Two years ago, I began seeing a counselor to talk about my struggles with anxiety and a lingering depression I’d never addressed after my dad died.
I stood at the edge of a cliff. Little pebbles of rock crumbled and fell underfoot. I’d been inching closer for some time. Would I allow the weight I carried decide my fall, or would I lighten my load and step back from the edge?
You haven’t fallen until you’ve fallen…
PETER—That’s my counselor’s name. Less than ten minutes after I met him, I balled my eyes out, crying in front of someone who was more or less a complete stranger in khakis who sat a mere five feet from me in a leather executive chair.
I told Peter of a dream I had never told anyone up until that point. It was a dream that began the first night I went to sleep after my dad died. It wasn’t a dream initially. Its origin was a nightmare.
A nightmare you can’t wake from
On May 21, 2009, God had found an exposed stitch and pulled the thread that created my life and had held it together for so long, feeding me, clothing me, putting a roof over my head, teaching me.
The phone rang.
It was 1 a.m. My sister’s voice.
“Jeff, you need to come down to Duke now. I’m leaving now too. Call me when you get there.”
Four hours later, I walk into the front entrance of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. The automatic doors open at the lobby and there stands my aunt Gloria.
“Hurry. Let’s get up to your dad’s room. He doesn’t have much time. He is waiting for you before he says goodbye.”
I don’t know what I expected when I arrived at Duke. A part of me knew what awaited. It was the piece of me which peered into my closet just four hours before wondering whether I should pack for my dad’s funeral. Another part of me, the part which had driven all this way, refused to believe it, the piece of me which still held onto some thread of hope. The piece of me that had walked to the entrance at Duke and was now met by the truth.
This was it.
He is waiting for you before he says goodbye…
Whatever I expected, what I saw wasn’t it.
Upstairs, I place my dad’s hand in mine. An involuntary squeeze comes from his hand. Do you know I am here? Do you know? His chest moves up and down rapidly. His eyes roll back in his head.
“I feel like I am being punished for something,” he once told me. It was a month before. We were walking through the parking lot of a satellite UVA medical center in Charlottesville where I had taken him to have his platelet count checked and another procedure involving plasma, if I recall correctly.
Cancer is indifferent, I remember thinking.
I never asked him what he thought that “something” was. Most all of us have done what we may consider, in our own right, unspeakable sins—many of which are actually minor in the grand scheme of sins committed in the world.
It didn’t matter anyway. Cancer kills saints and sinners alike. It doesn’t care who you are or what you have done, good or bad. Cancer is just an abnormal cell with the sole purpose of creating more abnormal cells. That is its mission. That is its purpose.
If I could I would shrink myself,
Sink through your skin to your blood cells,
And remove whatever makes you hurt,
But I am too weak to be your cure.
— Brand New, Guernica
At his bedside, I glance at his forearms. Flakes of skin rest in the tiny hairs that still remain. He always had such strong forearms. They look strong even in his current state. I used to hang like a monkey from my dad’s forearms when I was a small child.
“You are a good dad. I love you,” I say and have to stop, a paralyzed sadness grips my words mid-air and crumbles the syllables, scattering them to the floor.
On a screen behind his bed, green lines go up and down, steady. His chest is moving in a measured rhythm, air forced into and out of his lungs. It’s unnatural. I stand there with tears in my eyes, his hand in mine. You are a good dad. Do you know that? Thank you for raising me the way you did. I love you.
I’m not sure if I say this aloud or only to myself. It’s as if I am having an out-of-body experience, watching myself stand over my dad as death waits patiently for me to step away.
I walk out of the room and to a bathroom nearby and have diarrhea. My mind hasn’t stopped since my sister called. I can hear the beeps as I sit on the toilet, then the sound of a long line—BEEEEEEEEEEEP—then footsteps and nurses and doctors with panicked voices. No, the voices aren’t panicked. The voices are hyper-focused, vigilant in their duties. This is routine for them. Then a knock on the door of the bathroom.
“Jeff, are you in there? He’s dying now. Come out and say bye one last time.”
And I start crying, blubbering, alone, as my dad’s soul leaves his body fifteen feet away as I sit on the toilet. And I remember being so mad I have to wipe my behind. A deep anger, almost seething that I still have the capability and physical strength to wipe my own ass.
Then the beeping stops. The machines have done their job—calculating levels, recording measurements. Now they are off.
My dad’s mouth is open and his head is positioned slightly upward. His eyes are open. Then they aren’t. Then his mouth is closed. His head in a normal resting position. The doctor steps away.
When the nightmares began
The nightmares began immediately.
Some mornings I’d wake up next to the fireplace or at the back door on the cold gray tile, shivering. One morning I woke and noticed the backdoor ajar. The bolt had caught, so it was still locked but a tiny opening of about four inches let a morning breeze inside.
Had I left in the middle of the night and come back? Another night I woke in a panic. I thought I was locked in a trunk or a coffin. It was pitch black. My heart raced and I began slamming the meaty part of my fist like a hammer against my enclosure.
The surface felt familiar, raised. As my senses returned, I realized I had walked in my sleep into the guest bathroom and into the standing shower and shut the glass door, closing myself in.
When I was a kid, I used to sleep walk routinely. More than twenty years of my life had passed since I had last walked in my sleep. Now it happened a few nights every week. Like a small child seeking a path into the unknown.
It was a common occurrence when I was younger to have night terrors. Always the same demon threatening to kill me or the ones I loved, usually the latter. He knew I was vulnerable in this way. The demon was small but over his body swam electrocution, as if wrapped in barbed wire. He would wake me, and knowing my paralysis, would look my way, then toward my sister’s room, and grin. It was a look of pure evil. And I would scream, waking my parents—usually my mom because my dad worked third shift and wasn’t often home at night to comfort me.
Everything is going to be okay
The nightmares persisted for months. Always the same. A simple playback of the last few minutes of my dad’s life: me standing there, his hand in mine, his eyes rolling back and fluttering in the sockets, skin flaking and falling to the floor, the machines beeping, then a flatline.
Then one night the nightmares stopped.
The last nightmare turned into a dream.
I was at the hospital with my dad as I had been all the times before, but instead of the machines beeping and flatlining, they disappeared. The scene turned to white as if too much sun let into a window. When the light lessened, it was of my bedroom from childhood.
Artwork by Jeffrey Pillow. “Bed from Childhood.” Licensed under CC BY SA
The demon had come to visit again. He smiled at me as I lay there powerless unable to stop him. He knew I couldn’t get out from under the covers, and so he walked one step after the next down the hallway toward my parents’ room. But before he could commit his deed, the overhead light in my room turned on, and it was white. So white, my room.
At my bedside was my dad. He sat on the corner of the mattress and held my hand in his. I was covered in sweat, my back straight where I lay.
All of my dad’s hair had returned and his mustache was back again, full, brown. He didn’t smell pungent like cancer. There was a scent of him I knew, one of a light sweat from how he never wore deodorant. He was young, in his early thirties, and I was young too—a small boy.
“Everything is going to be okay,” he said. “Everything is going to be okay.”
And then I woke.
After you read this, read “Grief Is a Fire, Smoldering“