Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of my father’s death. It is a day that I remember with clarity – not in its entirety, but in fragments, details, images, with all of my senses.
He was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia ten months before. His doctor called him on a Friday night and said, “You have leukemia but don’t worry, we’ll talk about it Monday.” Do no harm? The whole weekend was spent in an anguish of speculation and terror. The disease was fast, cruel and inexorable. We tried everything – conventional and alternative. Nothing made a difference to his body, but to our family, to our connection with each other, the desire to support, to comfort, to help opened a torrent of love and caring among us that was unquenchable.
Some time during that ten months, I traveled to Mexico on an NEA fellowship to develop Ghostdance, a new work that, ironically, was based on the images and traditions of the Dia de los Muertos. Working with a beautiful, bold group of Mexican dancers, we plunged into questions of what haunts us, who are our ghosts and how do our ancestors speak into our present lives. It was also about our dance with death.
Then I got a call. Dad was slipping into unconsciousness. I asked to speak to him. “I love you Daddy,” I said. “I love you Jo,” he replied. Those were the last words he every spoke. I flew home in a panic as fast I could navigate from Mexico to Minnesota. I found a seat in the back of the plan and sobbed the whole way. The stewardesses and even a few passengers sat with me.
When I arrived, I ran into the room where he lay and took his hand and squeezed it. His eyes were closed, he could not speak, but he squeezed my hand – two quick little pulses, which he had done all his life. It was the last movement he would ever make. He died about 12 hours later, with all of us around him, loving him, witnessing his transition.
I feel him around me all the time, but he does not haunt me. There is a sweetness to his presence, reminding me to do what was always hard for both of us — loosen up, have fun. The process of his dying burned everything away except this extraordinary, enormous love. It reduced us to the only thing what was real and essential. Is death necessary for this to happen?
Our runaway daughter still pushes us away, refuses to see us. On our side, we have been cooked down to the only thing that matters – our love for her. Nothing else is important. Sadly, she cannot see or feel that through the obscuring tangle of her stories and delusions. And there is absolutely nothing any of us can do about that.
Just love, Only love.