Endings are always couched in the preproduction of goodbye.
The last goodbye of someone is never the last time you see them. It’s rarely a running after the train weaving through high rise top hatted gentlemen, slow motion silence, columned by Swiss mountains – kind of thing. It’s the moment you carry going forward. It’s the memory your brain immediately falls to when your thoughts search for that person. It’s the last time they are who they were for you. Or when you were last you for them.
The last satisfying drag of a good smoke is never at the end. The last bite of a brilliant meal is never the left over odd collection of bits. You get the idea.
Last-times are always made of stone. They can be foundational – they change who you are, propel you forward. Or they can be anchors to a bottomless down. Or both at the same time.
They can be immense or ridiculously small. They can be graceful or absurd, poignant or totally fucking idiotic. Obscene-sexy or obscene-depressing. Some bust through walls like a drunk elephant. Some you keep bird-caged until they’re far past gone. Some goodbyes are manageable, can drip off like a light rain. Some will hollow out your heart. Leaving only a painted husk to dry and weed.
And they’re almost always gone before you can fathom that they can even do that.
I’m thinking about last times because I’m leaving my sister and the lifestyle of immediate illness, and my hometown, and I’ve lost a love. And it’s as though I’m just now coming back to the surface from some deep deep. My life is changed and gone.
Those subterranean caverns of illness and cancer are surely a strange place. You learn new languages. Your eyes are opened to the ubiquity of the other members- at the grocery store, down the street, in lines at the DMV or the Post. There’s a wisp of hair that gives a wig away. There’s an eye wrinkle that tells you someone is in the world of not right. There’s a stiff jangle to the movement of a person going through chemo, as though they’re learning to operate all new things.
And even more than that there’s the illness in everything. Or maybe the end in everything. You begin to see the lines of things stretching as far back as they go forward. The vibrating silence following a melody, is as sweet as the music that just played.
There but for the grace of- actually no buts about it, there we all go. My sister’s face in my memory is now forever topped by a shining baldness, and I have never thought her more beautiful.
eaving always teaches you something about yourself, because what you feel, was what was important. Losing things are the same.
Lately, the last-time for my father, Bill, is in my mind. It was driving around somewhere in the hills of this hometown I’m leaving. It is a strange thought that those not quite mountain rolls, of that particular memory, were physically near. I assumed them completely lost in some sinkhole of time, or encapsuled only in a bubble in the carriage of my mind. It feels strange that others have equal claim.
My dad and I had an afternoon alone together, which was unusual for a family of four siblings. I was eight. We were roaming freely through the valleys of Upstate New York. We were driving in his bright orange Volkswagon “Thing” convertible. A car that looks like a porch for a tank. The doors and roof were held together by electrical tape and cemented cigarette ash and the endless reach of my father’s comb over.
The Thing was made in the time when for some reason it was important for cars to be able to ﬂoat on water. Otherwise I think my dad would have sent it to the bottom of the river bend that hooked around the giant willow in his front yard. With glee. Whenever he parked he would leave the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked.
Anyone that wants can have the fucking thing.
He would say. It was a bad marriage.
But he really loved that Thing, because it was a character from a childhood fable. It made reaching destinations an uncertainty. And my father was a magniﬁcent adventurer.
He loved working the world without a safety net. He never shied from a good argument or ﬁght, and in fact felt a story was incomplete without them. Yet he also was a monolith of patience. I once punched him in the face just to see what it felt like, and he laughed as carefree as if he were kissed.
The only time I remember him yelling at me was when I was probably ﬁve and I kicked open the door of our Volkswagon Van (he was a college professor, after all) on the highway doing at least sixty, sitting in the front seat in the time before mandatory seat-belts, just because I wanted to kick something. I remember being hypnotized by the blurred concrete lines, and his rough large hand on my shoulder lifting me back to a safe center.
So, let the record of all things state that Bill Nelson was an excellent dance partner for bears.
He gave no shit for fuel gauges (and so I learned to walk great distances). He trusted my miniature ﬁngers to captain vehicles at great speeds while he lit a smoke or needed all hands on deck to properly tell a tale (and trust me, many lives were in peril). He wore pants with worn crotches and no underwear in the dead of winter.
He taught us that trouble would always be a character in our lives. That danger was the punctuation that gave the story shape.
I mean, one of my very earliest memories is being held, gleefully, by his outstretched arms over the open ceiling of a water tank ﬁlled with sharks (in that mythic Disney/Sea World trip your parents always take before you have memory). Just so I could have a good look.
Another was following a rabbit’s tracks for miles in a thick wooded snow, my home-made maple branch bow and arrow, leisurely leaned against an unschooled bloodlust. Wheelbarrows of story passing back and forth between us along the way. And when we ﬁnally stumbled upon the alpine coated beast yawning underneath a fat bottomed pine, my dad simply asked,
Do you still want to shoot him?
And I couldn’t ever remember a time when I did.
If I was capable of prayer, one of my ﬁrst would be that that conversation between that particular father and son is still bouncing around those valleys like some Ronin phantom guardian for little furry things.
My father was all these things, and yet, he was also one of the most wounded individuals I’ve ever known. And I am his son.
And, truthfully, I was just a skinny tow headed kid. I never really knew him.
ut just then I was also a skinny tow headed kid trying to take a piss outside a temporarily road shouldered crappy orange Volkswagen Thing. But I can’t, because a much larger stream than the one I am intending to make, is ﬂowing untapped from a nickel sized hole just about dead center of the fuel tank. Sweet gasoline stench pools around.
I tell my dad and he laughs. He thinks I’m boasting about my powerful piss stream, and says,
Just zip it up and get in the car.
