“I could not stop talking because now I had started my story, it wanted to be finished. We cannot choose where to start and stop. Our stories are the tellers of us.”
And so I begin:
I must have been about five when my dad took him in. Yes, five. It was 1973. His wife left him a few weeks prior, and so had his liver. Even at my age, I knew he was dying. But that’s what my dad did: took in the dying. I grew accustomed to cots placed in the kitchen, leaden with the weight of those fighting their last days. It wasn’t the smell that was the worst, it was the knowing. I wouldn’t see Barbara again or Em or Jane. Or I would, and that was the worst.
When my dad brought my uncle home to die on the yellow scratchy couch in our basement, I turned my head. But I never could help looking back. And there it was: gray skin, muddy eyes, grimaced lips. He waved. I waved back. I didn’t like to go in the basement after that.
Of course I had to. To bring glasses of water, bites of toast, boxes of tissue. His hands often reached for mine, they were cold, but I tolerated his grasp. I remember looking at my young plump hands resting in his crepe paper palm, and I shiver. Some memories you wish you could squeeze out like toothpaste from the tube and wash down the drain. “He doesn’t have long,” my dad told me.
I hoped he was right.
I see him next in the VA hospital. He tries to take my hands one last time. I say no, or at least I meant to. An adult now, I see how these things can happen.
After he died, I visited my cousin in the home she once shared with my aunt and the man with the crepe paper hands. She was cleaning out his things. Rattling bottles of vodka, crumbling notebooks, an old signet ring. A small spider scurried out of a box and scrambled over her hand. Noticing my revulsion, she told me, “I used to be afraid of them too. But now I just let let them crawl over me and I’m not so scared.”
I was only five. But I knew what she meant.