I keep trying to put my father’s dying in a story. I guess I’ve thought that might help me, and possibly others, make some sense of this vale. A couple of weeks after the funeral, my son drove to my mother’s house to visit and spend the night. Mom went to bed early that evening, and my son and I ended up watching The Green Mile, Stephen King’s haunting story of death row inmate John Coffey. I had forgotten the film’s raw power. Near the end of the film, Coffey keeps telling the “boss” how tired he is—tired of the pain he hears and feels, tired of the loneliness, tired of all the times he wanted “to help and couldn’t.” One of the consistent refrains I heard, via cell phone, from my father in his last days was, “I’m getting so tired.”
Coffey’s a Christ-figure, and his death in the electric chair coursed with shades of crucifixion. I mean, how else can Christ die? Was my father a Christ-figure? All I know is that he was the most Christ-like man I’ve ever encountered, so how else could he have died other than the tragic way he did? I mean, how else can Christ-figures die?
Do you see what I’m doing? It’s so obvious, isn’t it? Trying so hard to find a story that fits, a narrative line that’s maybe just close enough for comfort, something to hold tight to for it feels the center didn’t hold.
The very next morning I read about the passing of Barry Lopez, words written by Debra, his wife:
Barry’s dearest Auntie, Lillian Pitt, guided us. The scent of herbs, the prayers, the fresh air through the windows. The light. We told him a thousand times, a thousand-thousand times, that we love him, that we will love him always, that he could cross his river now. At 7:21, he stepped in, with one last long breath.
We washed him with water from the McKenzie River and wrapped him in a Pendleton blanket.
I couldn’t quit reading that last line. My God, how beautiful, how poetic. I wanted to spit. I couldn’t quit thinking that’s how it should have been for dad. A good death.
One of the reasons I’ve read Barry Lopez for so long is that I’ve seen him as so very Christ-like, so very like my father. Yet one Christ-like figure dies alone in an ICU while another dies and is washed with water from the McKenzie River and wrapped in a Pendleton blanket? Where’s the sense in that?
Do you see what I’m doing?
I’ve long described my father as the tallest tree in my forest. But he’s been felled. That now leaves me. I moved to the front of the line. Now I’m on the row. On the long green mile.