It’s a perfect day outside — not too hot, not too cold. He doesn’t look when he hears my voice, like he has forgotten that he can turn his head to see who’s entered the room. I’ve gotten into the habit of coming up behind his chair, placing my hand on his shoulder, and lowering my body to a half-crouch before him. I meet his eyes, and wait to watch as recognition transforms him. It’s a silly thing, but it delights me to see the love on his face grow like the sunrise, changing the angle of his shoulders as he leans forward in pleasure and relief. It’s me. He doesn’t know my name, but he knows me. I have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time wondering if my father loves me. How my father loves me. Why my father loves me. But this, this is simple: my father loves me. It is one of the few gifts this fucking miserable disease has given me. But if I’m being honest, it’s a good one.
Today I brought fresh raspberries from the neighbor’s yard. They will taste like sunshine and outside, and I know he’ll love them. I attempt to broker a handoff, but the berries are so ripe we both end up with our hands covered in juice. His motor skills are dyssynchronous and irregular, now. He can pinch and grasp, but it’s like he’s playing one of those camp games, where some other guy puts his arms through your sleeves and gestures for you; he smooshes the berry, he pinches it, he grabs my hand and pulls it to his cheek. I laugh, because it’s better if it’s funny, and it kind of is. It can be, anyway.
I wheel him outside to the terrace area. On the way, we pass the other residents in the hall, creeping around in their wheelchairs aimlessly, muttering to themselves in what the care professionals call “word salad,” a nonsensical hodge-podge of real and made-up words strung together with emotion but no apparent rules of language. I think they remind me of Toy Story’s mutant toys, emerging from under Sid’s bed like wacky specters; not menacing, but unsettling. I’m used to them, now. I know most everyone’s names, and they seem to know I’m familiar, but for the ones who are the sickest. They stare and rave, by turns, caught entirely in their own private worlds. What’s left of their minds wander in fugue states, while their bodies loll and drool, emit urine and feces, waiting to die. I’m not being dramatic: it’s exactly this awful. If anything, I’m being gentler than I should.
Today, I wheel him outside, and as soon as the sun hits his shoulders, he sighs — a deep, beautiful heft of a thing. His whole self sighs into the sunshine like it has been his whole life waiting for it, like fucking finally oh my God. I find us a spot under a maple tree, half in and half out of the shade. Dad stares resolutely ahead, like he always does, so I drag an old rusty chair to face him. He’s staring at something in the trees over the fence, and I turn to look. The stand of aspens is caught in the breeze, and I remember him calling them “trembling aspen” because of the way their leaves caught the wind. The tree shimmies in the sunlight like a chorus girl. Like green sequins. Like a green tambourine. My dad starts talking, jumbled nonsense, a collection of syllables and partial words, the occasional interjection of a phrase or two, well-rehearsed throughout his life. Some of his favorites were, “in the not too-distant future …” “okay n’okay n’okay …” and the perennial favorite, “you motherfuckers.” He is suddenly rambunctious, inspired by the sun or the trees or all of it. I play along, laughing at the right times, smiling brightly at him, answering the questions posed in some other language, delivered in the cadence and inflection of my father.
“Do you want me to sing you a Joni Mitchell song? I ask. “Yup,” he says, so I do. I sing him “Little Green” because it seems right for the moment, and it reminds me of him. He hums a bit.
A little green. I’ve been singing that Joni Mitchell song all my life — to myself, with my mom in the car, with girlfriends around campfires, in the kitchen washing dishes, and now, to my dying father. The song has always reminded me of him, and for the millionth time, I think about why.
He went to California
Hearing that everything’s warmer there
So you write him a letter, say, “her eyes are blue”
He sends you a poem and she’s lost to you
Little, green, he’s a non-conformer …
I have always thought the song is about grief and abandonment. My dad is the non-conformer, the one who can’t stay, the one who can’t be the thing you need. The one who is a poet who escapes to California. You can’t be angry at a poet for needing to be a poet, and you can’t be angry at my dad. It’s not his fault. He was born that way, the way someone might be born to compose symphonies or die in the ice of the North Pole.
It makes me feel some kind of strange pride, like maybe I’m a little more interesting for being his kid. Maybe I’m kind of a non-conformer, too. I used to constantly compare myself to him, finding all the ways we were similar. But the truth is I’m a shadow next to him. The thing we share the most closely is our pain, and the circular reflection on this reminds me that he gave me most of mine.
But then, the cobble-shop forgiveness. I hear it in these words:
Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you’re sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed, little green
Have a happy ending.
I think about the day my parents announced they were getting a divorce. It was a terrifying, awful day. But I was old enough to tell people I was relieved. That it was about time, after all these trial separations and all of the fighting — after my father’s affairs. It was a relief. It was a good thing. Everything would be much better now. Maybe I was guided by all the after-school specials playing about divorce back then. It was the mid-1980s, and everyone’s parents were getting divorced. Someday, I think I thought, someday this will be a relief, so let’s just have it be a relief now. This was how mature people handled divorce.
I think about the song again — sometimes, when I’m singing, I’m the one who’s not ashamed, and sometimes it’s my father who is unashamed. But why should he be? We were the unremarkable, irritatingly burdensome and ordinary family that he tried to stay with, but couldn’t help but transcend. Sometimes, the happy ending is his, and sometimes, it’s mine. If it’s mine, it’s bittersweet, because the happy ending necessitates accepting the loss of this magical, non-conforming man. My father. No matter how I sing it, I lose my father in the end.
When I finish, we sit in silence for a long time. Dad starts talking again, unintelligible words, then suddenly, “Do you know how you feel?” I look hard at him.
“Yes. Most of the time. I think I do,” I respond. “Do you know how you feel?” I ask.
His eyes are like babies’ eyes. They peer and stare, but in wonderment and confusion. Everything is new, but nothing is new.
“No,” he says, and trains his eyes back on the trees over the fence. It feels like we talked to each other.
We return to his room, and I put The Goonies on his TV, and we watch in companionable silence, while I feed him peanut M&Ms.
As I leave the home, I think that the lyrics to the Mitchell song are a little too boxy. I have to explain them too much for them to be a perfect description of my feelings. It makes me wonder what the song was actually written about, and for the first time, it occurs to me to go search for more information. When I get home, I do.
I immediately find several articles. In the first one I find, I read that Joni Mitchell got pregnant very young, the first time she had sex. She was only 19, and it was 1965. She gave her baby — a daughter — up for adoption. The song is about her, that baby she had to give away. Kelly — “Little Green.” I read another article, about how Mitchell spent the next thirty years searching for her daughter, tortured by the decision she had made. She finally used tabloid magazines and newspapers to find her. And then another, in which the story ends with Mitchell declaring her daughter mentally unwell. Their relationship, the article says, was brief and stormy, and ultimately, they parted ways.
This hurts my chest, for reasons I’m not sure I understand.
Why is there no way back? How can they both suffer so much, at each other, for each other, and be no help to each other? Did they leave the selves who sustained the injuries behind them, out of reach? I think of a thousand clichés about how you can’t change the past, and suddenly they’re all miles deep. You can’t change the past because neither you nor the other people are those people anymore. Inviting those characters together to reconcile would just result in an empty room. How cruel is it that we take the pain with us? I spin through more clichés about how we’re supposed to let go of those things, and think I’ll never be able to. I don’t know how. I want to, but I don’t know how.
I picture my hands on my father’s wheelchair, carefully advancing him into the golden light of the terrace of the Memory Care unit, beneath the trees whose names he taught me, and then forgot.
Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
Like the nights when the Northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow.
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