In July of 2015, I took a bad fall while running in downtown Chicago. We were in town for my youngest sister’s wedding and after spending several days in the suburbs where she was married on the vast lawn of our father’s and stepmother’s house next to the Fox River, we spent a few days downtown. My husband and I had previously lived in Chicago and our first son was born there; the city is a favorite.
The Nichols Bridgeway is a pedestrian bridge that joins the Great Lawn of Millennium Park to the Modern Wing of Chicago’s wonderful Art Institute, and it was opened in 2009, nine years after we’d left the city. That morning, we had mistakenly jogged across it, until realizing it ended at the museum. We had spent a half hour or so running from our hotel on Miracle Mile, along the teeming sidewalks and around the park with its futuristic bean and band shell.
Someone amidst a group standing at the rail of the bridge stepped back as I sped by; I was going fairly fast as the bridge declined back into the park. The walking surface of the bridge is steel and has the appearance of a grid: thick lines of metal crisscrossing, with spaces in between. It left two gaping wounds in my knee, which immediately began to stream blood. For a while, it didn’t hurt. We had nothing to use to staunch the blood so my husband wiped a good amount from my leg with the bottom of his shorts, then we ran to a public restroom for paper towels. It definitely hurt later, and the deep scrapes took more first aid and care than any wound I’d had for some time.
By the time of my sister’s wedding, our father had been walking with a cane for a while. He was grayer than he’d ever been, and his always-tanned skin had faded. Looking much older than his seventy-five years, he hobbled along, his back straight and head high. His lips were pursed together, a familiar expression that when we were kids, signified his displeasure. But now he wore it most of the time.
My sister had set up a dining tent for the reception and a lovely gazebo and white chairs for the ceremony. Our dad tried to get out of walking her down the aisle, claiming he couldn’t manage the steps coming down from the back porch onto the yard. But she held her ground and arranged for him to meet her at the bottom, on the grass. We’ll take it slow, she told him. He agreed but demurred for the father/daughter dance, and our older brother took over that task. Everyone seemed happy with this compromise. At the end of the evening, we released lit paper lanterns into the night air. Their reflections traveled across the black velvet surface of the river, growing smaller and smaller until we could only imagine them over other houses, other people.
I’ve always been afraid of sharp knives. I asked my mother if there was ever an incident, if someone had cut themselves when I was young. She couldn’t recall anything like that. I used to set the table for dinners and we had a set of wooden-handled steak knives that were very sharp but I wasn’t afraid of those. I recalled, then, the reverence with which my dad sharpened the carving knives he used for meat. The sharpener was long and metal, a file really, and the knife was drawn over its surface in a rhythmic manner, making a scraping noise I hated. It was a serious task, and I’m sure now that the danger of the knives was impressed to us, to me, in some way.
For most of my adult life, we had no truly sharp knives in our house. I made due with the few knives that came in a block as a wedding present and of course, over the years they’d grown dull. Chopping meat or vegetables was always a physical task and my middle sister, a true cook, could never believe I didn’t have better tools. Many years ago, my grandfather bought me a set of sharp knives — he was always getting us useful gifts he’d find at Harbor Freight — but I left them in a bottom drawer, their blades covered in cardboard. Only very recently, I started using them and couldn’t believe the difference.
Over the last holiday season, my daughter asked to chop onions for a batch of chili. I handed her one of these very sharp knives and told her, very seriously, of its danger. She listened and then began to cut the onion quickly, without fear, because she is a very different person than I was at fourteen.
At a friend’s suggestion, I rubbed Arnica over the two gouges in my knee as they were healing, and for several months afterwards. I don’t believe it helped lessen the scarring much, but it’s hard to say. There are two, triangular, pinkish scars, roughly the size of quarters, which grow darker in cold or heat. It wasn’t until much later that I realized there was another scar, a very small one the size of a pea, to the left of the lower, larger scar. The way I discovered it was that I sliced it off, time and again, while shaving my legs. Sometimes I’d forget, and sometimes I’d remind myself to take care, and I’d nick it anyway. It bleeds a great deal, this tiny wound, but soon heals over again, perhaps with a bit more tissue than it had the last time. Now, after the many assaults, it protrudes like a wart.
It is the most painful scar of the three; the others don’t bother me at all. But the pea-sized scar hurts when I kneel, especially in the healing stages, and it’s tender to the touch. I imagine it as having feelings, although of course it doesn’t.
