On Publishing My Memoir of Grief As My Father Lays Dying


“My job as a parent isn’t over until your book gets published,” my father said, years ago.

I don’t remember the circumstances of this statement—where we were, what we were doing. I want to say it had something to do with his body, maybe the deterioration of his lungs to COPD, his breathing so labored he’d reverse his car out of the garage, open the car door, and use a grabber to get the newspaper, because walking that short distance to the driveway was too difficult, even with a steady flow of oxygen through a hose.

I want to say there was a connection between the body and the need to see your child achieve the thing she set out to do, but I don’t think this is true. It’s more likely his declaration originated from something less grave, at least on its surface. Like the time he gifted me with new shoe brushes and saddle soap and boot polish and I, after having borrowed his brushes for years because we both take care of our leather shoes, said something like, “But this means I won’t need you anymore.”

“Not true,” he might have said. “Besides, my job as a parent isn’t over.”

*

I was quarantined with COVID at my home in Pennsylvania when I Facetimed my father in September 2022, a grin spreading on my face.

“Well why are you smiling?” he asked.

I had just gotten off the phone with my agent, who had told me, after over 15 years of writing and trying to find a home for my memoir, that a publisher wanted to offer me a book deal.

The sudden death of my mother feels nothing like the slow deterioration of my father’s body.

“Your job is finished,” I said to my father, holding back tears of joy. “I did it.”

*

It’s now a year later and I think, I should never have said this.

Because it seems his body heard me and then relented.

*

I’ve flown to Oklahoma because he’s entered the hospital for blood in his urine. I haven’t seen him in six months, and when I wheel my suitcase into his hospital room and see him resting in the hospital bed, his face thinned, eyes more hollowed, I walk over to him and take his hand. “I’m here now, daddy,” I say.

I can’t type daddy on a page without feeling a grossness, because of the way we interpret a 45-year-old woman calling her father by this word. We imagine something improper, a disturbing and unhealthy attachment. We hear daddy and conjure a history that is not mine and is not his.

But it’s a lie to type anything else, because daddy is the word I use when I speak to him, tenderly, when we both need to remember how much we are loved, to remember how the 8-year-old girl curled into the nook between his arm and chest and then sobbed, her cheek pressed against the soft pack of his Marlboro Lights in his shirt pocket, how he made her feel safe when she said, “I’m sad, I’m missing Mom.”

My memoir Rabbit Heart is about the unrelenting and brutal grief I experienced after my mother was abducted and murdered. You would think I’d know how to handle this losing, but the sudden death of my mother feels nothing like the slow deterioration of my father’s body. Her body was there, then her body was gone. Nothing has prepared me for the blood of the man who raised me, who somehow got me through.

The doctors are using words like ureter and mass and aggressive and tumor and advanced, based only on a CT scan. It’s terrifying, the certainty in their voices, how there’s no hedging or hesitation, no hope that a scope and biopsy will present something different.

I’m watching him sleep, his eyebrows rising, the muscles around them grimacing, how every muscle says anguish, says make this stop, and I keep thinking of Sharon Olds, of how, in a poem about her father’s death, she describes the tumor in his throat as a sun sending out flares. I keep imagining my father’s tumor as a pulsing, grumbling sun but one that is black like tar.

A dark fury of a star in his abdomen. How dense it is. How I can do nothing to obliterate it because he’ll be put under anesthesia for a scope and the scraping of the tumor, because anesthesia can mean his O2 will drop so low he’ll return to the hospital room on a ventilator, can mean his body will say, I’d rather a machine breathe for me, as it did over a decade ago when he entered the hospital for a bleeding ulcer, can mean this is the last time I will be able to sit beside his bed, hold his hand and feel him squeeze mine back, can mean he won’t live long enough to see the memoir published, I’ve brought the advanced reading copy to the hospital.

I’ve told him before I don’t think he should read it, and I certainly don’t think he should read it now.

