Goodbye:Part 3

Brian Kornell

Part 3 of 3

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, a ghost.

I fell asleep on the couch, watching TV, because even as an adult I’m sometimes afraid to sleep in my room, in the dark, in the quiet, without anyone else in the house. All the creaks and pops structuring a fear that someone had broken in. I woke up, my eyes still blurry from sleep, it looked like there was a white blanket bunched on the floor in front of me. My eyes adjusted. It was not a blanket. It was a sheet. There was a body under it. It was my father’s body. It was a dream. I woke up for real. I was actually on the couch. The floor was bare. I had a sense that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to feel comforted by that, but I wasn’t. Around this time I had a lot of dreams about waking up.

A few days after Christmas 2009, I was summoned back home because a septic colon had sent my father into a coma. He had colon cancer that he left untreated for years. When he could no longer self medicate with alcohol, he was forced to go to the doctor. By that time it was too little, too late.

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, a ghost.

The ICU felt like it should have been a more private, concrete affair, but it was a row of beds separated by thin curtains that seemed more like temporary confessionals rather than a place for medical treatment. Doctors and nurses must have come in and out of the space, but I don’t have any clear memories of having any discussions with them or them really being present. I only felt half present because my writer brain had already kicked in. I had already begun to try to figure out how to construct this on the page. I felt incredibly guilty about it, but this was my way of being able to deal with the mix of emotions I felt about a dying man who was my father. A man I felt I barely knew. A man that terrified me.

I was told to talk to him, but I hadn’t spoken to him since that day in the movie theatre bathroom, and I don’t know what to say, so I read to him from the book I carried with me.

Shoes shuffled on both sides of me as I read. The I remember the doctor said the thing they always say in these situations in movies, he can’t communicate, but he knows you are here. Every few sentences, I swore that his eyes turned toward me instead of being stuck forward. I swore he looked on the verge of tears. I hadn’t thought about the witch’s wheel in years, but I thought about my friend saying it was a place to heal. Could I summon something to fix him, to put an end to this?

I felt the urge to talk. Maybe talking to him felt awkward in front of someone else. Maybe the strangeness of being alone in this space with him made me want to fill it with something other than the beeps of machines and the wheeze of devices.

I rambled. I was very aware, self-conscious about it. I told him about the weather. It was cold. I asked him if he needed another pillow. I told him grad school was going well. It occurred to me that I had never told my father I was gay. Our communication cut off years before I had come out at thirty-three, a mere six months before we were in this hospital room.

I wondered about the importance of coming out to him, even with him in this state. How important was the act of saying the words. It was more for me than anyone else. Part of me wanted my father to know who I really was. But he never really knew me, so why should he be allowed to know this? I didn’t want, didn’t need his approval. And there was no way to know if he heard me unless he woke up.

“Dad?” I poked his arm to see if he would move. “Blink if you can hear me.”

Nothing. I don’t know why suddenly I would be able to get some proof that he could hear, know what was going on around him. I imagined being stuck in my body, hearing and seeing things around me, but unable to respond. Limbs and chest heavy. No matter how much strength I tried to accumulate, my muscles being useless, unresponsive to my commands. To hear doctors discussing my prognosis that even if I were to come out of the coma, the rest of my time would be constant pain as I waited to die.  My father was trapped in his body. I would like to say that I went back to  reading the book because I didn’t know what else to do. But I knew exactly what I had to do: my father’s treatment had to be stopped.

He was strong willed and if he wanted to live, he would, with or without machines. Nobody could move on, grieve, as long as he was in this suspended space between life and death.

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, a ghost.

After all the paperwork to end life prolonging measures had been signed, I waited in the hall as the machines were disconnected. Alarms went off, which they warned us about. In a different version, if I were a different person, there would be tears, a gasp, a shudder with each new alarm. There was none of that. I sighed. I wanted this part to be over.

The doctor came out to say that my father was breathing on his own. Muscle memory. He didn’t know how long it would last.

I remember my father’s bed being wheeled out of the ICU and down the hallway. My family behind the team pushing the bed. I walked a few steps behind them. The overhead lights were blurry reflections in the grey linoleum. When the procession reached the elevators, a nurse or someone medical, official told us which room we could meet them in.

The floor was quiet. Less hustle. Less urgency. The woman and man at the nurse’s station smiled at me as I walked by. For them this was business as usual.

I remember I sat in a chair in the corner of the room. I decided to leave. My father died a long time ago, there was no need to be there for the physical act. He was not alone, others were there for him. I did not say goodbye, dad. I did not say, see you later.

Instead, I said, “Dad. I’m leaving. Everyone will be ok. Don’t feel like you have to stay.”

He died a few hours into the new year. I flew home later that morning. I didn’t stay for the funeral. I didn’t say goodbye.

Never leave without saying goodbye. A rule my mother set. One I remember she broke.

I remember she worked the opening shift as waitress at a local restaurant, so she would have to leave by four in the morning. If I was up, I’d hear her walk past the bedroom doors on her way out and whisper goodbye. The day she left, she worked her normal shift. I didn’t wake up until I heard the car start.

One of the nights before she left, when my mother was not home, my father decided he wanted to play a game. He only liked to play this particular game when he was extraordinarily drunk instead of just his normal evening drunk.

