No one ever uses the word dying, even if it’s the correct word to use. We think this denial of the obvious, of the facts, is for Hannah’s benefit—if we refuse to see how bad it is then maybe she won’t see it either. But no one sees it or feels it more clearly than Hannah—we can sense that now. Our unspoken denials are actually for our own benefit. Hannah got sick, and then she got worse. Despite our prayers.
I open my mouth to begin the first song, but my throat is tight and dry. If I cry, even a little, I won’t be able to sing. I remember an old voice teacher warning me to always keep my emotions in check during a performance. “Crying closes up the throat,” she warned. This isn’t a performance, but I know that I’m here to allow Hannah’s family access to their feelings, not to display my own. A clear bag of morphine drips steadily, and a catheter hangs beside the bed, the dark urine inside it streaked with blood.
Later that same day, I get on an airplane to Ohio, where my father is having experimental heart surgery. My relationship with my father is strained, has always been strained. Since my conversion to Christianity, which he finds mildly perplexing, we’ve spoken just a few times a year. Usually a health problem he’s having of one variety or another will inspire him to call. I’ll offer to help, to do what I can from Texas. Once I flew to New Jersey to help him get through the aftermath of a particularly harrowing surgery. Then months went by with little or no contact between us, until he called me again, late at night when he’d had too much to drink. He was belligerent, wanting to rehash his failed marriage with my mother. This has happened several times over the years, and early in my Christianity, I would try to be loving and patient when he called. I would pray for him.
My father didn’t remarry after he and my mother split, but he’s been in a relationship for nearly twenty years with a widow who lives in his town, the one where I grew up. I’ve never been sure if their relationship is romantic or simply based on the support she gives him: dinner every night, laundry, making sure he takes his pills and shows up to the VA hospital, where he gets his medical care. Why she isn’t accompanying him to Cleveland, I don’t know, but I can guess. I know how difficult he can be, how mean, especially when he’s ill.
At first, my mother, the poet Anne Atik, had seemed just ordinarily confused. Then, very gradually, the confusion took on a pathological aspect. She...