In 2010, my dad died of ALS and I found a new favorite poem. The two are connected, I see that now. Back then, the link was hazier. I found the poem a few months after death found dad. Flipping through a collection of Dickinson, I stopped, perhaps by chance, on number 599.
There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
And covers the Abyss with Trance
So Memory can step
Around — across — upon it —
As one within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him — Bone by Bone —
A poem about pain. A black hole of pain, pain so vicious that it concealed itself from the mind. This confused me. Surely the mind concealed the pain. Why would pain ever black itself out — make itself less painful? Why did it not invite Memory to fall ceaselessly into the Abyss? Pain harms most when it is most present; that was how I saw it. And here, Dickinson was telling me that I had it all wrong. That the worst pain of all harms not with its presence, but by cloaking itself. By refusing its subject the ability — the right — to hurt.
The death was August 6. I was an ocean away, in England for a wedding of some extended family. I had taken the trip on my own and was there as a sort of an envoy. Representing the Judt family, even as our numbers dwindled.
When my mom called, I was at the bride’s pre-wedding dinner. I excused myself from conversation with an old British bloke I never saw again and picked up my phone as I walked out of the living room. I had already heard from her earlier that day. Dad was worse, she had said — he could barely breathe, and I needed to come back. ALS had gnawed away at him for two years.
I knew what a second call meant.
Hi, I said. It came out an octave higher than usual, which I regretted.
Sweetie, can you find somewhere quiet? Mom’s voice was calm, but I heard wet echoes of tears. There is a pain so utter.
I walked upstairs to the second floor. I remember the carpeting on the stairs was white and plush. It would curl up around your toes if you were barefoot. But I was not, so instead my shoes left fleeting molds on each passing stair. Carpeting isn’t a detail that deserves remembering. But for some reason I can summon that feeling with sharpness. It swallows substance up, and covers the Abyss with Trance.
Ok, I’m upstairs, I said.
She inhaled and her chest rattled. Her voice, though, was surprisingly firm.
Sweetheart, your dad is dead.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to be fine, but there it was. I stood at the landing and nothing happened. I waited. I willed myself to seize up, to crumple into a melodramatic heap, to at the very least sense some quaking rupture in my mind. So Memory can step around, across, upon it.
Nothing. The carpet, I noted, was still plush.
For the rest of the night I avoided smiling, even when someone gave a funny speech during dinner. I felt obligated to satisfy everyone’s expectations, and then to go even further. I had to appear more shattered, in more pain than they could fathom.
“However you feel is right, hun,” said a British woman through a smile full of goopy gums and ancient cavities. I think her name was Marjorie, but I may have made that up. She was at my table, which was round and small, so everyone heard her. We all mumbled agreement. I deemed it appropriate to give one weak smile. Everyone smiled back, which felt good. I was wearing a nice white button-down shirt and tight black skinny jeans and for that moment I felt Bondlike, suave and secret. They did not know I was playing them, that my insides were hollow. As one within a Swoon, goes safely.
Before I went to bed, my best friend called from New Hampshire. He had heard the news and was sobbing uncontrollably, barely had enough breath to choke out words. There in bed, no button-down cloaked my shame. When I responded in dry, level notes, I felt like a failed son.
Where an open eye would drop Him. Bone by bone.