MY FATHER ALWAYS SAID THAT WHEN it comes to writing, write what you want to say. The questioning, the changing, the editing ... that all comes later."Use the freedom," he said. I have just watched my father die. His life,which was reduced in the end to pulses on a dusty screen, has ended. And, if I can find the strength, this is what I want to say.
You could say that the day had been a tough one. As much as the grieving family tried to prepare me, I was horrified by what I saw waiting at the hospital. I did not recognize the man before me. That man was not talkative and vibrant. That man was not determined and strong. That man had given up. And, perhaps, it was time to. He was nothing more than a pained skeleton,and his chest heaved as though every breath was a last valiant effort. Hisfingers were purple from lack of oxygen, though it was being forced into his lungs in liters. My father was not physically recognizable, but his essence was still strong in the room. His books were strategically arranged nearby, and he still wore two watches, his Citizen Wingman and his Ironman Triathlon. Funny, he always had to be on time.
I can't remember exactly what I said to him - I think I was talking about boys and school and other trivia - but I remember him looking up at me through all the tubes and the plastic with tears in his eyes. He did not have the strength to cry, but I think he knew it would be the last time we saw each other. All I could do was burst into tears and flee from the room. Here was the man that changed my diapers, made me peanut-butter sandwiches (with thecrusts cut off), showed me how to throw knives and to shoot a bow, read me poetry, stayed up with me all night when I was sick, taught me to play chess, came to all my recitals, braided my hair, watched movies with me, checked my homework ... and he was dying. Dying. And where was the pride in his death? Where was the glory in being the human part of an oxygen tank?
I forced myself to stop the tears and returned to the room. I sat down in the chair beside his bed and held his hand, which was covered in a mix of blood and Betadine from the IVs. "Come on, Dad," I tried to say with a smile. "I need you, OK?" And what he said, the last words he ever said to me, were "I've always needed you." God, I loved my father. I squeezed his hand and told him that I loved him, and he nodded. Weary and dazed, I left the hospital with the hope that he would just hold on through the night, but he couldn't.
I was awakened at 11:18 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19, with the news that my father had died. In a way, it was a relief. I didn't want him to hurt anymore. He should have been paddling down some wild river in a canoe, or playing bluegrass ballads on his guitar, or tapping away at a typewriter, not straining for breath in some sterile hospital room. I got dressed and droveto the hospital with no tears, and I saw that the door to his room was partially open. Seeing the person you love more than anything in the world dead is one of those lose-lose situations. I figured I either would see him that last time and have that image burned into my memory forever, or I would always wonder and wish I had. My father told me never to look at him dead, and I should have listened. It was the most horrible thing I have ever seen.
I never thought there could be such a dramatic difference in a person who is very ill and one who's dead, but the difference was incredible. The lights were off, and there was an eerie backlight behind the bed. My father... My father's body was 'propped up, but his head had fallen back and his mouth was open. He looked like he was in pain. A lot of pain. Did I have to see him gasping for air the last time I ever saw him? I screamed. I didn't know what else to do. I just stood there in hysterics. The only person with me was my brother, Kevin. He didn't know what to do, either. We were both kind of floating around in a sea of turmoil and pain. I am still in that sea. There are islands of normality and "okay-ness," but the existence of the islands does not destroy the existence of the water.
There was no time for grieving that week. There was too much to do. Funeral and memorial-service arrangements, cleaning out the house (which we had to sell), appraising most of the big items in the house (which we had to sell), changing locks so our house wouldn't get looted, those sorts of things. And then we had to deal with all the fans and the sycophants. I don't remember when I really did grieve. I think I do every day, because every day I am overwhelmed with the fact that I will never see him, talk to him, ask himquestions or listen to the answers again. He was my mentor and the dominant force in my life.
So I am left with memories of greatness. Not the greatness of the writer but the greatness of the father and the teacher. One time in the class he taught, my father was reading his poem "Good-bye to Big Daddy," about the death of football player Big Daddy Lipscomb, and this big ox-headed football player in the class started bawling in the middle of the reading. The class was dismissed, and my dad just went over to this guy and held him while he wept like a child, saying, "It's all right, Big Boy; it's gonna be OK." That is the kind of teacher James Dickey was. There are no words for the kind of father he was.
A few of his favorite quotes echo through my mind like steps down an empty hallway. "Live blindly and upon the hour" from a sonnet by Trumbull Stickney; "None of them knew the color of the sky," the opening line of Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"; "Catch thou the dream in flight," and a line referring to someone's eyes that were,''somewhat strangely more thanblue."
I will live blindly and upon the hour. I will catch the dream in flight, though I do not know the color of the sky. And my father's eyes, though they will not see my graduation, my marriage or my children, will always be somewhat strangely more than blue.