The following is an excerpt from Night Swimming, my memoir in progress, originally published on Freshly Hatched: Freerange Nonfiction, a New York City Reading & Storytelling Collective.
My father’s Nissan chugs like a tired train ‘round hairpin turns up South Mountain in Phoenix. I don’t let my eyes dart toward the edge because I’m afraid of heights. And dying. And plunging off cliffs. My plan is to get to the summit just as the sun begins to sink, admire the view, and get back to the hospital in time to tuck my father in for the night.
The afternoon sunlight is slung low over the valley, but even in February it’s eighty degrees, which, for Arizona natives, is chilly. They bundle up in turtlenecks and tie sweaters around tan shoulders. They crank the heat when it dips down to sixty at night. I’m practically sick with heat stroke sleeping at my Great Aunt Lonnie’s house. Every night she asks me if I’m warm enough. I’m so warm I sleep practically naked.
“Want me to turn up the heat honey?” she asks. She’s hard of hearing, so she cups her hand around her ear and leans into the guest bedroom to await my reply, which is always the same.
“Please, Aunt Lonnie,” I beg her. “Please. No more heat.”
Lonnie and my father’s sister Annette are transplants from back east just like my dad.
“You couldn’t get me to move back there if you put a gun in my ear,” Annette always says to anyone who will listen. She brags to the hospital staff that the shell of a man whimpering in the hospital bed, as she flips through magazines and chomps on Zone bars, was once a Casanova.
“He could talk a virgin out of her panties inside of five minutes, this one,” she says and jerks her thumb toward my father when the nurse comes to change his urine bag.
“In another life,” I say and throw the nurse a sympathetic glance to let her know she doesn’t need to worry about losing her panties while she’s checking his vitals.
“Last year,” Annette corrects me and snaps the pages of her magazine for emphasis.
My father is dying from advanced liver failure, and I’m waiting to hear back from my heroin addict brother James about whether he can fly out and help me “handle” this. James is in the hospital himself. He’s stable after contracting an infection from a dirty needle that almost cost him his arm. The doctor brought in a marker and drew a line above James’s elbow. “If the infection advances past this line,” he said, “ we’ve got to take your arm.” James told me all this over the phone from his sick bed like it was no more serious than a hangnail.
My mother divorced my father twenty-seven years ago, when he went off the rails during the height of his Post-traumatic Stress Disorder mania, and lends little more than moral support. Her disdain for my father is only slightly eclipsed by her sorrow that James has managed to turn out just like him, and to drive that point home both men sweat out their addictions in hospital beds almost three thousand miles apart. Mom wrings her hands by James’s bed in Ohio while I stroke the paper-thin skin of my father’s hand in Phoenix. The women in my family take the brunt, carry the load and bury the men.
Once James is well enough to travel, the dilemma of how to bring heroin on the plane without committing multiple felonies, on the heels of being released from jail for committing multiple felonies, prevents him from coming to Phoenix. I curse him while I watch our father flail in a hospital bed, skin as yellow as a legal pad, absorbed in CNN and rooting for “that black guy Labamba” to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
In my back pocket is the address to Stevie Nicks’s old house in the Phoenix suburb Paradise Valley. It’s where she wrote The Edge of Seventeen, a song about the nightbird, a white-winged dove that lives in the saguaro cactus and, in ancient folklore, brings souls to the other side when their bodies expire. The bird coos softly three times when it takes a soul. Hoo-hoo-hoo is the sound people with the right kind of ears can hear when the dove picks up a new spirit passenger. She wrote the song after being alone in a room with her Uncle John when he died. She also dedicated it to John Lennon, who’d just been murdered in New York City. My dad is John, too, so I think the song is for him.
I figure since I happen to find myself in Phoenix I might as well check out the place where she lived for more than twenty years. I scribbled the address from the Internet when I decided to come out and tend to my father. Having a secondary agenda makes it feel less like I’ve come to watch him die.
When I get out of the car at the summit it’s just cold enough for a sweatshirt. I grab my old college hoodie, the only warm item I’ve brought with me from Maine, and tug it on over my tank top. I shuffle along in flip-flopped feet getting bare toes sandy and dirty, but for once I don’t care.
