Even Angels Long to Look Into These Things.
I wasn’t paying attention the moment my dad actually died. I just realized the room was silent, a hideous silence, the sudden absence of his labored, glottal breathing a doom-laden portent. I'm not even sure when I noticed. Five seconds after the fact? Ten? Twenty?
And I am tempted to chastise myself, to be sucked into a shame void that same way that plaguey luminous rectangle – my smartphone - sucked me in and monopolized my attention at such a moment.
But He does not condemn me. He whispers to me of the hour before my dad died, when I sat by His bedside and sang every hymn from which I could remember even a phrase and a few Beach Boys songs, embarrassingly rendered but with heart, with love, with worship, even, in that holy place. I think I even ventured an ELO song, the ascendant symphonic frills transporting me back to riding in his car with him, his fingers always tapping an incessant restless rhythm on the steering wheel or table or flicking little showers of menthol ash off his ever-present cigarette. And the rings, oh, the rings – no fussy gems, these, but formidable chunks of silver with hard edges and sharp geometry, like brass knuckles envisioned by some Brutalist architect.
It was strange to see him so still, at rest from his nervous tics and shufflings. I remember sitting watching TV, me sitting in the crook of his knee while he reclined on his side, and his toes would twitch and his shoulders would shrug involuntarily from time to time, like rays of energy were radioed out from some electric center. He hummed with it – verve, ambition, drive. He’d started his first business, a hip interior design firm called “Innerspace”, in southern California when he was 26. He spoke with a misty-eyed nostalgia about when the repo man came to take away his Audi after he declared bankruptcy. Nevermind – he rebuilt, and imported his edgy SoCal aesthetic, blew the drab gray socks off the Midwestern squares with his denim shirts unbuttoned halfway down his chest, giant metal medallion necklaces and sleek hypercontemporary design. “Most people don’t have bad taste, they just have no taste,” he said. “You can tell them what they want.”
I always said it as a child with reverential awe and pride, as though it constituted foreign citizenship and thus endowed me with an alluring exotic air: My dad is from California.
We sat together one night after Lia died, him on the edge of the bed, me on the carpet, legs drawn under me. He talked about the time he visited Lia in jail when she was 19. She came to the window and sat and stared hard at him for a minute. Then she flipped him off and got up and walked away. I thought of her mugshot again: the eyes full of pain and defiance and rage and sorrow all at once. Lia only cried when she was angry back then. In the mugshot her cheeks are wettened by tears, just; it’s hard to see but they’re there. The round face, the thin brows, the hooded eyes, the full bow mouth. A smattering of freckles across her cheeks. And I look and I am struck by how Asian she looks, how Korean, how not of us. Yet she was ours, undeniably, ineradicably.
There is another mugshot that accompanies it, one where an offscreen entity represented by only a hand cuffs around her wrist, holding up her arm to display the tattoo in medieval script running down the underside of her forearm, sparkling with asterisks: BROWN. I remember being mystified by that tattoo. But she doesn’t even like us, I thought. But now I understand how she hungered for identity, thirsted for it. Round face, wide nose, hooded eyes, full bow mouth in a family who looked nothing like her but looked like one another. She grappled and howled and yearned for a name that felt like home to her.
Dad cried when he lamented that he hadn’t read the Bible to us as kids or prayed together with us. “All I cared about was that damn business,” he said, and he wept. But I told him I didn’t remember it that way at all, didn’t see the lack. I remembered so much good. I remembered pain, too.
But all of it seemed to wane under the enormity of God’s good, this defiant life at the center of things: his mysterious redemptive power that turns all it touches to gold, even the unbearably painful. He bore it, on the cross, and he bears it now, his hand on mine and my breath his own. And what was this good, this tender treasure of intimacy, of connectivity, of deep knowing and being known than relationship?
And I do remember so much good. God makes me see, see it crystalline-sharp: the way Lia and I when we were little would run to the back door, joyfully, giggling all the way in a stumbling race to be the first to leap on dad when he walked in the door from work and he’d sit down and balance us both on his knees and bounce us erratically with a nonsense song of his own composition, “The Bippy and the Bopper”; the delight of trips to his office, venturing in to the adult workaday world with its memos and meetings and quippy mugs by the coffee pot and the smell of 7th and Broadway, permeated by the Folgers plant across the street; Dad out by the pool, sunning himself SoCal style a la 1965, heavily greased with Hawaiian Tropic oil, the latest Tom Clancy tome on his chest; our menagerie of animals, which fueled my burning need to find and adopt the most exotic fowl I can; frequent calls from animal control about one of our peacocks stalking the subdivision across the road, beholding his own magnificence before sliding-glass doors like an avian Narcissus.
I remember the first time I saw him drunk, when I was 15 and we were at my half-brother’s wedding in Baja, him spinning my cousin’s wife around dizzily and generally whooping it up until the party died down and he wanted to argue with me until I passed out from exhaustion.
The way he entranced toddler Arrow with the dimmer light above the kitchen table, making her believe with some sleight of hand that he magically commanded it. His arsenal of expressions: “cool it and rule it”, “sounds like a personal problem,” “What is this, a convention?” delivered with loving sarcasm when a room was too crowded for his liking.
His abject tenderness toward animals which moved him to do things like lure raccoons into eating out of his hand and turning up the volume on the TV when they later felt so welcome they moved into the walls and the violent keening of their territorial fights could be heard above the ticking clock of 60 Minutes or the melodramatic swells of whatever made-for-TV movie was on.
The time a few years ago he cried at the birthday card I gave him, sniffing and removing his glasses to blot his eyes with a tissue, because I had written that I would choose him as my dad if there were a choice in these things, and that God was using even my dad’s mistakes to make me into the person he wants me to be.
The smell of his hairspray, his cologne, both of which I took after he died and can be caught occasionally huffing, just for that olfactory memory high. His laugh. His himness, indelible, utterly unique, precious. All of it together, the perfectly imperfect tapestry of a life sometimes hidden in Christ, sometimes dragged down by Adam.
I sat there, and I sang, so imperfectly and brokenly because of my tears. He lifted his eyebrows every now and again and I held his hand and I sang, proudly and off-key, and talked to him between songs: which one should we try now, dad? I didn’t care who heard because it felt like we were the only two people there, the still hushed center of the turning world, enwombed in unassailable peace. And while my singing voice can hardly be mistaken for the sublime trill of angels heralding a saint’s entrance, I like to think the songs ushered him along, offered as they were: artlessly, adorned only with tears, in wonder of His grace and goodness and in awe of the holiness of these moments, of the passage of a child of God into eternity.
Eternity broke in a little, there, in that quiet hospice room, like a shimmering cloud hovering over the normal linearity of time, extending in all directions. It was fresh, timeless, ancient, new.
He was so near death, so close to beholding his Savior’s face, and I was hollowed out from days of fevered nightmare-haunted insomniac nights grasping for some semblance of sleep on shoved-together chairs and too-short couches and parched from the tears that never seemed to reach their end, and yet, sitting there holding his mottled and bruised hand, I felt so alive and electrically awake.
God was there. He was there. Yes, He always is, but the reality of his presence was so vivid and real and incandescent that I saw how he holds it all together and in him and through him and for him all things are made. Watching my dad die was sad and hard and painful but oh, was it ever holy.
And so I sat and sang in my feeble off-key alto, inelegantly straining for Brian Wilson’s ethereal high notes. My dad hadn’t woken since the previous night, and he didn’t now, but still I sang. And it for a few moments it truly was just he and I, a still sanctuary in the spinning world, cocooned in the presence of God.