It was raining in Berkeley the day I received the call that my father was about to die. Outside my kitchen window, two men took shelter under a covered patio behind a pizza joint. My mother cried on the phone as I watched the men. They were smoking, sitting on a bench.
“He’s going into surgery now,” my mother said.
I’d been grading, and moved the stack of papers away. “OK. Call when you have news.”
She whimpered, but I felt nothing. It was my father’s third time dying. The first time, he contracted MRSA shaving his bone-dry face with a rusty razor, during one of his camp-outs in our backyard—a strange habit I barely registered at 17; I was too busy trying to avoid him with sports and books. His doctor told us that my father had twenty-four hours to live. The sore on his neck was covered when I entered the hospital room with the last book I thought we’d discuss.
He took it weakly, crying quiet tears. It was The Call of the Wild by Jack London, which follows a dog named Buck who lives in a feral state, half dog, half wolf, and rejected by all. Doubtless my father identified, being of mixed Native and European descent. But he did nothing to gain acceptance. When our tribe offered him a building job in Oklahoma, he turned it down because it was a thousand dollars below his minimum. I thought of coyote, a person who thought he was very important and therefore became a trickster, tricking even himself. He often tricked me, too, but still I grieved like he would really die.
My husband entered our third-floor Berkeley apartment with a creak of the door but I barely acknowledged him. I had a timer on and was grading five papers an hour. The phone rang, and my brother’s image came across the screen. He was serious in the photo, with his work belt slung around his hips, left foot raised out of a foundation he was digging, as though about to step out, fling the belt off, and quit forever. He was my father’s foreman, after years of college but not enough humility to work his way up, career-wise, in science jobs.
The phone kept ringing.
John hugged me. “What’s going on?”
I realized I was crying by the taste sliding down the back of my throat, salt water thick with mucus, slow like blood.
I shook my head and went to the window. The men on break in the parking lot wore boots, lace-up Wolverines. Their feet tapped. I answered the phone.
“Are you coming here?” asked my brother.
“I don’t know,” I said. “How is she?”
He said she was fine, and gave the phone to her. She breathed heavily. “I don’t know,” she began, “why you wouldn’t want to see your father when you don’t know what will happen!”
The timer on my phone went off in a ricochet of bells. “I am a worm, a wretch!” my mother said.
“What?” I snoozed the timer. “What are you talking about?”
“I yelled at your dad, right before it happened!”
“Mom,” I said. People at my childhood church often said she was possessed, mostly because she suffered constant headaches that she refused to acknowledge as migraines, I think out of fear of my father saying she exaggerated. She would never let them cast out the demon, and insisted on being respected by everybody, perhaps to her detriment. I wanted her to go into therapy, and to cry for once. It seemed her whole existence was based off a constant denial.
When I turned away from the window, John was gone, and I was alone with mom’s hard breathing. She’d told us once that going to traditional dances was pagan, but her mom was creole, a mixed girl whose mother left New Orleans and married a German, and by her New Orleans ancestry, she was as pagan as me.
“Let’s talk after dinner,” I said.
“Fine.” She erupted in one of her coughing fits, which meant she’s put milk in her tea.
We got off the phone and I put carrots on a cutting board. I thought randomly of the time John shoved me into the fridge during a fight. I told him if he ever hit me again, I’d leave. And he hadn’t ever hit me again. My father used to hit us with a board he kept beside the bed, but he never left bruises or injured us. Instead he left us in the room for hours, until we performed a convincing but insincere apology, or spanked me bare bottomed until I broke down in hysterics.
I put on my rain jacket and went outside to the red bench. The workers were gone. The slatted blinds of our kitchen contrasted the dark blue sky. There were still things I wanted from my father, like clarity on my identity. During my teen years, my AOL screenname was Ogeese7, assigned by my dad in honor of an ancestor, but I knew few of our traditions. It was humiliating, having a moniker like that while attending a Baptist school teaching us that NDNs are all dead.
I went inside and forced myself to cook, eat and wash. Then I fell asleep. Eventually John started playing the guitar. I woke to his thin, womanly voice singing that one person had taken all his feeling. He looked at me while he sang, but I knew better than to attribute a look like that to real attention. It had taken me years to really comprehend that the player’s mind is focused on the complex task of singing, remembering, and moving their fingers.
