For almost a year after the death I wore Canoe. Combined with the scents of cigarettes and whiskey and his leather jacket, he stayed fresh in the first sense. Not that I could ever forget—the man died in my fucking arms—but I wanted to be sure, wanted to keep him around as long as I could. Some of his mannerisms held fast. The way he’d grump up his face when he didn’t want to be spoken to, the way he’d wave someone off with his hand as they approached him, the way he’d suck his scotch through his teeth and loose a little sigh. I still obsessively watch The Weather Channel when my body doesn’t feel right, much like he did in his last days, as if he was looking for a hole in the sky to rise through, a break in the pattern to exploit.
That first year—somehow I still to this day have no idea how I survived myself—was full of so many terrible hiccups and so much phantom pain. I drank. I drank a lot. I drank a lot and filled my belly with pills. I filled my belly with pills and filled women with my sad. I stumbled through this city without care or awareness, hoping it would swallow me, disappear me, destroy me. I woke up in poorly-lit apartments in every borough, in every neighborhood, in every possible combination of unraveling. I’d try to sneak out silently, working my way out into streets unfamiliar and trying to navigate my way back to where I was supposed to be, with some family. As much as I did my best to dull, I raged like an exposed nerve.
This is not how you’re supposed to get free.
“Seventeen more blocks.”
I keep on going back on the inside of the walls of my head to things that made sense at the time, but seem to be garbled a little now. I know that while I was in Santa Fe I did everything I could to hold fast to the idea that I was there to help him, to guide him through the fire, to ensure that his wishes were respected and that he was allowed to die with dignity. I know this. I know that I said and did some things that were out of character for me—the way I dealt with others and their emotions was not necessarily tactful, but it also wasn’t meant to be cruel—and those things are scrambled images now, misidentified markers of time and space. I know that I spent a lot of time in silence, watching and listening, watching and listening, watching and listening and breathing slowly. I know that things were said to me—to my face—that to this day echo and clang around in here like bullets in a barrel. I know that things were said about me, behind my back and behind closed doors, things that I clearly felt and heard even though there was no possible way I could have.
An addict can always smell the conspiracy before the rot sets in.
We used to go on camping trips. My psychologist—the one the school suggested because my acting-out had reached a level where the teachers were genuinely afraid the next step might be violence—used to take a bunch of us at-risk students up along the Mogollon Rim, where the desert outside of Phoenix climbs into mesas and everything changes. We’d all meet at his house and he would immediately put every last one of us to work—loading provisions or helping him change the shocks on his jeep or opening up all the sleeping bags to check them for rot or spiders—none of us complaining, each of us sizing one another up, silently, wondering who on the trip would be the bully, who would be the baby, who would be the kiss-ass. My own old man had never taken me camping. All of this stuff was new to me, the gear, the knots, the hiking, all of it.
Up on the rim we’d camp out under the stars after hiking in for miles and miles, finding spots near creeks and rivers, building huge fires and sitting around them as a crew of orange and red and yellow freaks as our psychologist would show genuine care and concern for our lives, in turn getting us to care about one another. We’d all take turns talking about our shitty lives, about how none of our friends understood us, how none of our teachers liked us, how none of the girls would even look at us. It was a kindness and a brotherhood none of us knew how to accept or understand. Jokes about masturbation habits would lead to physical confrontations. Ribbing about someone’s physical shape would turn into rolling around on the forest floor with bloodied noses and tears. One kid freaked so bad one time he tried to light another kid’s tent on fire, all because he found out the other kid had made out with his cousin.
Then there was the time I shit myself after jumping off of a dam into a reservoir.
I do not, nor do I plan to, have children. I have no idea who will take care of me as I am dying. I am not close with my family. I do not speak to my younger cousins. My sister has no children, either. I often wonder who will carry out my wishes, who will sit by my side, doling out the drops of morphine and holding the plastic bag under me as I struggle to expel waste from my body as it shuts down. Who will carry my ashes?
