. The sheet atop his chest lay unmoving. I pressed my lips to his forehead, the crooked white line where they’d cut him open four years earlier to scrape out the tumor that everyone had known would come back; the tumor that had left us this drained shell of a man, clammy and silent and unbearably still.
My uncle called hospice, and my mother and I left with the dogs. Neither of us felt prepared to watch his body being taken away. We drove to a trail and parked and marched into the thickening snowstorm. We trudged slowly, talking to the dogs and maybe to each other. Our faces were nipped raw, red. Within an hour the snow came to our ankles.
Among the earliest signs of religion on the planet is a grave found in a cavern in Iraqi Kurdistan, where sixty thousand years ago a Neanderthal was buried — seemingly intentionally — with flowers. Why? Were the blossoms a memento from his life? A token of goodwill? Some small item of beauty that says, Even though you’re gone, we still love you? One thing is clear: whoever dug the grave believed that laying the deceased in the earth required some ritual; that death is a sacred event.
My father had no lama, no priest, no imam — just a tired, friendless family. We believed in no religion that would usher his spirit into the afterlife or assist us in mourning. We had no ready-made pegs upon which to hang our grief. There may have been notions of God and spirits, but we did not know what to do about death. And when your life is upended by loss, it’s surprisingly difficult to improvise. Religions at least provide specific regimens, practiced by millions of mourners across the centuries, to aid in the negotiation of tragedy. A Hindu family attends personally to the deceased, placing a candle next to the head and washing the body before cremation. In Islam the body is also washed before being shrouded in white cloth; then prayers are offered and the remains consigned to the ground. Catholics conduct a vigil over the body the night before a funeral Mass, often open-casket, is held at church and presided over by a priest. In Jewish tradition a guardian sits with the body until the closed-casket funeral, which is held as soon as possible after death and followed by two periods of mourning.
My mother has in recent years become a serious practitioner of Buddhism. In her Vajrayana tradition, the deceased stays with the family for three days after death. Laid on the right side, with the right hand under the head, the body is washed in saffron water. Family and community practice meditation beside the remains and read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, among other texts. I’ve been told that in some cases the corpse refuses to decompose, and the room in which it’s kept is permeated by a subtle floral aroma. Of course, my mother had heard of none of this when my father passed away. For a year after his death she would awake screaming in the middle of the night to feel someone standing over her. It happened several times a week. She used to think it was my father trying to communicate. Now she wonders if it was because he hadn’t been properly put to rest — just taken to the crematory in a body bag.
We agnostics have brazenly abandoned many of life’s important rituals. We still have weddings, baby showers, birthdays — but what about death? In the absence of organized religion, the natural rhythms of human existence have been too easily ignored — or, rather, denied. Yet for all of us, someone will die. And for all of us, grief will come.
The ritual of mourning is as necessary as water. Humans, we need to mourn. So if religion’s wells have dried up for you, then you must draw the water of ritual from someplace else.
And so my mother and I taught ourselves how to mourn, though not easily. When the numbness suddenly fell away, and I lay in bed sobbing three days after his death, my mother was there to comfort me. Later I did the same for her as she cried. But then I returned to college to finish the semester, and she was left with an empty house and closets full of clothes that still smelled like my father, and no one to hold her through her grief. So we held phones to our ears almost every night.
Without knowing it, we conceived little rituals. We reminded each other of happy memories, like when he and my mother had gotten drunk with their theater company in Napa and he’d driven (he really shouldn’t have, Mom says) with everyone roaring in the car beneath the California sun. We made jokes about cancer being a magic spell: say it, and poof, your friends are gone! Later we tried going fishing — but damn if the trout didn’t bite. And when I came home over the Christmas holiday, we had a memorial at our house. People showed up, and my mother and I said some words, then turned up the volume on Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers and poured glass after glass of wine. We actually had fun.
Eventually we realized that my father had given us a gift: the ability to acknowledge our own mortality, and the courage to be compassionate with others who are enduring someone’s passing. Also, the deep bond my mother and I formed through that period of death and mourning set a standard of intimacy in our future relationships. And after having experienced the unseen visitor in my father’s bedroom, I knew that there is something beyond this life.
We scattered his ashes in rivers on public lands. It was illegal but only fitting. We would stand at the bank or upon an outcropping, reach into a plain wooden box, dig our hand into the bag inside, and grasp a fistful. The ash was thick like sand, with pebble-like fragments of bone. Throwing it, you had to be careful of the wind. More than once my mother and I turned away sputtering, brushing Dad off our shirts, laughing about the grit in our teeth. We spread the last of his ashes four years after he’d died. My mother, my best friend, and I drove to Yellowstone National Park in the winter. We slipped a handful into the Lamar River that afternoon and then, racing dusk, arrived at a high bridge over the Yellowstone River just after sunset. My friend kept watch, and my mother and I ran out to the middle of the bridge and threw handful after handful over the railing, shaking out the bag and emptying the box. The ash cascaded through the indigo twilight down to the rushing water below, where the hungry fish swam between floes of ice.