The set up: he would go into the garage and flip all the circuit breakers, cutting off power to the house.

The objective: get to the fuse box and restore the power.

The obstacle: him, in the dark, waiting. But he wasn’t afraid, so he had the advantage.

I tried to call my mother. I wanted her to intervene. There was no answer. I was on my own. There was only one path to the garage, but many places for him to hide. I wouldn’t be able to avoid him. I knew what waited for me: pushed down to the ground, dragged across the floor to be spanked.

Enough was enough. He could hit me, smack me all he wanted because I refused to hide, to be scared anymore. I stood at my door and shouted into the dark that I was going to turn the lights back on.

“Leave me alone,” I shouted as I ran my hand along the ridged ripples on the hallway wallpaper, unsure of how soon the stairs would come up on me.

I didn’t want to fall. Didn’t want to do his work for him.

I kept close to the wall, moved fast, almost sliding down the carpeted stairs. I made it to the main living area of the house. Light from the houses across the street peered through the living room’s bay window.

I screamed, “You don’t scare me.”

Not even a creak of a floorboard. One more flight of stairs and I’d be in the foyer, at the door to garage. I visualized the fuse box on the far right side of the room as I took one stair at a time. My feet touched the tile on the foyer floor. He was there, I could sense it. I rushed for the door, but missed the handle. I grabbed for it again. He came up behind me. He clamped his arms around me. His grip made it difficult to breathe. My arms were caged in at my sides. I tried to slide down out of his grip, but he moved with me, wouldn’t let me go.

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, a ghost.

On the day my mother made her escape, I was the first one to come home to find half the furniture missing in the living room. There wasn’t a note. There was no prior declaration that she was going to leave as she had done in the past, going as far to pack a suitcase, only to leave it sitting at the foot of the bed as she watched TV. She had left while everyone was out of the house. No goodbye. I walked around to see what else had disappeared. Her clothes, her make-up, the necessities. All of the pictures were left behind. Nothing sentimental. When I returned to the living room, I noticed she had taken the chair, but left the ottoman. I pushed it in front of the couch to replace where the coffee table had been.

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, a ghost.

The Greyhound rolled to a stop at one in the morning, the driver seemingly as tired as the passengers, a majority of them recently released prisoners being distributed back across the country. Some of them disembarked with me. This was my first trip back home in five years, the first time I would see my mother since the time my father was in the ICU. As I walked into the station, I wondered if I might not recognize her, but I did right away. She looked exactly the same, although shorter than I remembered. I had to actually stoop down to hug her. Her frame sharp.

The trip back home was only for two days because that was only the amount of time I could take off from work. It was also a test run to see if my mother and I could get along. She wanted to take me to the cemetery to see my father’s grave. A ten minute drive from her condo in the more rural parts of the suburbs. It was a sunny day. The trees and flowers just starting to bloom from a long winter. My mother drove up to the mausoleums. She had not been here since the funeral, so she didn’t remember exactly which of the crypts belonged to him.

“Doesn’t it have his name on it?” I asked.

“No. “No one could afford it.” I remember her saying.

There were four bays of crypts, six across and six up and down, floor to ceiling. It was difficult to not think of it as some giant stone filing cabinet. There were names with gaps in between, I tried to find some pattern, hoping they would be alphabetical, but they were not.

“This one,” she pointed at one of the unnamed crypts at the top. Before I even had a chance to walk over there, she said. “No, that’s not it.”

She went to search in another bay. I kept looking as if I could figure it out even though I’d never been before and had no idea without his name on it which one could belong to my father. I was not in a financial position to do anything about having his name added to his grave. Other people milled about, pointing at the names of loved ones, touching the engraved pictures of them. A woman whispered something to one of the blocks of stone. I waited for my mother on a bench situated in between the bays. On the wall in front of me was a giant copper dove suspended in mid flight heading away from a copper cross, and I wondered how this was meant to be comforting. It wasn’t even pretty or interesting.

“I think I found it,” she waved me over to the last bay. The top row was completely devoid of any names, any markings. “It’s that middle one at the top.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sorry,” she said. “I really don’t remember.”

“Let’s just go,” I said.

“Goodbye,” she said to the wall, to my father.

I knew she wanted me to say it. I walked toward the door, back to the car. Saying goodbye meant I had the intention to return. I held the door to the mausoleum open for my mother, I pushed it shut, and walked behind her back to the car. The mausoleum sat at the top of a hill that looked out over the rest of the cemetery. Each section of graves arranged on circular patches of grass with walking and driving paths around each one. My mother drove around the length of cemetery instead of heading right for the exit. It was too easy to imagine her driving around there for hours as I knew she was hoping the exact location of my father’s burial site would come to her, so I pointed and directed her to veer to the right, to the exit.

Never leave without saying goodbye. A rule she set. One she kept that day. One I did not

Editor’s Note: This essay is a personal account and reflects only the memory of the writer. 


Brian Kornell’s writing appears in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, Luna Luna Magazine, OCHO, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a memoir about growing up gay in the Midwest as well being closeted and married until he was in his early thirties. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter (@briankornell) or on Tumblr (briankornell.tumblr.com).

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