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Brother, I'm Dying, Page 2

Edwidge Danticat

  I leaned against the sink, grabbing hold of the faucet so I could remain on my feet. My father was dying and I was pregnant. Both struck me as impossibly unreal.

  Cradling the now wet plastic wand, I slipped to the floor and sobbed. I was afraid of losing my father and also struck with a different kind of fear: baby panic. Everything was suddenly mixed up in my head and leading me to the darkest places. Would I carry to full term? Would there be complications? Would I die? Would the baby die? Would the baby and I both die? Would my father die before we died? Or would we all die at the same time?

  On the other hand, bringing a child into the world seemed to be about anything but death. It was a huge leap of faith in the future, an acknowledgment that one would somehow continue to exist.

  I had to speak to my husband. I blindly searched my purse for my cell phone and dialed his number.

  “Guess what?” I blurted out. “We’re pregnant.”

  Under different circumstances, I might have rushed back home, greeting him at the airport with an armful of roses addressed to “Daddy.” Or I might have teased him on the phone, forced him to pry the news out of me. But there was no other way to do it on this particular day. Still, I held back from telling him about my father. Perhaps I didn’t want to hear myself say it. Or maybe I didn’t want to dampen his excitement, to have these two pieces of news abruptly collide for him as they had for me.

  “A baby? How wonderful is that?” My husband was cheering loudly. I could imagine his calm, reassuring smile, broader with delight.

  “I can’t believe it,” he shouted, after it had sunk in a bit longer. “We’re going to be parents!”

  Aside from my husband, I decided, I would tell no one about the baby for a few days, not even my parents. That weekend, my brother Kelly, a musician and computer programmer, who out of all of us most resembled my father, was coming for a visit from his home in Lancaster, Massachusetts. We all needed to concentrate on a family strategy to deal with my father’s diagnosis and we were not going to come up with one if everyone was distracted by the baby. Besides, I couldn’t fully keep both realities in mind at the same time, couldn’t find the words to express both events. I closed my eyes and held my breath, forcing myself to recite it as a mantra. My father is dying and I’m pregnant.

  I stepped out of the bathroom and called my youngest brother, Karl, at the brokerage house where he works. I told him what Dr. Padman had said, and immediately a debate emerged: Should the doctor have told me about our father’s prognosis and not have told our father? It was inconsiderate at best, Karl thought, and maybe even unethical.

  “It seems odd.” He sounded infuriated: at me, at the doctor, at the diagnosis, at the disease. “The doctor has no right to share information with you that he’s withholding from Dad.”

  Maybe I shouldn’t have called him at work, I thought. I should have waited until he got home. There was always so much happening in his office. People were always peeking in; his phone was always ringing. He was probably under pressure. I had sprung this on him out of nowhere, told him too quickly, and he’d had no choice but to respond from the gut, unfiltered.

  Of the four of us, my brothers Karl and Bob, who lived only a few blocks away from my parents’ house in East Flatbush, saw my father most often. They, more than anyone, except maybe my mother, were going to have to watch him die.

  “Are you going to tell Dad what the doctor said?” Karl asked, his voice firm, terse.

  “No,” I said, equally unyielding.

  I hadn’t decided until that moment that I wouldn’t have that conversation with my father. Maybe Karl or my other brothers could, or even my mother would, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. I now found myself rallying on Dr. Padman’s side. What would be the use of telling Dad? He would probably become disheartened, heartbroken, depressed. On the other hand, he was a religious man. Maybe he would refute his prognosis outright, call it a lie, and not believe it at all. Still, I didn’t think I’d be able to tell him. Maybe it was cowardly, but I couldn’t.

  “We should tell Dad what the doctor said,” Karl insisted. “He should have been told. He has a right to know. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

  Of course I’d want to know. I agreed with him in principle. But suddenly I wondered: if my father ever found out some other way, would he interpret both the doctor’s and my not telling him as a sign that things were even more dismal than they actually were?

  That afternoon, before my father came home, as my mother prepared his supper I told her a milder version of what Dr. Padman had told me.

  “The doctor doesn’t think he’s doing well,” I said as she cut up a small squash and slipped the pieces into a pot of boiling water to make a stew. “The doctor says he might not recover.”

  I kept needlessly repeating the word “doctor” as if to stress that I was the messenger and not the source.

  Securing the lid on the pot, my mother turned off the burners on the stove, poured herself a glass of water from the leaky faucet over the sink and sat down across from me at the bare kitchen table.

  “I knew it was something bad,” she said, massaging the sides of her round face with her fingers. Her voice was soft, slow, almost a whisper. “He just seems to be melting away.”

  What she cooked that night was a much simpler version of what she’d originally intended, a thin pumpkin soup rather than a full stew. The soup remained untouched, however. None of us felt like eating.

  A few days later, my father’s church’s deacon association hosted its yearly anniversary brunch at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurant on Ralph Avenue in Canarsie, Brooklyn. My father’s ivory suit was so big on him that, as he’d put it on that morning, he’d added two more holes to his belt, which, overstretched, looked like scarred skin.

