Until Your Heart Releases You
When you are gone, please don’t go to heaven. Don’t rise up out of your body and sprout wings and play a harp. When you are gone, just go. Just disappear. Cease to exist.
Chrysanthemums fill your mouth, spill out past your teeth which are not there, your lips which are not there.
You are seventeen, and you have just gotten your driver’s license in time for junior prom. You failed the test once, and I wouldn’t let you take it again until we had studied that manual cover to cover—and the driver’s test, the practical test. I did like my own dad did: park the manual transmission on a hill and tell you to drive. You eased your mother’s car into first and slid the clutch past the gas pedal like you had been doing it your whole life.
You ask to borrow the car for prom, and Mom asks, “Isn’t your date supposed to drive?”
“Dates are stupid,” you say.
I help you tuck the billowy dress between the seat and your legs. My shirt is sticking to my back, and my pants are inching down.
You look over my shoulder and announce, “Crack attack.”
The 1993 Volvo has a five star frontal crash safety rating from the NHTSA. We spent days worth of hours practicing. We never drove in the rain.
We never went over those tracks.
We always drove the speed limit.
Or if you cannot simply cease to be, let the energy that moved those toes, those fingers—let it dissipate and be absorbed by everything around it. Let those sparks sending rhythms through your dying heart add to the symphony of the universe.
Your hair is melting chocolate spilling off the bed. Your hair is dust that moves in the afternoon sunlight. Your hair is.
You are twenty-one, home for the weekend to fulfill your birthday promise. You had promised me a date so I could buy you your first drink. A dad and daughter date. We hadn’t taken one of those since we’d gone to see Pulp Fiction at that art house theatre you loved so much.
You want to go to Spanky’s or Sparky’s, I can’t ever get them right—and there is no sign to help an old man.
You are looking at the beer list. Names like Pappy’s Piss and Mad Hops. I ask about school and you tell me it wouldn’t be a bad date if the guy didn’t ask about school.
I ask you what you want to talk about and you tell me, “Beer.”
My daughter drinks beer. This isn’t your first drink. Your first bar. Your 21st means so little to you.
I tell you that beer is synonymous with civilization. I am going to tell you about the fertile crescent, about barley, about Ninkashi or Ninkasa or—and you interrupt to order the Border Porter. It is supposed to be Mexican spicy with a high wall of foam. Something like that.
You ask, “How did you know you were in love with mom?”
I order a Pappy’s Piss and say something romantic because what I am thinking about is the boy who has probably told you he loves you and the scene where you tell him you love him, and that kiss and—I’ve drained my beer.
You tell me his name is Mark and that I’d like him. “He has your sense of humor,” you say, which means he has the sense of humor of a ten-year-old.
I tell you that reminds me of a joke. I ask you why you can’t hear a pterodactyl in the bathroom.
“Why?” you ask.
Because the “p” is silent, I say.
You spit beer on me, and I’m not sure if it is an accident.
Mark is a lucky man, I tell you. He better take care of my girl, I say.
“I don’t need taking care of, dad,” you respond. My movie heroine.
People have always said that you look just like me, and I can sort of see it, but mostly I see my little girl sitting up on a big bar stool like in some cheesy movie hallucination.
You and Mark will go climbing that weekend. He won’t take care of you. The fall will snap your neck. Even if you live, you’ll be in a bed for the rest of your life.
And no hell for you either. Until you were born, those places fit firmly in the myth category: Atlantis, Neverland, Heaven, and Hell. Fantasies are for your dreams. You won’t be dreaming.
Your hands are knitted together with wax.
You love to fly. I was sure you’d do something crazy like join the airforce. I’d have had to get one of those bumper stickers with the wings and the proud parent brag about serving the country.
Your first flight was so…irritating. We’d gotten the tickets for a night flight just so that you could sleep through it. Mom was—I was, too, I guess—concerned that you would annoy the other passengers if you were awake and being a kid.
Up and down the aisle, squeezing in anywhere you could to look out another window. I told you it all looked the same at night, but you weren’t buying it.
Your mother had the window seat and was passed out. When that flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, your daughter—”
I jumped right in with, “I’m sorry. I’ll get her.”
Which got all tangled up with, “—is so adorable.”
As we were getting off the plane, the pilot high-fived you. Six years old and your future already planned out.
Do you high-five excited kids as they deplane? Do you remember that first flight or do you just think you remember because we tell that story all the time? Do you ever let your co-pilot take over so you can go seat to seat leaning over laps to look out of tiny windows?
Some 9/11 scenario I might have accepted. Not some dubious electrical issue. The lawyers are certain the airline will take good care of your mother and me. Do I really want their payoff though? How is this a win in court? Every check we get, every time I see that envelope, every time I see that logo, I see you lying here.
Get up now and run to the window. High five the doctors. Send in a nurse to tell me you’re—
I don’t want Heaven. I don’t want Hell. Or oneness with the universe. Or ghosts or spirits. I want to believe in biology. Worms dried up on the street; the squirrel zapped by an electric current; the god damn circle of life. We are here and then we aren’t. Fish rotting on the shore. No mourning. No ceremony. Just dead fish.
You are gilled, trying to pull oxygen from the air.
I have to convince you there aren’t toes in the water, and when I attempt to explain that the strong current is “under” your toes, your mother shuts me up and tells you to “play on the beach.” And you do. Holes and hills, Barbie castles.
Then you meet Ella. Ella who has been coming to the beach ever since she can remember. Ella who isn’t afraid of the water. Ella who has an extra innertube.
Ella who says you just disappeared under the waves.
Ella who won’t shut up with the I’m Sorrys over and over and over.
You haven’t disappeared, though. Not completely. Not yet.
Maybe in an hour. Maybe tomorrow. The beeping will stop. They’ll remove the tape and the tubes and the needle. They’ll pull an Ella and not shut the fuck up.
And since you’re not ascending or descending or transcending or transforming or transmogrifying or dissipating, let us sprinkle your fishness on the garden and use you practically like American Indians tossing heads and tails into holes. Make our tomatoes grow fat like you never will, our carrots long and lean like you never will be.
Your skin is metamorphic rock, marbled and ribboned.
You are not seventeen or twenty-one or a pilot or victim of imaginary Ella and the undertow. There is no driver’s license, no prom, no first beer, no boyfriend, airplane, or sandy beach. No life lived. None at all.
You are two days old, and you won’t be driving or dancing or flying or swimming or drinking or wrecking or crashing or falling or drowning. You won’t make me proud or disappoint me. This is our only Hallmark moment. Your only milestone. Remember that time you breathed? That time your eyelids quivered? Remember your tight fists? Remember when I could measure you from the tip of my finger to my wrist? Remember the hard plastic bin in which you lived your entire life?
These are the memories I’ll have of you, and so in this blip, in this blink of a red, swollen eye that is your life, I’ll build new memories, new reasons why I’m sitting here alone with my nameless daughter who would be Elaine but can’t be Elaine because there will be an Elaine and she won’t be you and she won’t be your little sister because you’ll be an annulment. But right now, in this instant, in this flicker, you’re my daring girl whose parachute didn’t open; you’re my brave, tenacious girl who smiles and tells us about the friends you made during your chemo treatments.
Until your heart releases you, I’ll find more ways to squeeze a life lived out of you.
Don’t die. Breathe on your own. Show us your eyes. Cry out for crying out loud. Be the miracle baby who sends me driving to church to say a prayer of thanks for your life. Be my testimonial. Be my daughter.