By Deborah A. Lott
The Torah forbade the Israelites from incising their flesh to express their grief. They were instructed to rend their garments instead.
My father’s hand shot up to his eyebrow, his finger poised there, as if he were about to stroke his brow. A gesture I’d always considered deeply imbued with his personality. The gesture he performed when pondering a problem. While reading a book or talking on the phone. Whenever he was thinking.
Was he, or whatever was left behind of him, still capable of thinking?
My father was dying. He’d had a massive bleed in his brain, the final in a series of strokes. I sat at his hospital bedside; my mother, two brothers, and I were all there. Intent on his every faltering breath, I could not take my eyes off the spectacle of his body’s failing. His face was inordinately pale and blank, while his body, under a white blanket, twitched and seized. Small jerks and larger rumbling quakes. They had taken out all the tubes; he was attached to only a heart monitor. I tried to distract myself by looking at those numbers rise and fall, but his body pulled me. They told us his organs were shutting down.
Dying suffused the atmosphere in the room; it was inside him, it was outside him, it felt like it was everywhere. The more I stared, the more I feared I would be consumed by it.
We were seeing autonomic reflexes, the doctors told us. He was unresponsive, they said, on the way to brain death. Yet all day long, his hand kept shooting up to his eyebrow in that familiar gesture. As if he were on the brink of telling me something. The motion repeated and repeated.
The next day, I could not bear to go back to the hospital. That was the day the doctors predicted he would die. The rest of the family gathered there; I was expected to come. That morning I had gotten my period. Death was a shark circling his room; I knew the shark would smell my blood and get confused. I was confused. My father and I had always been too close, too connected. I had been too susceptible to feeling everything he felt. What would it take to sever this connection? My uterus seized. If I were in the room, would I have to give birth to his death from my body?
That night after my father died, I went to my uncle and aunt’s house where the family had congregated. On my way up to the front door, their new cat wandered across my path. It had been a stray, still half-feral. I impulsively picked her up, craving some comfort from the cat’s warm body, its soft fur against my face. She reached out her claw and scratched me. A deep, mean, diagonal scratch across my nose. It bled and bled. I cried, this sudden pain amplifying the deeper wound of grief. When I went into the house, I hid this bleeding from my family. It was too naked a show, rhymed too closely with the other blood rushing from me.
Years later, my nose still bears a scar. My hand shoots up now, automatically, over and over again, several times a day, to run my fingers over it. It reminds me of my father. And then, of his dying. His death found its way to inscribe my body despite my efforts to hold myself inviolate. I could not keep it out.
Deborah A. Lott is the author the recently published memoir, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, StoryQuarterly, the nervous breakdown, the Rumpus, Salon, Los Angeles Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, and many other places. Her works have been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. She teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles. You can learn more about her at deborahalott.com