  Dragging his gaunt frame between the tables to greet dozens of longtime friends, he seemed buoyant and jovial, but after each handshake and brief chat he had to lay his hand on someone’s shoulder to rest.

  When he was done with his round of greetings, he filled a plate with fried chicken wings he never touched. As he coughed, some of the church members came over and held his hand. Others urged him to go home. They might have meant well, but he felt rejected. As if they didn’t want him near their food.

  That same afternoon, my brother Kelly arrived from Massachusetts, so my father decided to hold a family meeting. That meeting, like all my father’s rare previous summits, was a rather formal affair. As we all sat around my parents’ long oak dining room table, framed by my mother’s ornately carved, antique-looking but brand-new china and enlarged photographs of our school graduations, weddings and Christmases, my father went directly to the matter at hand.

  “The reason for this gathering,“ he announced, “is to discuss what is going to happen to your mother after I’m gone.”

  My father was sitting in his usual seat at the head of the table. My mother was on the other end facing him. I was sitting on his left, her right, with Karl, who, at six foot one, towered over all of us. Kelly and Bob, the middle children, as I liked to call them, were sitting across from us. We were all stunned into silence by my father’s pronouncement, both those among us who thought we should recount to him what the doctor had said (brothers Karl and Kelly) and the rest of us who did not. But maybe the doctor was the wisest of any of us. Of course the patient always knows. My father must have suspected even before the doctor had. After all, he inhabited the body that was failing.

  “I’m not getting better.” My father covered his face with his hands, then slowly pulled them apart as though he were opening a book. “And when a person’s sick, either you’re getting better or you’re dying.”

  He said this so casually and with so little sorrow that my sadness was momentarily lifted.

  “What would you like to happen after I’m gone?” he asked, looking directly at my mother. “Do you want to stay in the house, or sell it and buy an apartment?”

  “I’m not going anywhere,” my
mother said defiantly.

  A line of sweat was growing over her lips as she spoke. I appreciated her unwillingness to embark for such an unknown world, to look toward another life, beyond her husband’s.

  “The house might be too big for you to live in by yourself,” my father continued, matter-of-factly. “Someone would have to move in with you.”

  I kept my eyes on the sheer plastic sheath that covered my mother’s hibiscus-embroidered tablecloth. Was my father trying to prepare us? Put us at ease? Show us that we shouldn’t worry about him, or was he trying to tell us that he was ready for whatever lay ahead?

  “Pop.” Bob rubbed his eyes with his balled fists, then raised his hands to catch my father’s attention. While I’d been staring at the tablecloth, he’d been crying.

  “Pop, can I ask you a question?” The tears were flowing down Bob’s face. He was easily the huskiest and the most overtly emotional of my three brothers, Karl being the most levelheaded and Kelly the most reserved.

  “What is your question?” my father asked, his own eyes growing moist, though he was doing his best to hold back his tears.

  “Have you enjoyed your life?” Bob asked, pausing after each word as if to take in its weight and meaning.

  I lowered my head again, absorbing the stillness that also followed this question, the kind of hush that suddenly forces you to pay attention to so many unrelated things around you: the shell of the dead fly trapped in the window screen, the handprints on the plastic over the tablecloth, the ticking of a giant clock in the next room, the pressing desire for anything, including an explosion, to burst forth and disrupt the calm.

  “I don’t know what to say about that.” My father drew in his breath, something that required a great deal of effort and thus resulted in a grimace-like contortion of his face. “I don’t—I can’t—remember every moment. But what I can say is this. I haven’t enjoyed myself in the sense of party and glory. I haven’t seen a lot of places and haven’t done that many things, but I’ve had a good life.”

  My father went on to list what he considered his greatest accomplishments: Kelly, Karl, Bob and me, as well as his three grandchildren, Karl’s five-year-old son Ezekiel and two-year-old daughter Zora and Bob’s five-year-old daughter Nadira.

  “You, my children, have not shamed me,” he continued. “I’m proud of that. It could have been so different. Edwidge and Bob, your mother and I left you behind for eight years in Haiti. Kelly and Karl, you grew up here, in a country your mother and I didn’t know very well when we had you. You all could have turned bad, but you didn’t. I thank God for that. I thank God for all of you. I thank God for your mother.” Then turning his eyes back to Bob, he added, “Yes, you can say I have enjoyed my life.”

  Listening to my father, I remembered a time when I used to dream of smuggling him words. I was eight years old and Bob and I were living in Haiti with his oldest brother, my uncle Joseph, and his wife. And since they didn’t have a telephone at home—few Haitian families did then—and access to the call centers was costly, we had no choice but to write letters. Every other month, my father would mail a half-page, three-paragraph missive addressed to my uncle. Scribbled in his minuscule scrawl, sometimes on plain white paper, other times on lined, hole-punched notebook pages still showing bits of fringe from the spiral binding, my father’s letters were composed in stilted French, with the first paragraph offering news of his and my mother’s health, the second detailing how to spend the money they had wired for food, lodging, and school expenses for Bob and myself, the third section concluding abruptly after reassuring us that we’d be hearing from him again before long.