His eyes are crinkled and weary and his voice is slurred. And it dawns on me that he’s already on the other side.
At the end of his life my dad was hearing voices. He carried a quart of vodka in his brief case when he taught classes. He drank vodka because he thought no one could smell it, but everyone could smell it. He was a large object falling slowly, and no one could do a damn thing.
On our drives he would buy me a can of soda and say,
Drink half of this.
And after that half was gone, I was sternly forbidden to touch that can. So yes I touched that can, every time, because that’s just the way I’ve always been. And every sip was ﬁre.
I get in the car. My dad drives. Fifteen miles an hour. Going from one side of the highway all the way over to the other. And then all the way back. Cars round the endless bends and have to make instant adjustments to the out of place placement of another vehicle sharing the mid-day road.
It begins to dawn on me that my dad might not be the best person to operate this machine right now. And I have to say, that’s an odd thing for a kid to understand. There’s a rest station up ahead. I lie and say I have to take a crap, and my dad pulls in. We roll into the parking lot like a fat boulder long after the hill. I swing the heavy orange door open and spill out.
Go take a shit.
My dad says.
And so I go to take a shit. Weaving through numerous checker parked cars and their occupants, who have taken note of my father’s slanted parking alignment. I open the impossibly heavy doors, into the cathedral like Welcome Center. I sleuth out which bathroom is for boys and I go in and sit in a stall. And pull down my pants. Even though I know nothing would happen. Because not doing so would feel like too much of a lie.
When I return to the Thing. My father is passed out with his feet dangling out the window. A small pool of gasoline has spread under the belly of the car.
I sit for a bit, but a bit becomes a long long time. I try shaking him. I try yelling. He wakes, but he is incoherent. His words hang themselves on the engines of passing cars and drawl out as long as the near distant highway.
There is a phone booth nearby. There used to always be phone booths nearby. But I have no change. I know you need change. But I don’t know how much change that damn thing needs to connect me to someone I know.
There’s a couple eating a road lunch in a nearby car. I approach them hesitantly. I don’t remember the words I used. I remember their faces. Or rather, an impression of their faces. A paint blotch of their faces.
I remember the rough edge of the gifted dime as I stretched to slide it into the slot. I remember hearing my brother’s voice. I remember not being able to tell him where I was. On one of Mars’s deserts maybe. In a valley in a valley of valleys.
I remember hanging up the phone. I remember crying, as I was wont to do in such situations. I remember the day being sunny and clouded at the same time. A sky back lit by confusion.
The kind, paint blotch couple came around. They wanted to call the police for me.
You won’t be in trouble. They can help you.
They said. I didn’t really buy it. Even at that age my heroes always ran from the law.
The woman took me into her beautiful arms. I remember leaning against her breasts as ﬁrm as a newly upholstered cushion. The man went over to my father and had a brief discussion. It was very serious on his end. My dad just acknowledged the whole thing with a sloppy fuck-off wave.
In those holes are two types of pain. Pain blindly inﬂicted through selﬁsh need. And pain deliberately inﬂicted through selﬁsh need.
It’s the difference between drowning and the knife. Flooding the lives of others with your pain because you know no other way. Or stabbing the soft bits of your loved ones, because if they bleed for you then they still give a shit about you.
Either way, everyone around you ends up bloodied and gone.
By the time the cops showed up my dad was sober enough to sit. It didn’t take them long to convince him to abandon the Thing (he probably left the keys in the ignition), and accept a ride home.
I said my goodbyes to the sad eyed cushion breasted woman and the kind paint blotch man. I climbed in the back of the cop car next to my dad. He was asleep, his head lay against the window in the comfort of abandon. Around his eyes smiled.
The cops talked some but I don’t remember what they said. I was too interested in watching the faces of those we passed watch my tiny face peer out the back of a cop car. The windows were down and it was a really a lovely sunny cloudy day. As we turned into my little neighborhood of front porches, I asked the cops to turn on the siren.
They only gave me the lights. They bounced off the houses and windows and the many eyes on my tiny street. And it was pretty damn good.
And that was it for me for my dad. He died not long after.
He died at the end of a dead end street named Happy Valley. He died at the edge of the forrest, by a bend in a winding river. He died in a bed full of a two week old litter of puppies from his dog, Autumn. Their little eyes were just beginning to open.
Goodbye to my sister and hopefully her illness. Goodbye to my home town and the hills that rolled me into the world.
Goodbye to my love. My beautiful willow blue shouldered love. My lovely soft gentle brilliant hard tiny huge love.
I will lay down our time together in a sun lit patch of a summer storm.
Goodbye to self delusions. Goodbye to numbness. Goodbye to not knowing how broken I am. Not knowing the face of the dark wound on my soul. Not feeling its tendrils stiffen and lash, the desperate gash and wag for love.
You can lose anything. We don’t own a thing.
But all those things we try to hold on to, sometimes with a feverish grip. Are in the world. Will ﬁnd us, if we let them. It doesn’t matter if you squeeze yourself into a dollhouse or let yourself expand to the boundaries of a desert plain. The basic components are the same.
And heartbreak is a blessed thing. It lets you ﬁnd your bones. It lets you reconstruct your tendons and muscle. Lets you remake yourself into a vessel that can navigate the turns. You get to rediscover the layout of your control panel, the placement of your captain’s chair.
For me, what I’ve found is this: either this a world where everywhere is home, or home is no where at all.
Either all is love or there is none at all.
I don’t know which is which. I don’t know if it matters. But I will spend my little life looking.
And so to everyday, but this day in particular, I raise my hands to catch the whim of the wind. And let it do what it pleases. For I am that kid in the back of the police car. And I am ﬁne.
But I am also always at sea.