I was afraid to jump but I had seen every other boy do it. I still remember how incredible it felt to be falling toward the water, how I could see it reaching up for me, how the air around me wanted so badly to hold me up but momentum and gravity and science wouldn’t allow such a thing. I remember trying to cross my feet at the ankle as I had been told, to make sure I didn’t rupture my balls. I kept my arms crossed around my chest, holding myself tight, like a knife in flight.
It happened as soon as I hit the water.
I felt my bowels release when I went under. The water was so clear and I remember opening my eyes as I cut to the bottom—I could see so much wreckage down there, parts of machinery from the mining plumes that had been there before, tires, barbed-wire fencing—but I also felt what had happened to my body, what I had done. When my momentum stopped and I was supposed to ascend to the top, I reached into my shorts with my hand and felt it all—a mess coming out of me—and tried not to panic. Surfacing, I made the decision to stay in the water for a while, to act as if nothing had happened, to save myself from ridicule and laughter. I figured that as everyone else was climbing in and out to jump, I could make my way into the woods and clean myself up.
As I slowly made my way up the face of the reservoir wall, one of the kids shouted—“Sean! You got something running down your legs!”—and I knew right then I couldn’t hide what had happened. They were like a gang of howler monkeys, yelling and screaming and laughing and jumping up and down at my misfortune. I tried my best to play it off, tried to act like I didn’t care, and made my way up the wall and into the forest to take care of myself. I could still hear them.
I can still hear them.
For a while I was working on a book about my father, about what we went through, how the days taking care of him helped change me/us, how it shaped who I am right now. I do not think I will ever be done writing about his death, our death, what took place. I was in a writing workshop and had to read a passage I wrote about the day we—his oncologist, myself, and his wife—had to tell him that the chemo and radiation weren’t working anymore, and that it was time to go home. When I was reading I could not look at anyone. As I was reading I could not believe what I had written—how terrifying the words felt coming out of my mouth, words I had never dared to speak out loud to anyone since it had happened—and that I had been carrying it inside of me, rubbing it smooth like a worry stone. I can still feel my voice wavering, can still feel how silent the room became—my classmates rubbing their feet together under themselves and my instructor, a friend, breathing deeply as the words took form in the air around us—and how much I knew in that very moment that I was not ready to write such a book, because such a book would be the end of it all, the end of the memories and the end of my private feelings, the end of kindness in a lot of ways. But I was wrong. I was so very wrong.
I will forever be writing such a book, in my heart, on the walls, inside of myself, inside of the world. I will forever relive those moments, see his eyes break into tiny shards of stars in a black hole, hear his voice cave in on itself and ask me if there were any alternative medicines we could try, watch his chin fall to his chest, feel his hand in mine going softer, child-like, not ready to go but no choice but to go.
And here we are in this world.
I ran through the trees until I couldn’t hear them anymore. I ran until I was up on high, a ridge far from the reservoir, shit running down my legs and into my sneakers which were still wet from the water. I found a downed tree and pulled my shorts to my ankles to assess whatever damage I had done to myself. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought, but it was bad enough. Everyone knew what I had done. I did what I could to clean myself up—grabbing up handfuls of dead leaves and trying to wipe myself clean, rubbing leaves and grass into my shorts to clean them out as well—but I was just making things worse. Shit was getting on every part of my body. I was a teenaged boy in the woods with his shit-filled shorts on the ground, naked to the skies and the trees and the tears coming out of my face were hot and never-ending.
I wanted to die.
I decided I was going to survive in the woods. I was never going back to the reservoir and never going back to the campsite. I was going to stay out there in the wilderness and find a way to survive. I thought I could catch fish in the creek with my hands. I thought I knew how to make a fire with sticks. I thought that if I stuck it out, I would be able to outlast people and sneak back into the camp and grab a sleeping bag, maybe even a tent, and disappear. I sat on a downed tree and envisioned the whole thing—my parents would miss me for a little while, but they’d realize the house was quieter and totally forget about me, my friends wouldn’t care because they didn’t care to begin with, my sister would knock down the wall between out bedrooms and live like a princess—all while doing the best I could to not allow myself to hear what was happening, what was coming.