  Later I would discover in a first-year college composition class that his letters had been written in a diamond sequence, the Aristotelian Poetics of correspondence, requiring an opening greeting, a middle detail or request, and a brief farewell at the end. The letter-writing process had been such an agonizing chore for my father, one that he’d hurried through while assembling our survival money, that this specific epistolary formula, which he followed unconsciously, had offered him a comforting way of disciplining his emotions.

  “I was no writer,” he later told me. “What I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope.”

  Whatever restraint my father showed in his letters was easily compensated for by Uncle Joseph’s reactions to them. First there was the public reading in my uncle’s sparsely furnished pink living room, in front of Tante Denise, Bob and me. This was done so there would be no misunderstanding as to how the money my parents sent for me and my brother would be spent. Usually my uncle would read the letters out loud, pausing now and then to ask my help with my father’s penmanship, a kindness, I thought, a way to include me a step further. It soon became obvious, however, that my father’s handwriting was as clear to me as my own, so I eventually acquired the job of deciphering his letters.

  Along with this task came a few minutes of preparation for the reading and thus a few intimate moments with my father’s letters, not only the words and phrases, which did not vary greatly from month to month, but the vowels and syllables, their tilts and slants, which did. Because he wrote so little, I would try to guess his thoughts and moods from the dotting of his i’s and the crossing of his t’s, from whether there were actual periods at the ends of his sentences or just faint dots where the tip of his pen had simply landed. Did commas split his streamlined phrases, or were they staccato, like someone speaking too rapidly, out of breath?

  For the family readings, I recited my father’s letters in a monotone, honoring what I interpreted as a secret between us, that the impersonal style of his letters was due as much to his lack of faith in words and their ability to accurately reproduce his emotions as to his caution with Bob’s and my feelings, avoiding too-happy news that might add to the anguish of separation, too-sad news that might worry us, and any hint of judgment or disapproval for my aunt and uncle, which they could have interpreted as suggestions that they were mistreating us. The dispassionate letters were his way of avoiding a minefield, one he could have set off from a distance without being able to comfort the victims.

  Given all this anxiety, I’m amazed my father wrote at all. The regularity, the consistency of his correspondence now feels like an act of valor. In contrast, my replies, though less routine—Uncle Joseph did most of the writing—were both painstakingly upbeat and suppliant. In my letters, I bragged about my good grades and requested, as a reward for them, an American doll at Christmas, a typewriter or sewing machine for my birthday, a pair of “real” gold earrings for Easter. But the things I truly wanted I was afraid to ask for, like when I would finally see him and my mother again. However, since my uncle read and corrected all my letters for faulty grammar and spelling, I wrote for his eyes more than my father’s, hoping that even after the vigorous editing, my father would still decode the longing in my childish cursive slopes and arches, which were so much like his own.

  The words that both my father and I wanted to exchange we never did. These letters were not approved, in his case by him, in my case by my uncle. No matter what the reason, we have always been equally paralyzed by the fear of breaking each other’s heart. This is why I could never ask the question Bob did. I also could never tell my father that I’d learned from the doctor that he was dying. Even when they mattered less, there were things he and I were too afraid to say.

  A few days after the family meeting, my father called my uncle Joseph in Haiti, to see how he was doing. It was Thursday, July 15, 2004, the fifty-first birthday of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s twice-elected and twice-deposed president. Having been removed from power in February 2004 through a joint political action by France, Canada and the United States, Aristide was now spending his birthday in exile in South Africa. However, the residents of Bel Air, the neighborhood where I grew up and where my uncle Joseph still lived, had not forgotten him. Joining other Aristide supporters, they’d marched, nearly three thousand of
them, through the Haitian capital to call for his return. The march had been mostly peaceful, except that, according to the television news reports that my father and I had watched together that evening, two policemen had been shot. My father called my uncle, just as he always did whenever something like this was happening in Haiti. He was sitting up in bed, his head propped on two firm pillows, his face angled toward the bedroom window, which allowed him a slanted view of a neighborhood street lamp.

  “Are you sure he’s sleeping?” my father asked whoever had answered the phone at my uncle’s house in Bel Air.

  My father cupped the phone with one hand, pushed his face toward me and whispered, “Maxo.”

  I gathered he was talking to Uncle Joseph’s son, Maxo, who had left Haiti in the early 1970s to attend college in New York, then had returned in 1995. Though I had spent most of my childhood with Maxo’s son Nick, I did not know Maxo as well.

  “Don’t you think it’s time your father moved out of Bel Air?” my father asked Maxo.

  As he hung up, he seemed disappointed that he hadn’t been able to speak to Uncle Joseph. Over the years, this had been a touchy subject between my father and uncle: my father wanting my uncle to move to another part, any other part, of Haiti and my uncle refusing to even consider it. I now imagined my father longing to tell his brother to leave Bel Air, but this time not for the reasons he usually offered—the constant demonstrations, the police raids and gang wars that caused him to constantly worry—but because my father was dying and he wanted his oldest brother to be safe.