Phoenix’s largest natural preserve has attracted dozens of day-trippers to see the sunset on a Sunday in February. They’re all speaking Spanish, but what I hear, like a slow echo stretching out between my ears, is my father boasting about Arizona’s perfect climate, just like Eden, he’d say. He never failed to tell me that the place he lived received more than three hundred days of sun a year, just to rub it in that in Maine where I live it’s so cold we sometimes have to wear stocking caps indoors during the winter.
This is how I ended up here with nothing warmer than a sweatshirt. But, when I arrived earlier in the week, I was greeted not with the promised sunshine, but driving rain and hail hurling down from heaven like some kind of bad omen.
Since he was admitted four days earlier the aunts have been wreaking havoc in the hospital and beyond; banging fists on counters, grabbing collars like old school house nuns. At least I know no stone is unturned. Just this morning Aunt Annette asked the doctor if maybe my father’s condition had been brought on by untreated syphilis he might have contracted from a sex worker in Vietnam and suggested there might be some serum for this. She uses her whisper, which is slightly louder than most people’s normal speaking voice.
The doctors say even if by some miracle he could stay sober the one year required to get on a liver transplant list, he’s too weak to survive the surgery. He hasn’t been sober more than a day since he was deposited back on American soil post Vietnam. Drinking, he said, was the only way to keep the nightmares at bay.
In between hollering at the doctors for their negligent care and bragging about my father’s way with women, Annette demands I touch her face.
“I’m almost sixty, and I’ve got skin like a baby’s butt,” she exclaims.
Even I have to agree she looks good for her age. With her infant ass skin and dyed hairpieces, she looks ten to fifteen years younger, and she has the energy of someone twenty to thirty years younger hooked on meth. In the midst of Annette’s manic energy, my dad mostly sits in his bed where he spills food on his hospital johnny and soils himself.
Liver failure reduces a grown man to an infantile state. My father can’t control his bodily functions, can’t feed himself, and he talks gibberish. A few days ago I was a newspaper editor in Maine. Now I’m making airplane noises and spooning food into a grown man’s mouth because no one else will. Once I arrived on the scene we fell into familiar patterns. I as the reluctant parent, my father the eager child, my brother the train wreck, my mother – invisible.
“Here it comes Daddy, open the hangar, down the hatch,” I say and wave the plastic spork in front of his face.
I ended up on the top of South Mountain because by the fourth day I had to get away from airplane noises and baby’s butt skin. On my way to the hospital that morning I grab the Sunday paper, which has a feature about places to “get away” in Phoenix. South Mountain seems close and I find it easily on my GPS. I can feed my dad his dinner, make it to the mountain for sunset and be back to kiss him goodnight. With his eye on “Labamba” and Hillary Clinton, he’ll never even know I’m gone.
The top of South Mountain feels so far away from the chaos of the city below, as far away as the moon. As I gaze out at the darkening valley, I finger the address in the back of my jeans pocket. I’ll never make it to Stevie’s house. Deep down I know this. I’ve adored Stevie Nicks since the seventh grade when I was roused from sleep to Sometimes it’s a Bitch blasting from my pink clock radio. It wasn’t long after my father fled the Midwest for parts unknown leaving a trail of jobs, children and ex wives in his wake. I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. The song expressed what I could not. Sometimes it is a bitch, and there’s nothing you can do but keep on getting up every day and going to junior high school. Seventeen years later, I bring Stevie’s address in case I am granted a brief reprieve that might allow me to slip away and do something selfish. But when the break finally comes, I go to South Mountain instead.
As young children my brother and I accompanied our father to weekend ragers where drugs, alcohol and smut magazines were as available as cake at a child’s birthday party. It was while at one of these parties that my brother and I first paged through Playboy and that we first sampled alcohol as Dad supplied us with sips of his beer and pulls of the screwdrivers he always traveled with in the car.
During the summer he’d collect us for the weekend and deposit us in a pile of kids at an outdoor party thrown by whatever company he was working for at the time. I knew my mission for the afternoon was to run and fetch him beers and patiently wait to go back to his apartment where we had been promised a swim in his pool. The day would dwindle into evening, one more drink would turn into one more drink, and it would be nighttime when we got home.
