Parts of A Life

Parts of A Life
 

I want to think he waited for me to leave so I wouldn’t have to watch him die. My father was always private like that.

After 15 months in assisted living, he went into hospice on April 10, 2015. Palliative care only. “We’ll just make him as comfortable as we can.” Within a couple of weeks he was bedridden and mostly unresponsive. He had probably had enough - seven years of the Parkinson’s eating away at his brain and his body.

I was in Los Angeles, he and my mother eight hours north in Redding, so I asked my mom to let me know when it looked like he was going to die so I could come home. What a thing to estimate. The missed call popped up while I was teaching my Saturday morning vinyasa class: it was time. I called my studio owners, loaded the dogs in the Subaru and hopped on I-5. My partner, M, did most of the driving while I distracted myself by sending texts like, “My dad is in hospice, dying. Can you cover my Friday flow?”

For days we took turns sitting by his bed, touching his clammy forehead, listening to the death rattle of his breath. The space between gasps grew longer and longer, but another spasm always came. I sang the mahamritunjaya mantra under my breath. M rubbed my dad’s feet and promised to take care of me. We played all of his favorite CDs: Mary Black, Hugh Masekela, Vince Guaraldi. I loathe Vince Guaraldi. After almost a week - it felt like a long time then, it sounds awfully meager now - I gave up and went back to L.A. He died the next day.

 Photography by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Photography by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

It was a fitting end to the whole disaster. I got to add “wasn’t there when he died” to the list of things to feel guilty about. Below “brought shame to the family with my terrible life decisions” and “didn’t spend more time with him when I had the chance.”

I left home at 17. My mom was suffering a disease of the spirit, my dad was enabling, and I was trying to claw my way out of my own skin. NYU offered a scholarship and 3,000 miles of distance from my family. But it turned out being alone wasn’t so easy. Over the next eight years I dropped out and transferred schools twice, entangled myself in toxic relationships, and experimented with drugs – all the while trying to hide the struggle from my parents.  

When my dad was first diagnosed, I was working on my B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania. It felt like my last chance to get back on track. When I graduated in 2011, the subject of my moving home was never broached. I stayed in Philly and set aside my hard-earned English degree to take a yoga teacher training. I taught classes during the day and bartended at night to pay the bills, and continued to avoid calling my parents. I was embarrassed that I’d turned out so differently from the career-track journalist we’d all envisioned me becoming.

 Photography by Michal Chelbin

Photography by Michal Chelbin

Soon, my dad was forced to retire early from teaching. He wasn’t physically or mentally capable of managing the workload. My mom left her job to care for him full-time. He started falling, sometimes multiple times a day. He often needed stitches. My mom hired an in-home caregiver, but even a male nurse couldn’t stop my dad from wandering away from his walker, crashing onto his face in the grocery store and jamming his front teeth up into his gums.

And I continued my routine of acting like it was a big sacrifice to come home once or twice a year. The excuses were always the same: I couldn’t afford to take time off work; I couldn’t leave the dogs. But really, I couldn’t handle seeing my family fall apart. And I couldn’t look them in the eyes and explain why it was so important for me to continue living on the opposite side of the country. When my mom finally moved him into a private room at Lavender Hills Assisted Living the day after Christmas, I resented her for it. But I wasn’t there to see it.

Maybe that’s what made the guilt too big to bear. That winter, I finally got the idea to do a 300-hour teacher training in Los Angeles. I figured I could do a year in L.A., finish the training and get hired at a big company, and then transfer to Northern California to spend more time with my parents. I told M I wanted to go, and he volunteered to join me. So in June of 2014, we bought a car, rented a U-Haul trailer and drove our dogs and everything we owned cross-country.

It became clear pretty quickly that my dad wasn’t going to make it a year. Every time I went up north to visit, his condition was worse. I realized I didn’t know much about him as a person – he’d always been careful to only let me see the parts of his life he was proud of. As a kid, I used to ask him if he’d ever tried drugs, or broken the law, and he would refuse to answer. Now, I tried to ask about his childhood, his family history, but between the dementia and his impaired vocal cords I couldn’t make out any responses.

My mother would sit on his lap and lean her ear to his lips to try to hear his answers and translate for me. Eventually, he could barely open his eyes. He’d lost motor control over his face and had to use his own fingers to pry his eyelids open. My mom could still make him laugh, though. Her jokes cracked his mask and forced big salty tears down his face.

 Photography by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Photography by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

By Christmas of 2014, he was attached to a catheter, confined to his easy chair and his bed. I came to bring gifts and chocolate, but he tired quickly and wanted to watch his favorite show, Dinosaur Train. Leaving him there on Christmas felt like ripping off my own arm, but there was no alternative. He couldn’t be moved. I half-consoled myself with the thought that he wasn’t aware enough to be sad. On May 9, he left his body.

I thought when he was gone, I would feel relieved that the indignity of his suffering was over. But instead, the finality of his absence hollowed me out. Why had I waited so long to come home? How many opportunities had I ignored to reflect back the love he’d showered on me? How could I teach ahimsa when I’d caused him so much pain?

I honestly don’t know how I survived those months after he was gone. I was crippled by grief, crumpled on the floor at night while M worked late. I vacillated between hysteria and numbness. M worked later. Eventually, he stopped coming home at all. And then I was really alone.

Not for the first time, yoga saved me. Once or twice or three times every day, I had to scrape myself up, wash the pain off my face and show up for my students. While I all but stopped practicing because I couldn’t hold it together on the mat, I kept looking at bodies and coming up with sequences and telling people to breathe. And after a while, I found myself breathing with them. I took all the love I couldn’t give my dad and laid it on my students. Turning outward allowed me to get far enough away from the pain to begin recovering, little by little.

When I was growing up, I swore I’d never be a teacher. I watched my dad work late into the evening, grading papers at the kitchen table, and thought it looked way too hard. It was several years into teaching yoga that someone brought it to my attention that teaching was, in fact, part of my job title. Now I understand why he poured his energy into trying to help seventh-graders find their way in the world. After he passed, more than one of those kids – now grad students, parents, grownups – reached out to tell us what an impact he had on their lives. He taught love and respect and compassion, with a side of social studies. Teaching yoga is the only thing I’ve ever done that I really think he would be proud of. It’s the thing that brought me home.

 Photography by Michal Chelbin

Photography by Michal Chelbin


Parts of a Life

By

Molly O'Neill


Cover Phtography by Michal Chelbin