A Prayer for My Father

It’s Thanksgiving evening, 2005.

Though this is your last chance to see us, you can barely look. But this is nothing unusual. You’ve always had trouble seeing us, your daughters. Who, in spite of you, are here.

The hospital is deserted, as if no one else in the city is dying today. Instead, they’re in homes filled with the smell of yeast rolls, turkey roasting since dawn, pies, coffee. Last year I had you to my table, saving the invitation until the last minute in hopes of catching you sober and present. It turned into a fine day, notwithstanding the familiar awkwardness between family members who don’t know each other the way they wish to be known. Abandoner and abandonee sharing a holiday; I’m sure it happens in homes all over the world.

When we took you home that day it looked like your life had reached a point of relative stability. You had a thrift store bed, a makeshift shelf, a card table, two chairs. When a man of sixty-seven with three degrees and a genius I.Q. is reduced to a household consisting of items worth a total of a few hundred dollars, he might be considered a failure. We recognized progress in the colorful throw rug and the wicker basket for mail, marks of home and order and maybe even a little warmth.

I used to wonder if our relationship would be helped by us getting drunk together, me entering into your world since you couldn’t seem to enter into mine. Maybe I could catch you in your golden moment, when you’d had enough to feel vital and sharp and passionate but before you had so much that you saw yourself.

Maybe that would have been the perfect time to ask you who you were, how you experienced being a father (if you did) and why you believed you deserved the tidal surges of self-hatred that you let batter you to death.

To death, where we are now in the lonely Thanksgiving hospital…

…the TV on. The half-eaten tray of food hardly a feast. You in a robe with your pale, hairy knees showing and I remember: when I was little, how capable and masculine you looked with your legs crossed, right foot resting on left knee, an ashtray balanced on your ankle, a Pall Mall between your fingers. (They came in red and white packs, and you left some behind when you fled. I stole one, and smoked in the closet wondering what it felt like to be you.)

Now, you’re small and afraid, a man who stubbornly refused invitation after invitation to life. Or that’s how I see it from my vantage point — a perspective which I increasingly understand is nearly useless in the goal of interpreting you. I see through the pinhole of a fatherless child. From here, it’s easy to judge, easy to summarize, easy to diagnose.

You breathe shallow. Do you want me to pray with you? I’m afraid to ask. Embarrassed to do it. Too shy to take your hand. We all look at the TV.

The call will come in the dawn hours. My sister, Liz, will crawl into bed with me and we’ll each let out a few dry and confused sobs, fast breaths in and out. We won’t weep. We’ve been mourning you our whole lives.

But we want and need to mark the day. Later we’ll find out from the funeral home you didn’t want a service of any kind, but for now it isn’t your choice. Emails are sent and phone calls are made and within hours my pastor and his wife come over, bearing an urn of coffee and a plate of cookies. Liz and I set out what little memorabilia we have — the vinyl record of you conducting at a prestigious music school, your framed PhD, a few black and white pictures of you and our mother together early in your marriage, your college portrait. We can see our eyes in yours.

Friends arrive. Nobody you’ve met and some people I barely know myself, but they are present. We make a small procession to the nearby cemetery and find a spot overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. It’s a beautiful day — the world green and cold and moving toward winter. I read from Psalm 107, a passage Liz and I picked out together, including the verses:

Some sat in darkness and deepest gloom, imprisoned in iron chains of misery.
They rebelled against the words of God, scorning the counsel of the Most High.
That is why he broke them with hard labor; they fell, and no one was there to help them.
“LORD, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.
He led them from the darkness and deepest gloom; he snapped their chains.
Let them praise the LORD for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
For he broke down their prison gates of bronze; he cut apart their bars of iron.

I think about your life. I wonder if you’re with God — if in the end you cried out in your trouble, if you experienced the flash of light, the chains falling off, the door creaking open on long-rusted hinges. I want that for you. I want that for me.

Years later I wonder how your death might feel different if I’d been able to ask, Can I pray for you?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it matters. The ideas I held in the younger version of my faith would say it does. I’m no longer sure about that or anything. Some would say it’s too late. But if there’s one thing the slow unfolding of life with God has taught me, it’s that I can never say the words “too late” with anything close to certainty. Again and again, Lazarus has stumbled out of the various tombs I’ve sealed and walked away from, bereft.

So I’ll pray for you, without asking and, at last, without the fear you’ll shame or reject me.

Peace be with you. The Lord bless you and keep you. May He make his face shine upon you until we meet again.