Wednesday, April 27, 2016
No one likes to talk about death. No one. Who wants to admit that death waits for us all, around some future corner, behind some hopefully far away hill, across some distant field? To not exist in an earthly context, to not be. To end. Or at least to pause
For some strange and unfathomable reason, 2016 is shocking us with how death-ridden it already is, and even though death is the most common experience in life, it still feels so singular, so personal, so subjective. Because it is.
Last month, I released a song called, "The Scent of Honeysuckle," as the first offering in a year-long Song-O-The-Month project. I released the song on March 4th with no intention of publicly discussing the intimate details behind the writing of the song because, well, it just seemed gauche, mundane. But I have since changed my tune...figuratively, of course...because I think people need to be able to talk about death, to listen to songs about death and allow themselves to be healed by other interpretations of this terribly common human experience. This song is indeed a song about death, namely, my father's death. It is a channeling of my father's experience of death, as observed by me at his side as he lived out his last days.
My Dad, Walter Dallas Curtiss, was diagnosed with stage 4 sarcoma in June of 2007. He had cancerous tumors, or polyps, throughout his abdomen that had originated in his knee. "It's just a Baker's Cyst," he had said months earlier as we were walking down the sidewalk with my firstborn baby in a pram. His right leg was swollen to twice the size of his left leg, and he kept having to shake it as we walked. It was troubling, to say the least. During that visit, I remember weeping one night in bed next to Seth. I wept like a refugee, as scenes from my Dad's life, my parents' toxic marriage and subsequent divorce flickered in my memory like a super 8 movie. Somehow in that sudden emotional storm, rinsing out some of the family grief that had accumulated in me during my formative years, I knew something was terribly wrong with my father.
My youngest brother, Ian, was to graduate from ASU in May of that year, and my Dad became, by then, aware that something indeed was not right in his body. At one point during a family graduation party, he pulled my brother aside and placed his hand on a bump in his belly area. "Don't tell anyone, Ian, but I think something is going on," he said.
Then came the tests, the CT scans, the awful waiting, and the worst-case diagnosis. Surgery was scheduled almost immediately, and I flew out to California with my baby to be with him. My father, was this strange enigma I never really understood, never really related to. I had lived with this man for nearly 18 years. He changed my diapers and witnessed my first steps, taught me to whistle, to toggle peas at dinner, to drive really aggressively. This was the man who had flown fighter jets in Viet Namm and never really talked about it, who had graduated in the top 5 of his class at the Air Force Academy, and then managed to acquire THREE Master's degrees from various prestigious universities. My father, who had sported a mustache for all of my life; my Dad, who loved action movies, Ann Coulter, light beer, puns, and camping; was dying.
I didn't know it at the time, but that trip was to give me my last, one of my only truly beautiful, unencumbered moments with my father. He had just come out of surgery, and I somehow was alone in the room with him. The machines were whispering, humming, thrumming, and he was sleeping. The soft golden light, streaming in from a California blue sky was framed by the window sill. It was afternoon, the saddest part, when the ardor of midday is done, and the sigh of evening still a few hours away. I felt the weight of grief, the endlessness of it. It wasn't the loss of the father I didn't really understand, it was the loss of what was already gone. When you "don't have a good relationship with your Dad" you always think there is time to fix it. When that time is taken away suddenly, the void you always steeled yourself against sucks you in like a sink hole. The past and all the chances of getting something back suddenly and irrevocably evaporate.
And then he stirred.
He looked at me in a sluggish, drugged gaze and smiled a bit. I approached his side, and he sort of turned to me. I was trying not to show how sad I felt, how heavy I had become. I wanted to be helpful, to be useful in my utter helplessness. I wanted to say all the things that would magically heal us, heal me.
And then he said, "Remember that time in Ohio when we played in the leaves...?
This was not what I expected him to say, but I knew what he was talking about. That golden afternoon light, plaid 1970's jacket, Ohio, Autumn, piles of leaves, I remembered the pictures at least. I was probably two or three.
"I remember that day," he continued. You were jumping in the piles...we had so much fun...you were so cute."
"Yeah, I remember," I croaked. I remembered a picture, a feeling, an imprint of a memory.
"I love you, China." And he reached out and held my hand.
I only perform "The Scent of Honeysuckle" if I know an audience is truly listening, if I have their undivided attention. I sing it as a way to honor the memory of my father; I sing it with joy and love, even though it can be a profoundly sad song. Each time I perform it I feel the gap between me and Dad closing, infinitesimally. It is a prayer of sorts, a way to bring healing to myself and to pour love into the cracks and fissures that are slowly pulling together.
And thusly, I seem to be understanding a bit of the mystery behind one of Jesus' most famous quotes, "...unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."