My mother called again. It was nine. I declined the call and got my old copy of The Call of the Wild, then bought a plane ticket and left, just like that. John seemed to know I was going, or else he didn’t care. I took the bus to the airport with great numbness, enacting my usual travel fast, to cultivate a low burning hunger that helped me cope with the numbness. After the first flight on a three-hour layover, I drank a black coffee. The second flight was brief, landing just after dawn. Then I got a rental car and went straight to the hospital. It was a short drive, and the numbers and letters of the license plates on the cars I followed seemed to leer at me. I reached the hospital garage at 8 a.m. and wandered the bright halls until I found my father sleeping in a powder blue room, his hands resting on his chest, remnants of drool crusted on his mouth. My mother and brother were nowhere to be seen.
I squeezed his foot gently.
“Anne!” he said, waking in a gasp.
I held out the Jack London book and he took it and opened it up. “Chapter 1, Primitive.” He laughed and breathed quietly. “I always wished you lived with us,” he said as he met my eye. “I want you to live with your mother, or take her to live with you.”
He expected people to respond emphatically to grandiose statements, but I was tired of pretending. I said nothing. He interpreted my silence as a sign I wasn’t doing well, and immediately started in with his typical advice, which centered around running metaphors: “When you get tired, you need to rely on your form. I told you to hold crackers in your fingers when you run, run on your toes, always stand in ready position and lean forward, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. One thing you have never learned is how to rest. I told you when you get tired, rely on your form. You’re like your mother. You need to know when to rest.”
I nodded in agreement. He wasn’t wrong. Now it was my turn to tell him something: “I’m preoccupied with why I’m alive,” I said.
His gaze was neutral, so I pressed on. “The first thing I think when I wake every day is ‘is this still going?’ As in any of it? I remember when it started. I couldn’t do anything without questioning how it worked and trying to break it down into the smallest pieces—if I turned on the radio, I would think about sound waves and how they worked, trying to understand the mechanism of a dial and how it all was connected. None of it makes sense.” I was surprised he was still listening. I began to talk faster. “The same thing with me, you know? How’s all this really happening?” I said, looking down at myself.
He sighed. “You would have been happier skipping college and starting that horse farm.”
The mountain range of white peaks blinked with the sunrise out the window. I felt like a milk carton that had been filled up with water, shaken and emptied. My father took my hand and squeezed it.
I said, “I read in the Bible not to be afraid of bad news.”
“That’s hard. Let me read aloud to you,” he said, holding up the Jack London.
“Do you want anything to eat first?”
“Let me just get some tea. I’ll be right back.”
I slipped out and ran down the steps, hoping for a vending machine, but instead I discovered my mother eating packaged oatmeal over a small Formica table in a corner of the cafeteria. My mother gave a little cry and hugged me, all at once, while clearing her teeth of oatmeal. The sound was strangely comforting. My brother leaned back. His presence calmed me. At 6 feet, 3 inches, he was draped over his chair like a cool, casual panther.
“Can I get you some food?” my mother asked. “Get you anything you like.”
“No, nothing. What do the doctor’s say?”
“We don’t know yet. Want to go up there?” my mother asked.
“I saw him already.”
There was no tea. I got myself a cup of burned coffee and told them I would sit there and wait a bit. The few nurses in the cafeteria followed my mother and brother out of the room, and in that free space my mind wandered. I imagined my mother like a single mom with three children, one of whom she loved and married. My father had never made a cent of profit in his business, and evaded his taxes. The IRS came to our house and tried to take their car, but my mother’s family bailed them out of trouble. My brother and I had to work even more, so we could avoid foreclosure, and they never got their finances stable. When I married, my parents removed $6,000 from my savings.
If he was finally dead, I thought, that would be a burden off me. This thought triggered an uncanny sensation I knew too well. The last time it happened, the world had fractalized, the moments before me breaking off into little splinters, so that if I tried to stand up or put a thing in a box (like I had while moving into our Berkeley apartment with John), my brief actions felt like they were happening over hours. It was not yet proper psychosis, but it wasn’t a healthy mind either. I closed my eyes and waited for the uncanny feeling to dissipate, and when it diminished, I tossed my coffee in the trash. I found a bathroom just outside the cafeteria and in the mirror, I noticed that my right eyebrow was drooping down, toward my eyelid. Spots blanketed my vision. An infinity of them, swarming like bees.
