What I Am Not Writing About
July 1, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
My father, age 84, is ill and for the most part, I am not writing about it.
I don’t want to write about it, beyond forcing myself to record some basic facts in my journal for the future me who may want to reconstruct how everything went so terribly wrong. For example, one morning while I was staying with my parents last month, my father woke up and said, “We were robbed last night.”
Aware this hadn’t happened, I said, “Oh really?”
And he replied with great certainty, “They were convicts.”
I jotted down the moment in my journal like you might a bad dream.
My journal entries are brief now. “One small pleasure these days? Saying the word ‘apocalypse.’ A-poc-a-lypse. Apocalyptic is even better. Not only because the bread aisle is barren, but also because the father who was intent on not going ‘gently into that dark night,’ to quote his favorite Dylan Thomas poem, may wind up going gently after all, nestled as he is under an avalanche of blankets on the couch in the living room, where he remains day and night.”
But to write much more than that would require that I acknowledge something absolutely essential has been lost, through the sudden collision of a longstanding cancer diagnosis with a freak leg injury. And it will never be recovered. It won’t be like when you search the house high and low, and ultimately find the missing object. Or how I can search the hundreds of files in my Dropbox to find a sliver of thought I had one day.
Nope. That argument he and I had over Christmas? That will probably be the last real argument we ever have.
I can imagine how crazy that sounds. Why mention an argument? But he and I have always argued. He and I argue, in part, because I am his doppelganger. I am the female version of him. I argue as homage.
Not that I don’t regret it bitterly — I do. So much time wasted sparring with him when right now, I think he’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met. He’s the person I would most like to converse with – if only he were well enough to converse the way we used to.
(The way we used to – I could write a whole book about the way it used to be, except I CAN’T. That’s what I am trying to say.)
But I think about arguments because we won’t ever truly argue again. And that’s because he probably won’t ever be quite himself again so I won’t ever risk fighting with him again. We won’t argue again because on account of his ailments, which include advanced stage blood cancer and liver trouble, he won’t have the strength or inclination. And if this exacting, brilliant engineer doesn’t have his lifelong inclination to argue, to provoke, to strike a contrarian note, then it’s all over.
And that leaves me speechless. This is about as far as I can go in writing about him and “it.” To write much more than that would require that I acknowledge I’ve bungled another death (or am about to). That I’ve wound up with another body on my hands. Up until now, the death of a loved one has meant only one thing for me: regret. How could this person die before I was ready? Before I could be a big girl and lend him the attention he deserved. That’s how I would describe the feeling that remains buried inside, long after the death of an uncle and a school friend, among others.
I have tried to write about it, unsuccessfully. In one case, I have what I think of as a winning title: “Requiem for the Man I Called My Father-in-Law.”
But instead of writing about the person or the person’s death, I wind up writing about how I failed to prepare. How whatever I was planning, and whatever I hadn’t said or asked or observed no longer mattered.
And not only don’t I want to go back and examine, I most certainly don’t want to go forward. Forward into a future of what I call caretaker conversations with my father. Does he need something to drink? How is he feeling today?
By the way, don’t be fooled: All of this is surface writing. Safe writing. The more difficult examination will come when I realize that I am wholly unprepared to live in a world without him – and I have no choice but to do so. In an abstract way, I certainly understood how fixed a figure he was on my personal landscape of people and relationships (like the people who affirm God’s existence by insisting they don’t believe in Him or Her). But not in a tangible way.
Now I understand he’s a wall of my personal house. His existence forms part of my leg or maybe my right hand. How do I write about that?
The deaths of others have been enough to skew the picture I have of my world. But his absence from that landscape? I think it will look – feel! – like the surface of the moon to me. The rings of Saturn. The underworld.
Many mornings I wake up, ready to write, and as I open my laptop, I think, what should I work on? Maybe the flash nonfiction piece I am writing about my juvenile obsession with the land of my ancestors (Ireland) or another about how breastfeeding made me high.
But I don’t think to myself, I should write about Daddy. Because if I walked through fire, I don’t think my first thought would be: Let me write about how the flames singed my hair.
I’ve actually learned that some of my most urgent thoughts – the mental wallpaper that I alone see as I navigate the world each day – don’t make it into my journal. (Which makes journaling feel absurd at times. Write down what you’re thinking – but not that).
And yet in some personal anthropological vein, it’s worth documenting my father’s illness. For starters, I didn’t really realize that the man had never been sick. That I’d never seen him weak or frail or uncertain. I’d never seen him sprawled on the couch for hours, days, weeks.
There’s more. I’d never realized – wait for it – that he would die.
At Bennington, when I was studying for my MFA, one teacher harped on my clichés. If she had been a nun, she would maybe have tried to beat them out of me. But I came to believe that there was a reason clichés became clichés – that they revealed something true about the human condition over the course of decades and centuries.
I know I am only one person in a long line of humans contemplating the serious illness and eventual death of a parent. They, too, have been spooked by what feels almost like a secret – your parents are doing to die.
I certainly have nothing new to say about that spooky non-secret. But I still have to say it.
Which I guess means I need to write about what I am not writing about. Maybe this is a start.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers