Pulled Into Wakefulness

April 9th sits in me like a time-bomb of fatigue and cloudiness.  Eight years ago today my dad died, and even though the anniversary always delivers an explosion of sense-memory muscle sadness, I somehow manage to forget about it in the days leading up.  Of course, my soul can play tricks and sometimes sends it's annual gift on the 8th, just to mess around with me, so that I wake up on the 9th feeling almost giddy with relief.  This year, I'm in a totally different time zone, so I think my psyche decided to play it safe and spread the heavy feeling out over the 8th and 9th.

I thought it was just all the exercise I'm getting and the elevation, but after I had almost 12 hours of sleep last night and was still unable to stand for fear of falling over, I took a look around in my heart and mind and suddenly realized that it was April 9th and probably nothing in the world was going to make me feel like getting out of bed today, not even the Himalayan mountains.

I did, though, get out of bed.  I hemmed and hawed most of the morning away.  Crawled back into bed and tried my darndest to let my body sleep if that's what it really wanted.  But then the hotel decided that today was the day it was going to clean and paint the tin roof right over my head, so I took that as a sign, made myself get dressed and vacated the room.

Once outside I couldn't decide where to go and eventually took the path of least resistance and went off in the direction of the Tibetan Refuge Center which was supposed to be near the zoo where I had gone yesterday and therefore should be fairly easy to find.  After walking downhill for an hour, which meant I was looking at walking up hill for two, I found the center and had a good look around.  It is a working and living refugee center, not a tourist place.  Theres not a lot of showmanship involved.

But there were craftspeople of all kinds hard at work.  I found the weaving especially fascinating.  I also found the photos of the first refugees and the picture of the woman who founded the Center moving, to say the least.  It was the second day in a row that I'd stood in a museum looking at people I hadn't heard of before, crying for their bravery and chutzpah.  Yesterday, I'd been to the Everest Museum and wept for all the souls who'd clawed their way to the top.  So much daring and living really gets my juices going these days.

Maybe it's the specter of death that looms for me at this time of the year that makes me cherish the bold way that some souls spend their lives.  That April 9th 2003 is etched in my mind.  I remember the early hours of the morning sitting on the floor with my dad cradled in my arms.  He'd fallen out of bed for the second time and Kit, my step-mom, and I couldn't lift him back on our own.  So, while we waited for the fire-truck to arrive, my naked father, covered with a blanket, his body swollen with cancer, laid against my chest and I tried to soothe him as best I could.  When the firemen showed up, I remember the absurdity of the situation and especially the inanity of my thoughts which went something like, "Wow, firemen really are handsome."

About 12 hours later, I sat on my dad's bed, holding his hand, unaware that he had so little time left.  He was lying awkwardly on his stomach.  We were alone in the house.  He'd been vomiting dried blood which had put me in a panic.  I had called the hospice nurse earlier, cleaned him up as best I could and now waited for her to arrive.  My dad was foggy and as far I knew he hadn't said anything coherent since the evening before when he quite clearly told me he wasn't going to eat dinner because he didn't "want to be part of this fiasco anymore."

But something suddenly got my dad's attention and his eyes focused and he appeared to be listening to someone I couldn't see.

I said, "Who do you see, dad?"

He didn't say anything.

Holding his hand, I thought, "I bet your dad is here.  I bet that's who is talking to you."  And with that came the sudden realization that my dad and I were far from being alone in the house, the bed was surrounded by people who'd gathered in the mist between life and death to give my dad a helping hand.

I thought to my dad, but I did not speak, "It's ok Dad, we are all here."

And my dad smiled, as if he'd clearly heard.

You would think that with spirits around the bed and dried blood, I'd know the end was near.  But it just didn't occur to me, nor to Kit. It wasn't until around seven in the evening when the second hospice nurse of the day came to bring dad a hospital bed and to catheterize him to make him comfortable that we found out.  The hospice nurse told us as gently as possible that what we'd been witnessing over the last 24 hours were the last stages of living, or is it dying?  She told us gently, but she still couldn't completely hide her astonishment that we'd been unaware.  She was sure it was a matter of hours, 7 or 8 at the most.

