"I came home to bury my father, but he wouldn't die."
That's the fiction version.
The version I lived is more complicated, much harder for me to put into words. But it has to do with fathers and sons, and the difficult emotional space of saying goodbye.
Even that phrase presupposes that there will be an emotional space in which to say goodbye, and implies that such a space will be a shared one. Or maybe I infer.
Instead, here's something of how it was: it was January 2013, and my father was dying of kidney cancer that had metastasized, and he didn't want to know anything about it. I was in the midst of an intense deadline project at my day job, and teaching three classes, and trying to maintain a writing life. And I would visit my dad every Monday after work, because that was what he and I could both endure.
Our visits would go something like this: I would ask him how he was doing, receive the inevitable (and understandable) shrug (rough translation, how the hell you think I'm doing, I'm dying); then we'd both sit with the awkward a few minutes; then he'd put his headphones back on and watch TV. I'd sit by his side for 30 minutes, watching the clock for 23 of those, and then I'd touch his arm and tell him I was leaving.
There was nothing I could do for him, and no indication that my presence made him more relaxed. More comfortable. In fact, there was evidence of the opposite in his worried eyes, the tense muscles in his wasted arms. In our history.
It's too easy to say we were simply different people, maybe each incapable of really understanding the other. Because there was love in those visits, as strained – and constrained – as they were. It's more accurate to say that however much we might strive for shared emotional space with those we love, we don't always get there, not in the ways we want to. It makes those shared spaces something to treasure, but – I am learning from my now deceased and always distanced father – the efforts that never connect are also part of the bargain of being human. They are, in the end, their own emotional spaces.