If we made it back to the pool before dark – and he didn’t have a date – he’d use me as his wingman to pick up women. He’d whisper his intentions in my ear and I’d prance over to the bikini-clad Tammys and Teresas sunning themselves in deck chairs, sling my wet hair behind my small shoulders and tug on the ruffled skirt of my yellow and black polka dot bathing suit.
“You gotta boyfriend?” I’d ask them sheepishly, “‘cause my daddy thinks you’re cute.” The ruse worked more often than not, and he usually left with a phone number, if not the coveted girl.
If it was already dark, we were permitted a few minutes of night swimming.
“See, kids,” Dad would bellow in a voice velvet with vodka, “isn’t this better than swimming during the day when it’s so crowded?” Then he’d settle clumsily into a lounge chair with a fresh drink. This infuriated me. Swimming in the dark, our desires always taking a backseat to his drinking.
When I was twelve he vanished. Florida with that deadbeat friend of his, Mom speculated. His fourth wife Laura was waiting for him at a restaurant while he was making his hasty exit. She went home and found all his bureau drawers bare and his liquor bottles drained.
I told myself I didn’t miss him, really. His permanent absence felt more like relief than anything else, though I’d spend the better part of ten years trying to fill that hole with the wrong men, too much booze and a plethora of drugs. It was only a few years before he began to circle the drain that I began to feel like a real person again.
The sun has all but disappeared behind South Mountain; it’s time to get back to the hospital to say goodnight. When I get back into the Nissan the smell of the closed up car smacks me in the nose. Cigarettes and cheap cologne; two scents I’ll associate with my father the rest of my life. Each Christmas James and I bought him a fresh bottle of Brut from K-Mart.
“Just what I wanted,” he’d exclaim as he ripped open the package, a slender brown More cigarette loose in his lips.
He must have had a dozen bottles. How much Brut can one man wear?
I arrive back at the hospital just in time to kiss him goodnight.
“Hi, Daddy,” I say softly. He has his cell phone open on his lap.
“I was waiting for you to call,” he says.
“I’m right here,” I say.
“Where’s your brother?”
“We’re still trying to get in touch with him,” I don’t want to tell him James is back on the needle.
“Let’s watch some TV. How’s Obama doing?”
He looks at me with the first signs of lucidity all day. “You know,” he says, “I think that guy’s got a real shot.”
Then he’s gone again in the black hole. “When did you get here?” he asks me.
“I’ve been here for a while Daddy,” I say, wipe a tear that threatens to spill from the corner of my eye. “I’ve been here all night.”
In the end it’s just him and me. I’m holding his hand and talking nonsense because I think maybe he can hear me. I’m in the middle of a sentence when I realize he’s gone.
Being totally alone, holding a parent’s hand as they die, it’s not something you ever get over. One day he’s lying in bed like he’s asleep. The next day you’re at the crematorium with an aunt you haven’t seen in a dozen years making arrangements to burn his body, and everyone’s saying how nice it is of you to come, because no one would blame you if you hadn’t, after all he wasn’t that good a dad, really everyone would understand if you had stayed home.
When I tell him our father is dead, James decides to kick for the funeral. During the service at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery saguaro cacti surround us like heavy-hearted mourners, and when the minister belays the final blessing I hear it – three coos. Hoo-hoo-hoo. The call of the nightbird beckoning, “come away.”
The desert sun beats down and scorches our exposed skin, prompting Annette to open an umbrella to protect her baby’s butt complexion. The air is calm and still, not even the hint of a breeze. I wipe sweat from the back of my neck and dry my hand on my black dress. The eerie calm is pierced by a sudden burst of wind that sweeps the dry landscape, like someone suddenly slamming a door in a stagnant room. A collage of photos depicting happier times is swept off its easel, and I know my father is gone. Gone with that bird.
One of the military attendants plays Taps on a trumpet while another fires off a three-gun salute.
“Thank you for your sacrifice,” the third one says to me as she places a folded American flag in my arms. She has no idea about our sacrifice, I think as I hold the flag against my chest.
James lights up a cigarette and we all stand up to walk to the grave site. The smoke rises above his head like an offering as we tromp down the dusty cemetery road, clutching plastic flowers, the only kind that survive the unforgiving sun, to place on our father’s grave.
— Brandi Neal
(Appeared in “Freerange Nonfiction: Freshly Hatched”)