He probably thinks I’m protecting him from reliving the pain of his beloved’s murder, of learning the evidence of her death over the course of 25 years, of raising a daughter entirely on his own. But those aren’t the parts that worry me. It’s the moments where he got it wrong as a parent, the moments where I felt silenced, moments when he valued men over his own daughter.

Because Rabbit Heart isn’t only about grief. It’s also about patriarchy, a word my father considers as a given, and as good.

I’m afraid the hurt will overshadow the memories I’ve also written, of his dancing with me at an Air Supply concert and holding me while I cried, because I used to sing their songs to my mother while she cleaned our house. He swayed with me on the grassy hill of the amphitheater and said, I won’t let go ‘til you’re ready. 

I’m afraid he won’t see how much I love him for never remarrying, though he loved another woman, because he didn’t want to move me and my brother out of our childhood home, its walls still decorated with my mother’s needlepoints so we could feel something stable, something untouchable.

I may not want him to read the memoir, but I want him to know what it’s like to hold our story in his hands.

When he’s awake and he’s lucid, I pull the copy from my bag and hand it to him. “Oh wow,” he says. “It’s real.”

He opens it to its first pages and lingers on the photograph of me and my mother. I’m two years old and we’re walking through White Sands, hand in hand, looking at each other. Then he’s flipping through the pages, fanning them forward and fanning them back, smiling in a way I recognize as pride, as marveling. He’s only ever read a few pieces of mine, but when he did, he’d always say, “I don’t know how I produced such a creative, talented person.”

He closes the memoir and stares at the bunny on its cover. He knows he’s the origin of the rabbit’s heart.

“This is outstanding, Darlin’,” he says. “But I have to hold the hardback too.”

*

Over breakfast at IHOP the last time I was in Oklahoma, months before he entered the hospital, my father asked, “If you aren’t publishing a book for money, then why do it?” He was eating the new crepes advertised on TV, and I’d been trying to explain advances and royalties, how I always imagined I’d have a small audience, how I hope to have written a book that someone can connect deeply with.

When he said he didn’t understand what I meant, I told him about the woman in Houston, who came up to me, over a decade ago, at a graduate student reading, where I read a piece about my mother’s brown leather blazer, about how I keep it but will never wear it, because I don’t want the blazer to become mine, how this woman then described her grandfather’s sweater and how she kept it on the back of a chair for years after he died, because that’s where he had always placed it.

I described to my father that for five minutes, this woman, whom I did not know and will likely never see again, and I were connected, through a shared response to grief and the ways we seek to preserve what it is we love and lose.

*

Nearly four weeks after he entered the hospital for bleeding, I’m sitting in the dining hall of a skilled nursing facility, where my father has been discharged to. All around us are bodies in states of disrepair or deterioration, bodies trying to mend, bodies that won’t be able to.

There’s a man at the table next to us, his torso held upright by a belt wrapped around a chair. He breaks down sobbing, his body slumping over the strap, and his daughter, who looks my age, places her hand between his shoulder blades and says, “It’s okay, Daddy,” in a voice so tender.

We glance at each other, knowingly, a second of understanding on our own and understanding together, that a breaking body is never okay, nor is the bearing witness to it.

*

A sour relationship with her father, the rave review said. Words of generosity and praise throughout the entire pre-publication review and all I could focus on was sour. But it isn’t sour, I kept saying. It’s never been. It’s been hard. It’s been hurtful. But god, there’s been such compassion and tenderness too.

I kept panicking—keep panicking—that he’ll come across the review somehow, though I haven’t shared it with anyone who’s close to him.

Please tell me I didn’t reduce my father this way, I asked my editor and my agent after the review came out. Please tell me I’ve offered more empathy toward the man who woke up to a murdered wife and then raised two kids on his own.

I wanted to reach out to the reviewer and say, There’s an urgency and an ethics here. Because a tumor is pulsing in tar, deep within his body, and I don’t want him to think, at the end of his life, that he leaves behind a sourness. I wanted to say, Our relationship is full of love and missteps and benevolence, full of yes, being disregarded but yes, being held, full of devotion and sacrifice and defiance and care—all words that I know will fail at capturing it. Especially when they don’t create a sensation in the body, the way that the word sour does.