Once he'd been made comfortable, my dad relaxed and set about calling the ferry man.  Kit went to change so that she, too, could be comfortable and curl up next to my Dad.  We thought we were in for a long night keeping vigil.  I sat next to him holding one hand and keeping my other hand, inadvertently over his heart.  While I had him to myself, I sang Dites-Moi because the song had always reminded me of him.  He'd taught it to me in the third grade and I'd taught it to my french class at school, with his help. I also took the moment to tell him that it was ok for him to leave and that I would be ok.  Kit came in and held him almost in a spooning position and he must have felt safe and ready because he took the plunge within an hour and stepped over to the other side.  I was rather amazed at the speed with which he left; I’d imagined it would be harder.

My dad had found little to make his last months worthwhile.  Some people accept the end is near and try to wring what joy they can out of the time they have left.  Not my dad.  He tried to take cancer as a sign that living was and always had been a cruel joke and only suckers pretended that their heart had been in it all along.  Of course, my dad was just scared and angry like any human being would be.

But those of us who tried to comfort him and to care for him found it exhausting and somewhat devastating that he so stubbornly refused to find anything joyful in the time that he had left.  Just about the only time he would perk up was when he'd convinced himself that the cancer was fightable or that the palliative chemotherapy he was getting was really curative, which was equally devastating to those of us who recognized the truth.  My dad mostly faced his death sentence as, well, a death sentence and pretty much stopped living the October they'd opened him up to cut the cancer out of his liver only to close him up when they realized that there wouldn't be any liver left if they took out the cancerous parts.

There was a spring storm shaking the trees outside, the night he completely closed up shop.  Just like there is today in Darjeeling.  Here there is thunder and lightening and the tumultuous sound of heavy drops hitting the clean tin roof over my head.  On that April 9th, in Norfolk, the storm had come and gone, but the wind that had ushered it in still swept through the trees while I sat on the curb waiting for Mutt and Jeff, the two guys out of central casting, one tall and thin, the other short and fat, both dressed in black leather coats and wearing deeply sympathetic expressions, to take my dad away to the funeral home.  I sat that night and wept into the wind, letting nature rage for me, while I began the long process of letting go.

During the six months that my dad was knowingly sick with cancer, he repeated the desire several times that I should go to China before he died.  He'd recently been with Kit and it had knocked his socks off.  He wanted to be able to talk about it with me before he moved on.  I knew it wasn't going to happen in his lifetime, but it was unbelievably sweet that he felt so strongly, and naively, about the trip.  It was the one sign of life he really clung to. 

I don't know how my dad felt about India.  We never talked about it.  He never came here.  But I think he would have liked it. 

After I walked down the mountain today to the Tibetan Refuge Center, I was not looking forward to finding my way up.  As I started to leave the compound a white pick up truck was going out.  I don't know why, but I looked up just in time to see an old Tibetan woman madly waving down at me from the third level of the compound; when I made eye contact she made a motion as if she was driving a car and pointed frantically to the white pick up and back to me.  I, in turn, waved madly at the pick up which was almost out of the gate; it stopped.  I looked up at the lady and she motioned for me to get in.  I asked a kid who was standing in the bed of the truck if they were going to Darjeeling and if I could get a ride.  They were and I could, so I hopped in the back.

The white pick up was the communal truck for the people who lived on site at the refugee center to get up to Darjeeling, which I would soon realize I'd actually walked out of on my descent down the mountain.  The young man in the pick up bed stood next to me chatting, while we held on for dear life as the truck careened up mountain roads, twisting and turning and taking us on a wild, but free, ride.  We stopped to pick up some Tibetan girls who were headed in our direction to play basketball, so for a while there were several of us standing behind the cab, holding on and talking while small town, Himalayan, India whizzed by.

As we sped along, my fatigue fell out of me onto the side of the road and I was filled instead with ecstasy, clear-headed joy and vitality, not to mention gratitude for that woman who made sure I didn't try to walk all the way back to Darjeeling on my own.  It was a very long ride.

It was one of those travelling mercies that mean more than the simple facts.  A stranger, a refugee from her own land, had noticed me, noticed my need, my weariness and made sure I was given swift and safe passage back to my temporary home.  I was not just standing in a pick-up going up a mountain road to Darjeeling, which, of course, is spectacular enough.  I was being pulled back into wakefulness. 

Now the storm here in Darjeeling has passed, the clouds linger, but the birds are singing again, the motorbikes have taken to the newly washed roads, life goes on.  Tomorrow I suspect I will wake up refreshed and energized, ready, once again, to put my heart back into the living.

My Dad and I in London or Paris.