The day I found out I was losing my father, I swore I was done with pretty words, that in a night, beauty had vacated my life. Goodbye to the double-consonant gems I’d spent my days at the computer celebrating: butterfly, ballerina, hummingbird. Dad had called me his bright, yellow-hearted girl, and it was true that I was an open-curtain type, a girl who would jump into any body of water even on the most frigid morning, a girl who’d learned early to be generous with her heart and her smile: a daffodil, a squash blossom, an Emma at heart.
That Sunday night, in barged sorrow: a symmetrical, stiff-necked soldier, those obedient o’s calling out, in my mother’s waiting room whisper, a medical accident, a strangled brain, my hero’s coma, while short Napoleon r’s marched nose-up between them, no nonsense. I bought a plane ticket and filled the bathtub and lay in the water shivering, thinking how if it were sparrow, there would be a tail curtseying on the end of the a, the p taking a silly dip, a little bit of charm, a different word entirely.
But sorrow is no sparrow. It is a word with a backbone (and a back turned) for people who don’t have one, for those given over to the vomit, diarrhea, snot, spit, tears—all that gunk, the body’s hopeless shot at purging what it can’t.
Sorrow was my father’s life: a series of turned backs, raw spine guarded by stacks of gym-pumped muscle, a superhero’s distance as he strived to make the world right but mostly succeeded in hurting people’s feelings, hurting himself, hurting. Homesickness without the home. But that’s his story.
Under the yellow fluorescents of the ICU hallway when the doctor said, “There’s nothing left that makes him him. If it were me, I’d let him go sooner rather than later,” loss was not a punch in the gut, but complete disembowelment, and there is no puzzling one’s own innards back into place. We gave our collective nod and I realized, as I watched my father dwindle to mere man in his paisley robe, his freed mouth a battleground of black sores from feeding tubes and ventilators, that yellow had other connotations. There was stain yellow like in the hospital shower where I washed up after nights sleeping in waiting room recliners; urine bag yellow, which grew darker day by day until it was orange-brown or some indefinable color that meant bad; and sore yellow on a body that kept healing when it was supposed to be letting go, when we were all waiting, watching the oxygen saturation level and silently begging, “Please let go so we can let go.” Oh, the ugliness that can be yellow.
The yellow of his ground-down incisor, knocked out in the medical mishap, was honest as black coffee or Depression-era grandparents, a yellow that you don’t always like, but can trust. That yellow, in its labeled plastic bottle, told me when he couldn’t, “This is done, Sis, I am through and so is this version of you.”
And speaking of honest, let’s spill it: behind my sunshine smile and bright eyes was also a girl who savored the burn of a habanero on her tongue, of too much sun on her freckling shoulders, of hydrogen peroxide sizzling over a cut. This girl’s cheeks would turn crimson as her father’s following failure at anything; here was one to slap her own face after a flopped math test, to score A’s in life and expect to be rewarded with praise and pats and disaster pass-overs, to be deeply satisfied when she wasn’t. This girl, like her father, both hated and lauded God for being so hypothetically paternal, for expecting such patience as He gave you things and took them away, for being exactly what she’d expected.
When she threw out words that no longer made her flinch: brain damage, vegetative state, autopsy report, friends who hadn’t yet lost said, “You’re a tough cookie, just like your father,” not realizing those were merely words that needed to be spoken again and again to be stomached. And like a strong daughter (she kept telling herself), as if the key to his silly death was hidden in the facts, in the straightforward language of science, she read that damned autopsy report and learned nothing more than the weight of her father’s organs in grams. Like his persona and moods and hugs, they were larger, heavier than average. It took a week for him to dehydrate to death.
Sometimes, while reading or watching TV or having a cocktail with my man, the most innocuous of activities, my thoughts spiral from the split-second mistake that took my father and my last ray of guiltless bliss, to the choking awareness that, one by one, I will lose everyone I know, unless I am lost first. I think of the tsunamis and tornadoes and bombings we’re all dreading, of God’s Indian giving and the once lush Earth we’ve ravaged like spoiled brats, of how scientists say one day our home will be a burned up black nugget with no life on it and it will be like we never existed because we may as well have never existed. I think how all this sadness will have been for nothing, the good and ugly for nothing, my father’s life and death for nothing. I imagine a pistol, a razor, a bridge over cold water: ripping the Band-Aid off all at once like he sometimes considered, my strong dad. I’m no fool—I know he’s resting while we do the mourning and raging.
But don’t you know that son of a bitch gave me his bull heart, those dogged if asthmatic lungs, and most of all, that teeth-clenching, nonsensical will? I go to sleep on the ugly thoughts but wake at six a.m. no matter what, listing my responsibilities as I brush my teeth: bills to pay, children to teach, battles to wage against the Goliaths of the world.
The sun rises and he is still dead—there’s another loathsome word, little wheelchaired weaklings with a twisted mirror forced between them—but my body is hungry, and out the window is the world, and in my garage is a perfectly good truck, and the sun is so gently bright in that fresh, early yellow, the sky the color of clean teeth, and there are fires raging everywhere and meteors just missing us and people I love growing old, but that pale glow gets me every time. Out I go into the light, my stomach growling like a rutting elephant seal, and give no one in particular a sideways smile as I mumble, “butterfly, ballerina, hummingbird, butterfly, ballerina, hummingbird.”
Kim Henderson’s chapbook, The Kind of Girl, won the 7th Annual Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, H_NGM_N, Cutbank, River Styx, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program, she chairs the Creative Writing department at Idyllwild Arts Academy.