So I’ll say this instead: The relationship is my sitting next to his walker in an assisted living facility, trying to unravel a knot in my hair, and asking “Did you ever want to cut off my hair when I was young because of all the tangles?” and his saying, with such lament in his voice, “Just the opposite. I always felt terrible that I didn’t help you more with your hair, that I didn’t know how to fix it like your mother would have done.” It’s my doing what I can to diminish a regret that is undiminishable: “You had no one to help you, daddy, and no internet to show you how to crimp it or how to braid.”

A breaking body is never okay, nor is the bearing witness to it.

It’s every night that I peel ever so carefully the compression socks down and off his red and swollen legs, and say, “It’s time to change the bandage on your wound,” then peeling, micromillimeters at a time, the adhesive off, terrified to rip his thinned skin.

It’s buying a blue plaid blanket so his surroundings are not so sterile. It’s folding back that blanket and then the sheet, separately, and in such a way that they don’t obstruct the handrail of his hospital bed. It’s holding the sheet up as he reaches behind his back to grab the rail, then climbs his feet up the side of the bed, then uses the rails to inch himself toward the wall, grunting in pain, grunting because of exertion, grunting because he’s just so fucking tired of it all.

It’s the moment he lowers his knees and stretches his legs, slides his feet under the sheet. The moment he adjusts his diaper, and I cover him like a parent does.

It’s the moment he sighs.

Then lifts his right hand from the rail to take hold of mine and says, “No one takes care of me like you do.”

*

The oncologist tells us six months to a year.

Each night I cover him with the sheet and see him stare at the ceiling, his thoughts descending where he won’t let me follow, each time I stand to leave for the night, each time I turn out the lights and know he’ll stay sunken there, I think about taking the ARC from my bag and reading to him—For Dad, for loving her so deeply, for giving me permission to love and grieve deeply too. Thank you for never letting go. No matter all the ways I move away, I will always need you.

I’m afraid he’ll never hold the hardback, never hold my gratitude in his hands, and I want him to know the weight of it. But then I think, Maybe it’s time for his body to relent, and I don’t want him to fight it because I need him. Because I’ll always need him.

A few weeks after he learns the prognosis, my father says to me one night, after he stretches his legs under the sheet and I let it float down onto his body, “We had a good run, didn’t we? It’s too bad it can’t continue.”

There’s a despair I’ve never heard in his voice before. Not even when he said to me, when I was 8 years old and asking how Mom died, “I hope she died like a bunny rabbit would.”

He has his CPAP mask on, meant to keep him breathing during the night. When he speaks, he has to fight against the air being forced into his body. I’m holding his hand, a hand that ballooned with fluid in the hospital and is now deflated to a texture I know I’ll never have a word for. I’m holding it and thinking, I don’t know what to say to a father who’s reckoning with dying. And I don’t know how I can ever leave.

I want to tell the reviewer, Look, there isn’t a sour relationship here. What’s here is everything that is unsayable between a father and a daughter who need each other.

“I don’t think I’ll ever laugh again,” he says, his eyes looking up at the ceiling with an emptiness within them. “There’s just nothing to be happy about, nothing to look forward to.”

I can’t take it anymore. I can’t contain what is hurting within me, I can’t pretend to be a nurse, even as I know no nurse or aide can take care of him like I do, I can’t enter his room each day and leave each night pretending we don’t know he’s dying.

So I lie next to him, place my head just below his shoulder. I’m afraid that its weight will hurt him, something I never had to worry about as a child. But I need to be that daughter again, who can cry into the chest of my father, my tears being soaked up by his shirt. “I’m sad too, daddy,” is all I can say.

“I know you are, Darlin’,” he says. Then he takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. “But there is your book. We have that. That’s something to look forward to.”

__________________________________

Rabbit Heart: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Story by Kristine S. Ervin is available from Counterpoint Press.



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