I thought of the second time my father didn’t die, after a stroke while traveling spontaneously to play a song for a musician he knew in Nashville. The right half of his face sank after the stroke, and he was left with a blank, flaccid expression in the hospital bed for days after. But he recovered. It was not dissimilar to the face he wore while watching sports on TV at night: vacant, marble-hard eyes. It was the same one he wore when our neighbor came into the house and wrestled me into a hug, grabbed my breasts, and wouldn’t let go. I fought that neighbor, and won, because I was stronger. After my grandmother told my mom what happened, she said his meds were off. Then my dad encouraged me to wear my bikini on the riding lawnmower. I felt like a motorcycle chick, riding with “Daddy,” except he was really, actually, my father. The neighbor who’d attacked me watched the show from his front stoop, as I bounced on the mower.
With the tips of my fingers I dabbed at the slackened side of my face as I got in the elevator to go back up to my father, but I didn’t push the button. The doors opened, closed, and re-opened, but I didn’t move. My mother called. I declined.
I texted John. “Come here?”
“I don’t know,” he texted back.
John had never wanted to meet any of my friends, the way I had with his. They were young-hearted and innocent people. He was so different from the boys I’d known growing up, sons of small-time farmers and packing plant workers who took six packs on small boats and went fishing. John’s purity of heart, his perhaps naïve idealism, struck me. I had known boys as pushing me to be sexually aggressive, advocates of sunset hide-and-seek, or dangerous, urging me to try their various drugs, or superior, giving me books to read and advice on how to dress, date, be. John was smart but respectful and conservative in a way that still fit my Southern Christian upbringing. John had liked me because I was sensitive and felt so much, but at a certain point he’d told me to not share tears and feelings with him too much, because he had no space for it. I’d started holding back, and we’d never found a happy medium.
I left the hospital, got in the car and sped, but I wasn’t sure where I was going. I stopped at a gas station and parked, watching the reflection of my rental car in the convenience store window. It was black, like my old truck, and felt safe. I avoided looking at my face in the mirror—the spots persisting. Constellating between the spots I saw the glimpse of my old self, the one my father had loved. I was different now, and the way they had raised me, there was not supposed to be room for me to change. But something had changed. I was different.
For most of my childhood, my father had been someone to be beautiful for, who would watch me closely and admire me. I wore my mother’s dresses and we went on father-daughter dates. As I grew older, the waitresses assumed that I was his wife. I pictured myself standing under a continual rain of sawdust from my father’s Husqvarna saw, blinding me, choking me.
I called John again, but he didn’t pick up. Would he care that I was potentially having a stroke? I checked return flights online, but they were all expensive. I called him again, to ask what our price range was. But it was useless. He never picked up at work. I fantasized about leaving him, but I saw myself homeless and living in a car; and even that was unrealistic because he owned the car. Even though I had a job, I felt helpless. The last time I had gone home after a trip, John had cried and said he’d been happier when I was away. He said he hadn’t loved me since we were 19, which I’d known, but hearing it really hurt. We’d married as soon as I got to college, after my father told me I would always do what he said, and that he would always own me until I was married; but that he would still own me because eventually my husband would get “over me” and I’d have to come back to him. I often wondered if he would be right, since it became clear early on in the marriage that my way of doing things irritated John. When we went to a party of a mutual friend and encountered snobby grad students, I made jokes and asked questions until everyone got talking about themselves. The host thanked me for making it a great party, but John said it was disgusting, how I had to be the center of attention.
My brain tingled with disbelief. Was this what it felt like for my father? A neurologist told him he had a male anger pattern—otherwise known as rage—to thank for his suffering. I needed to do something to make myself feel better. I ran into the gas station and bought a zero calorie Gatorade and a pack of Hot Cheetos. I texted my mom that a work emergency had come up and I would have to leave. Then I sat in the gas station parking lot and searched my phone for clues about what to do.
I looked at my notes app and saw one file titled “Wife Score.” I opened it, and read what I no longer remembered having written.