I could hear my psychologist calling out my name. I could hear him getting closer to where I was and all I wanted to do was hide myself from him. I didn’t want to be found, I wanted to live out my little delusion in the woods, I wanted to be Mowgli. I tried to drop down on the other side of the tree I was sitting on, but he clocked me from a few yards away.
“I can see you over there, you know?”
“How did you find me?”
“Well, you did leave behind a little trail. Sorry.”
“I can’t go back. Those fuckers are laughing at me.”
“I’m laughing at you, too. Want me to leave you out here, or do you want me to help clean you up so you can come back and eat with us?”
Instead of answering I started crying harder. He came over to me and pulled out a roll of toilet paper from his pack. He helped me clean myself up, laughing at me the entire time. Not because of what had happened, but because of the sheer ridiculousness of me shitting myself just from hitting the water the way I had, and how ridiculous it was of me to run off the way I had, like some scared child, which, really, I was. I was a scared child, on a camping trip with a bunch of other scared children.
Whenever I catch myself getting frustrated on a Brooklyn sidewalk—and believe me, even Gandhi would get frustrated trying to navigate the broken and aloof here in this city—I remind myself that I will one day be one of those old folks trying to move with a walker or a cane, with nobody to lean on. I remind myself that my parents are long gone, and unlike so many others, I will not have to deal with their aging, their slow decline. I do what I can for my elderly neighbors in my building. Whenever there is a storm or it snows heavily, I go knock on their doors and ask them if there is anything I can do for them, anything I can run to the store and get, prescriptions to pick up.
I fought, very loudly, with a pharmacist about filling a prescription for my father. Controlled substance laws are what they are, and I understand why they are needed, but when the script is from hospice care people, it’s probably best to fill it and let those trying to fill it get back to their dying. I remember pacing back and forth while on hold with my cell planted in my ear and dropping nuclear curses upon everyone’s homes. I remember seeing a little boy in a shopping cart looking my way, terrified, and me yelling “Don’t worry, kid! You’ll have to do this for your mother some fucking day! Take fucking notes!” while his mother tried to cover his ears. I remember the woman at the pharmacy mentioning the police. I remember spitting on something and kicking something. All I could think about in those angry moments was how he was dead already, but time was slow and painful and I just wanted to give him some relief. I never thought I’d be using his drugs as well. I never thought I’d be sneaking drops of his morphine into everything I was consuming. I never thought beyond the face I saw, the broken face, the dying face, of a man I never really knew but knew better than anyone I will ever know.
I remember him not having enough strength to use a goddamn walker to get to the bathroom in his own fucking home, and I remember having to hold his cock for him as he pissed into a plastic container, and I remember how he looked up at me as it was happening and how defeated he looked and how I must have looked the same fucking way as a child or as that kid trying to hide from everyone after I had shit on myself in the woods.
I remember it all.
I don’t have his leather jacket anymore. I don’t have the golf clubs he left to me, and I surely don’t have the set of tools he said were for me but I never saw them. I no longer wear Canoe. I haven’t shit myself—other than some severe food poisoning/sun poisoning in Hawaii earlier this year, but even then I was on the shower floor and close-to-death—since that camping trip. None of the other kids ever made fun of me for what happened. They all acted like it never occurred, and my psychologist only brought it up once, years later, when we met for sushi after my mother died. I have written sentence after sentence after sentence about my father and how his ghost lives in me, around me. I have written about how his eyes are my eyes, only a different color, and how his hands are my hands, and his mistakes are also my mistakes, and his death is ultimately a death of my own. I will probably never stop writing about him or what we went through or what happened or how it happened or what I do not remember or what I remember only in fragments. I will never stop missing him, nor will I ever be able to shake him.
I am him.