The Last Light of Day
A long time ago I read a short story in the New Yorker By Alice Elliott Dark called “In the Gloaming.” I have never forgotten it. It tells the story of Janet, a mother caring for her son, Laird, who is dying of AIDS, and the last evenings they spend together outside in the magical hour when dusk turns to dark. The gloaming is intimate and shadowy, a purple suspension between now and forever, a time when words touch what really matters and life stands, still and perfect, before it disappears forever.
My father was in his gloaming the year before he died. He wanted to talk and be heard. He wanted to know how each person in the family was doing. He wanted to see if we had become what his dream for us had been. In the summer evenings, after dinner, he would ask me to read something I had written, his eyes half closed, his head held to the side, resting on a blue-veined hand. I knew I had not fulfilled his dream for me, but he showed no disappointment, only love.
When my father died, all the words inside me disappeared.
Now I want to remember everything about him, but what I remember most clearly is how badly we treated him. He had become superfluous. He couldn’t hear well but refused to use a hearing aid. Instead of politely raising our voices, some of us would shout, while others just ignored his soft-voiced attempts to be part of the conversation. He couldn’t walk well but refused to use a cane. Everyone berated him, especially since he had had several bad falls. When I asked why he wouldn’t at least try, he cocked his head, gave me that small crooked smile I loved, and said, “That would be humiliating.” I never suggested it again.
My father was a proud man despite the many humiliations he endured in his last years. He treated everyone he met with politeness, curiosity and dignity. He cared. When he died, the church was packed with people I had never met: his plumber, his pharmacist, his grocer, his nurses, his doctor, his home workers, and all the parishioners he had helped in some way. “Your father was such a good man,” they told me. In his last years, he had reached out with more and more love as if giving thanks for his long life. He knew how to listen, and he knew how to make people feel valued. They never forgot him.
He would call his grandchildren, one by one, into the dining room he had turned into a messy office. The glass table was piled with mail, papers, books, magazines, photographs and newspaper clippings, the jumbled remnants of his passions and memories. Each child had a special folder where he kept cards, letters, articles and mementos. He would ask them what they were studying, what they wanted in life, speaking in the quiet voice that, without the cacophony of a noisy dinner, was perfectly clear. And he heard every word they said.
Why do we so often treat the old, the sick, the dying, with dismissive impatience instead of love and understanding? When Janet talks with her AIDS-stricken son in the shadowy twilight, she is happy, connected to him by the spark of eternal love. Their conversations are a parting gift, not a chore to be endured. But Martin, her husband, avoids Laird. Fear deprives him of truly knowing his son.
So many times I could have lingered a few moments more, listened a little more closely. Instead, oblivious to my father’s imminent departure, I hid inside a book or watched insipid television. Anything to blunt the reality of death.
The beautiful, mystical, ineffable gloaming is so brief that we often fail to see it. Instead of embracing its magic and meaning, I fled.
And then he was gone forever.
This should be read by everyone with living parents or family of an older generation. It’s an important lesson. Thanks for putting it into words everyone can hear. And…you were a wonderful daughter to both your parents.
Thanks so much for sending this along…Hmmm… How I can relate.
I, on the other hand, fear that few, outside of family and friends, had the opportunity to appreciate the depth of character and kindness of my father, that I came to know.
In his frailty, he became somewhat invisible and irrelevant to the outside world. Like your father, he had done so much for his children and grandchildren, with no expectations for any reward beyond seeing us all well and accomplished (hmmm again).
Hoping that we can do better, given the opportunity.
Missing you, my friend.
I’m off in the morning for a 5 day bike trip (Miami to Daytona Beach-275miles) with biking friends. Hope I can endure. Over 50 miles/day, but it’s the consecutive days that I’m a bit concerned about. Survival distraction from the perils of world news… Kind of exciting!
Love to that beautiful new grandson, and you and yours!
thank you for sharing your soul Maia. Your writing is beautiful and moving.
one of your best pieces ever. Very moving and so right on. As I knew your father its particularly touching. We are so off course with how we deal with our elders and dying. It has prompted me to revisit how sad I was not to have been more “present” with my own parents’ deaths.
Beautifully written. I spent many many hours speaking with Dad at that garden table…so many fond memories. And at his bar in his apartment in Buenos Aires where we would discuss everything under the sun until late in the evening. I miss him so much.
It is time to be old, To take in sail:– The god of bounds, Who sets to seas a shore, Come to me in his fatal rounds, And said: “No more! No farther shoot Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root. Fancy departs; no more invent; Contract thy firmament To compass of a tent. There’s not enough for this and that, Make thy option which of two; Economize the failing river, Not the less revere the Giver, Leave the many and hold the few. Timely wise accept the terms, Soften the fall with wary foot; A little while Still plan and smile, And,–fault of novel germs,– Mature the unfallen fruit. Curse, if thou wilt, thy sires, Bad husbands of their fires, Who, when they gave thee breath, Failed to bequeath The needful sinew stark as once. The baresark marrow to thy bones, But left a legacy of ebbing veins, Inconstant heat and nerveless reins,– Amid the Muses, left thee deaf and dumb, Amid the gladiators, halt and numb.
As the bird trims her to the gale, I trim myself to the storm of time, I man the rudder, reef the sail, Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime: “Lowly faithful, banish fear, Right onward drive unharmed; The port, well worth the cruise, is near, And every wave is charmed.”