WIFE SCORE: 90
This wife rates highest in the categories of sex, general mood and receives extra points for participating in the partner’s preferred leisure activities The wife rates lowest in the categories of meal preparation consistency and general emotional stability The wife initiates sex and tries all suggested sexual positions If struck, the wife will vacate the physical proximity of the partner regardless of circumstances and location The Wife has general eating habit abnormalities The wife reports low blood sugar The wife is not prone to jealousy The wife expects the partner to cook intermittently The wife recycles The wife is moderately clean The wife vacuums, does dishes, cleans the bathroom The wife refuses to unload grocery bags The wife is not skilled at taxes The wife will refrain from moving the partner’s things The wife will handle customer service issues The wife will earn money The wife will follow the budget The wife can be persuaded to do laundry The wife tolerates the partner’s participation in some weeknight activities The wife is prone to same-sex friendships The wife has ironed shirts twice The wife has a high exuberance level The wife enjoys dancing singing swimming running boxing The wife is better at basketball than tennis but will try any sport one-on-one except golf The wife is prone to a weak sense of self This wife enjoys the extra attention of manipulators This wife enjoys jumping through hoops to please a manipulative partner This wife is not prone to flirtation.
John called and I picked up quick. “Hello,” he said, wooden.
“I miss you,” I said.
He said nothing.
“I wasn’t going to come home, if you don’t want me to.”
“That seems premature,” he said.
“Oh. Do you still love me?” I laughed at myself for asking this. It was something my father told me his mother repeatedly asked him.
But John wasn’t laughing. He let out a huge sigh, and I worried he was going to cry again and say he hated me. But he said that of course he loved me. He said I was his best friend. “You know, he continued, I really just wish that we had stayed best friends instead of getting married.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had never felt that way about him. He didn’t go with me to museums or concerts or get coffee or enjoy traveling like a best friend might, and he wanted me to be a smaller person, to feel less and be less out in the world. I had grown up without friends, mostly because my father could be very frightening. He once tore down a room framed out by two-by-fours while my brother stood under it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I want to come home. But the flights are expensive.” I said this, in an attempt to ask permission to use what I thought of as his money.
“How is your dad?” he said.
“I don’t know. He’s really sick.” I started to cry. “Maybe stay there?” he said. “I know it’s hard. But I don’t want you to regret anything.”
I thought of John, wet with rain, his shirt clinging to his arms but loose around his torso. I thought of the molding bowl of soup on his desk. He wasn’t that great at taking care of himself. Out the window of my rental car there was a woman hurrying through the parking lot, hunched over a sloshing coffee cup. Two men left the convenience store and pulled beers out of their pockets. One lifted the tin can to me, a toast. I lowered my head, and touched my face, not wanting to look in the mirror.
“Anna?” my husband asked.
I started at the sound of my name and gasped.
He laughed. “I haven’t heard your death breath in a while.”
“I love you,” I told him, and then I really began to cry as my options became apparent. I could go back to the hospital, and wait, and grade more papers. I could dial my mother and ask her not to yell at me. I could feel nothing and dissociate. I could make plans to move away. I could wait and do nothing. I could cry so hard I would fall into a black hole, but I also felt (possibly?) capable enough to step over such-and-such void that my English major friends and I had aestheticized for years. But I didn’t want to aestheticize my death, not if I could drive and walk carefully out of the parking lot and into the hospital and sit in the room and say goodbye to my father forever.
“I want to cry now,” I told John. “But I’ll go, because I just want to make sense.”
He was quiet, but I heard him swallow. I got off the phone without either of us saying anything more. When I went back to the hospital after that, I didn’t hold my dad’s hand. I asked my mom to hold it, and at first she said she didn’t like touching people, but when she saw my face, she gave me a look I had only ever seen from my grandmother. It was a knowing face void of fakeness and denial, and it was a great gift that she made that expression. I knew, as she grabbed my father’s hand, that she would not comment on my face, or on anything, and though she could not do any more than offer me silence, it was enough to feel seen by her.
“I need to tell John I’m moving out,” I said. And I began to cry.
My mom nodded her head in understanding, and she asked if I wanted to hear about heart attack diets. “Just, if it’s too much to talk about, you know,” she said.
I understood her limits, and I agreed. She talked about sweet potatoes, broccoli, beans, and the healthy habits of centenarians; after all, we were all here because of a heart attack. My mom mentioned genes, and I thought of my father’s sisters.
“Auntie Lillie eats like that, doesn’t she?” I said. “I could call her.”
“Yes,” she said. “And after that, I understand if you have to go.”
I hugged her, and she let me. In the mirror, I noticed my face had corrected itself.
From A Calm & Normal Heart by Chelsea T. Hicks. Used with permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press. Copyright 2022 by Chelsea T. Hicks.