A Prayer for My Dying Father

The last time I was here, I sat in this same spot, in the far left seat in the fifth row of the pew on the far right of St. Michael’s Church, my grandmother’s. I wasn’t wearing jeans then, and hadn’t walked in by subconscious accident. Nor was I scribbling notes on a piece of paper, for that matter. I have only been here twice before; once six years ago on a cold January morning to make arrangements for her service, and once more three days later to say goodbye. I’m here now because I want quiet.

I am here because there isn’t anyone to talk to about the news I heard about my father laying on a cot in an Armenian hospital – worrying about the deadline of one of the thirteen books he is working on, regretting that he hadn’t held onto me longer that one time, but not knowing to call it regret, wishing for more time for work, more of the time of his youth, waiting for another surgery. There isn’t anyone to talk to about how after years of loving him, only loving him, more generously than I have ever mustered it in me to love anyone else, I had just now begun to feel anger. It had always been respect before, always acceptance, some say against all odds, and good for me; others say what is wrong with me and how can I love a man I barely know who chose not to know me. They all need to shut up now. I need quiet.

I want a quiet place to mourn the loss of the girl who never got to call her father “dad” because she was too petty to try hard enough to make it sound right, because she was too confused about how this would work when she had been calling her younger uncle dad since she had learned how to talk. There isn’t anyone to tell that the last time we spoke I hung up without saying goodbye, pretending my card had run out of money because I had become bored with all the talk about all the remarkable things he said he was doing, the books, the art shows, the trips to Paris, the television and newspaper interviews, and not once what are you doing, child. There is no one to tell that I know he must go, so I can become whole, not because my mother once told me she became a woman only when her father died, but because I will no longer be defined by his intentional absence, because I will be left with nothing to prove to him, no way to earn his love. I can’t tell anyone that after too many pathetically failed attempts at quitting smoking, I want to quit again now, for him, because the only thing he has ever asked of me is that I quit. He had recently stopped after decades of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, harsh, horrible Armenian cigarettes, and he shook his finger in the air between our faces, and said, “It is Satanism.” The only other thing he has ever asked of me he didn’t mean: He never knew, never felt the reasons for asking for my forgiveness; it was a courtesy, an acknowledgement of a moral responsibility.

There is no one to tell about the only photograph I had to look at of my father when I was a little girl, the miniature black and white passport photograph; black suit, black tie, black hair and the thickest black beard you have ever seen; two needle-head-sized holes, one poked through each eye. I could never blame my mother for two little holes when the one he had left in her heart had left her with nothing. There isn’t anyone to show the note in Russian, which he had scribbled on a piece of paper for my mother, as she lay in a maternity ward, down the hall from the incubator in which she could swear she heard me breathing; the note that said sorry, goodbye. Armenia, 1977. There is no one I can text to ask to help me erase the words that someone scarred into my soul’s flesh – that if I had been born a boy, he would have stayed.

I left the church because the service started. Now, I’m sitting at someone else’s table at Starbucks, the same one where they stole my bag a week and two days ago, the one Mariam had given me, black, with Hunter and my Alma Mater’s logo, purple across the front, and a button with a black and white photo of Obama with Michelle and the girls.

My father doesn’t know these things. That I go to Starbucks to write and to grade. That I have laid out my outfits for the next day every night since the night before I started first grade. That I prefer a coffee shop to a church because at least here I can choose the music, and because I was getting tired of not being able to cross my legs, which my grandmother wouldn’t want to see me do in her spot in the pew on the far right of her church. That I’ve listened to nothing but Mahalia Jackson since my mother told me he was in the hospital. That I look most like him when I am plotting victory, and when my hair is up. That when he hugged me, every one of the dozen or so times, I felt more loved than I ever have in anyone else’s embrace – because when he pressed me tight against his chest and stroked my hair, I knew he had never meant to hurt me by being who he was, that he was only living his destiny. That after fifteen years of scarce meetings with him, having fought for and earned a daughter’s right for a place where we could talk and laugh, I am now broken. That we never did go to my sister’s grave together, and that I can’t find it on my own. That I have an image of his hand on mine hanging like a photograph on a wall inside my head. That if there is one thing I know about life, it is that my mother was the great love of his life. And because he was hers, I have no right but to live my life like a queen, for love like this can only give life to beauty. That if I could be with him right now, I would squeeze my little body into the tiny space on the narrow cot next to him, put my hand where I could feel his heart beat, and tell him.

Tell him these details.

I pray for time.

(April 2009)

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