Cindy Milstein's Blog

Hard Remembering


My dad was born in Chicago. I think. I’m not sure. I can’t remember. I can hardly recall him, as him, as living.

If he was born in Chicago, then it’s now the start of what was his birthday, already January 7 in the Midwest, where he grew up and died.

Here I stand, still in January 6, but not able to forget that this will soon be what would have been my dad’s birthday in my time zone too.

Something tonight drew me to my formerly favorite spot in San Francisco, where I remember coming so many nights in years past. Sometimes, to sit with friends and engage in conversations that floated on the slightly cool air, oddly muffled from others, or at other times, to kiss someone into the wee hours on the carpet of grass.

Mostly, I found myself here in my own good company, which I never tire of, late, to gaze at city lights and night stars and, like tonight, a just-past-full moon. To resurrect memories and chew on the ache of them, dry of eye and sometimes not. To recollect in order to reflect, and then send musings into the bowl-like generosity of the concave dark park and convex dark sky, to hold them close.

Dolores Park was, before renovation and gentrification and techification, my go-to place of evening solitude, precisely to remember.

I’ve been struggling to remember my dad ever since he fell into mosquito-bite sleep and then kept-alive-on-tubes awake, dead nine long months before death. And ever since I finally gave him the dignity of death, what is now maybe 1.5 or probably more years ago. I can’t remember. There’s a death date, a West Nile infection date, a birth date, yet they appear out of order, not chronological, sometimes not real at all.

These dates do nothing to mark remembrance of the person, who I can’t see, even when I gaze into photos. The stars above me now, on this January 7 in Chicago, are far more material, graspable.

And yet I did remember. Or more to the fact, my body felt January 6 moving to January 7, as blanket of discomfort. An anxiety. A needing to be with myself, alone. With this topmost corner of this park, randomly arriving precisely at 10 here and what is midnight in Chicago.

My body knew this birthday, his, even as my mind forgets much. All. As if I were always orphan.

Not all, though.

I remember as if hard-etched print all the sorrow of his eyes trapped in immobile body, body that trapped his intellect, tube that took his love of talk, circumscribed tiny world of bed as prison and torn 8.5×11 paper alphabet card to frantically try to spell out needs, desires, fears. Spell out “suicide.” Later, spell out “hospice.”

I remember, so hard like sharp steel knife, that I should have let him keep himself from the suffering of those nine long months and me keep the him who was a person before that.

One tries to do the right thing under the wrong conditions in which all decisions are impossible to fit into one’s ethical compass. That is not what the “health care system” allows. It only permits “life” at all costs. It only mentions what generates profits from people who were dads who become a body that’s a useless yet valuable commodity that, finally, becomes someone, some thing, you can’t remember.

You need to ask different questions. You need to not listen to voices that are weak with their own inability to think about what that suffering-dying person wants. You need to be rock hard and keep your softness for the nonliving person who needs to die sooner than later.

When he finally died, a most beautiful week after a most hellish three-quarters year, you put your hard rock on a big stone in a pond outside his hospice room.

You can’t remember where your softness for him went.

So you celebrate a birthday that finds you, even if you might have forgotten. It presents you with joyless amnesia. You blow warm air on to your cold fingers, as substitute for candles and cake. You wish that you had chosen to gift your dad a death at the start, before he endured suspended life for nine cruel months.

You wish you could remember something else, besides that.

You wish you could conjure him, your dad.

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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, fragment of a mural, Oakland, December 2014.)

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