Monday, October 15, 2012


"It had not occurred to me until lately that a house is warmed by death as well as by life."
--May Sarton 

Last Wednesday would have been my dad's eightieth birthday. He died in July of 2006, of lung cancer. He died at home, in the living room he himself had built over forty years earlier. 

Less than four years later, in March of 2010, I found myself sitting alone in that living room every evening for a week. I was spending my days--the days of my Spring Break that year--at the hospital, visiting my terminally ill mother. 

I hated that living room. 

One night, I said it out loud. Tired of trying to read and distracted by the metronomic ticking of the clock, I said it.

"Everyone's gone." 

In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton writes, "We can accept death.  It is dying that is not and never will be acceptable.  For us who have to witness dying, it must always feel as if the very fabric of life were being torn apart."

As I sat in my parents' living room that night in March, I thought about the fact that, four years earlier, my parents had visited me during my Spring Break.  I had gotten tickets to a show; we drove around Princeton.

It was bright and light and spring was coming.

That's not to say that I hadn't had inklings.  The previous Christmas Eve, driving home from my brother's house, I had looked at my father, riding in the passenger's seat next to me, and thought, "This is good.  I'm glad we've had this, this Christmas eve together.  He's not young anymore.  There may not be many more of these."

I stopped myself before it got morbid.

It was his last Christmas, in fact.  There was no way of knowing that at the time.

Even when we do know (or simply suspect), I think there is a way in which we cannot allow ourselves to see what is taking place right before our eyes.  I remember how, less than a month after my best friend's ten-year-old son had been diagnosed with brain cancer, I looked at him as he showed me his rock collection.

"It can't be that he will die.  That he will be here with me today, and a year from now, he will be gone."

I stopped myself before it got morbid.

Sarton insists that "death is a part of the human richness, the truth of the house for me."  And now that I have acquired my own house, I have begun to understand what she means.

At first, every space is painful, a reminder of the ones who aren't there anymore, of the places they will no longer go, the rooms they will never again see.

Where they sat, where they laughed.  The idiosyncrasies of lived space that always annoyed them--rugs tripped over, lamps never liked, a spill, a tear, a stain that wouldn't come out.

Where they were standing when they got--or gave--good news.  Or bad.  For a long time, it seems like the house, like every house, will always be haunted.

It will.  This is death's housewarming, a haunting that transcends the spaces the living once occupied, going places they themselves never went.
Of this too, I have had inklings all along.  A week after my dad died, I dreamed that I was sitting in my bedroom at home--in the home that I had rented for over ten years--when the phone rang.  It was my dad.  When I answered, "Hello?", he laughed and said, "Hey, there!"

In my dream, I started to cry.  I told him, "This terrible thing happened.  You were so sick, and you died."

In my dream, my dad laughed, gently but genuinely.  "No, no, no, no, no..." he said.  "I'm here."

And in my dream, we never hung up.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."