Our father worked in the auto electric business he learned from his father-in-law, but he had a creative side too. He went through many phases, took on a variety of hobbies during my childhood. Once, he bought a rock polisher and spent many evenings and weekends making rough stones into shiny pieces for jewelry. One wall of our garage was a plasterboard where these earrings and pendants were encased in tiny plastic bags and pinned up; also, stones in various stages of preparation were separated. Everything organized in the tedious but inaccessible way my dad had of organizing things. The urge for order was there — he’d been a Marine — but he also couldn’t throw anything away.
He went through a photography phase, taking photos in the desert where we lived and on our trips to the Colorado River. I’m no expert but I think he had a good eye; two of his prints hang in our house today and I never tire of looking at them.
After he took a trip to China, we ate sticky, white rice more often than any of us four children would have cared to; he experimented with cooking sauces and seasonings he’d find on his travels. In his later years when he’d moved far away, he carved each of us wooden crosses, with his initials etched underneath.
Grief is like waves, people say. You, with a life preserver or not, depending on the day. Storms or clear seas but never an end to the rolling of the sea. Grief is like a flood in your heart that leaks through your eyes. It’s like a cold shower, a cold snap. Always analogized to water, that incomprehensible force.
I’ve been taking lots of showers and baths lately, sometimes twice a day. Along with sleep and music and exercise and church, it’s a practice toward meditative calm. Last night, I took a long bath with water as scalding as I could take it. I extended my left leg up and looking directly at that tiny scar as I shaved around it (I thought), I felt a small, sharp pang and watched as a bead of red appeared. How many times can I allow this to happen, I thought. Even trying to avoid it. Even looking right at it.
My brother and I went back to Illinois in June last year, a week or so shy of our sister’s first anniversary. Our father was staying at a rehab place, after many health complications and the stroke-like incident that had landed him there. It was obvious at our first meeting that the changes were probably irrevocable; he was no longer his complete self. He dozed off and on and at times, would lose his train of thought. His lucid moments were, in a way, more difficult because suddenly, there he was. A few times, he asked about going home, to the house by the river. He had spent so many days at the water’s edge, puttering around in his shed, fishing, sitting in a lawn chair and watching the boats go by.
He seemed to improve over the course of the few days we were there, and I think we imagined a decline over several months or more. There was no question of the end but we probably felt there would be some time, maybe another visit. On the last morning, we waited for him in his room while he was in physical therapy. They had him slowly walking the halls and lifting small weights. Afterwards, he came in with the nurse, saw us and said “There’s my two favorite hell-raisers,” which was just like him. Later, he asked if we were headed back to California, and seemed resigned to our answer.
We returned home to our families and he passed away, peacefully, two days later.
I went to the bookstore the other day. I browsed in the biography section and picked up Joan Didion’s memoir about losing her husband. Maybe it would be a good account for me to read, I thought. I flipped through and landed on a page where she’s talking about the loss of her parents, that feeling of being an orphan and how it’s universal for anyone losing parents at any age. No, I thought, putting it back on the shelf. This is not the time for me to read about how all of us are the same. I went to another section and chose a novel, and another collection of Munro stories.
(I do believe, however, that all sadness is related to a lack of something, an emptiness. Losing something, or never having something to begin with.)
There have been other disappointments, hardships and griefs this past, often-terrible year, but all feed into the one loss, or at least, they serve as floodgates to it. It’s like a circuitous network of arteries all pumping the same blood. And that tiny scar waits and waits, for the moment I let down my guard (or don’t), and once again, allow the flow.
If this were a fiction, I might end with a scene about taking a run on a cloudy, winter day. Maybe there had been a recent rain, and water trickles underneath a metal grate along the road. As I jog over the grate, which rattles but stays stable, I think back on the Nichols Bridgeway and the impressions it left on my skin, and that last time I saw my father somewhat intact, walking with my sister in her white dress. I might talk about my reluctance to see Chicago again, for the pain it caused. But that wouldn’t be true either. I went back to the city — still a favorite — in December. I spent one night downtown with my newlywed sister. We talked and walked, looked at the holiday decorations and drank cocktails looking down on the colored lights and grand buildings.
I might end by saying that we all live on, in those who knew us and loved us. We’re like flashes in their wiring, paper lanterns dotted against the strata of their souls, etc., etc. But who’s to say where a creative urge comes from, or a fear of sharp objects, or a feeling of aloneness, or any of the things we do, or say, or feel. Best to heal up and continue forward, knowing that other scars will be bigger, and darker, and more obvious to those who look.