[Essay] Distance — Connor Harrison

The last time I saw my dad alive, I was waiting for water. I had gone to see him in his hospital bed, on a ward for patients in need only of comfort, who were past the help of medicine. I don’t remember who noticed first that the jug was empty, whether it was me or my dad or his wife, but somebody said the water was gone, and I was the one to go and fetch more. I found a nurse and explained that my dad was in need of fresh water. I said that he was struggling to breathe, but of course, she was busy, and everyone on the ward was struggling to breathe. She said she would bring the water as soon as she could, so I went back into the room, where my dad was as small as a child in his bed, and waited. But ten minutes later, she still hadn’t come, so I went out again, found myself standing on the ward with the empty jug in my hand.

In the hour that I was there to visit, I must have left to check for water over a dozen times, becoming more and more annoyed on my dad’s behalf. Between those routine checks, however, I don’t remember much of anything being said. In my memory of it, my dad choked and watched the ceiling tiles, and I sat nearby, ready to hear anything he might be able to say. But I know I remember this wrong; I know because when he did finally speak, it was to ask why I was talking so much. 

Memory plays these tricks, keeping a more reliable record of where your attention lay, rather than of what actually took place. What I remember is leaving for the water and a silent room. I remember this because the silence was cold, and raw, an example of what would be left when my dad eventually died. I was thorough with the water not just because he needed it, but because it gave me reason to leave the room. And I don’t remember what I said while I was in the room, because I wasn’t really saying anything. I was just making noise.

I don’t think I really knew my dad very well before his cancer. By the time I was two years old, he and my mum had already split – they were only just twenty; he wasn’t prepared to settle yet – and so for most of my life, he was a weekend dad, a Saturday trip to a second house. As I got older, I understood a little more about him, about how he felt alienated from my growth (the flipside of this being that my mum had to pause her own youth to help me through mine). I know that he was often angry when he was younger; I know that he enjoyed his strength. But I don’t know if he was often happy, or comfortable, or proud. I can’t say if he shared my anxieties about weight (he was a heavy man for most of the time I knew him), or if he wished he had attended university. I don’t know if he actively thought about faith, or if God was more like a stone, left unturned. One of the problems of seeing a parent once a week, is performance – I never knew him as anything except what he presented on a Saturday afternoon. 

This, like much else, changed with his illness. Whereas before I had been a part of his life, a day in the week where he was a single parent (to some extent), after he became ill everything was absorbed into that. He could no longer focus entirely on me when I visited him, because so much of him was focused on surviving, and later, on dying. Whereas before he might have been performing for me, being dad, being parental, and responsible, and playful, now he was always in two places at once – with me, and with the cancer. And this was only when I was there. Beyond that was the rest of his life, where he was renegotiating his interactions with every single thing. But it was this distance that I think, conversely, allowed us to become closer. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag begins with this idea of distance. She begins with the separation inherent in sickness.

‘Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.’

My dad, in his illness, had gone elsewhere, was using that other passport, and would never have the chance to come back to the kingdom of the well. And while he was still there, among us, sitting watching TV and talking, he was also separate; there was nobody but him who could have access to that experience.

Sontag is not alone in this metaphor. In 2013, the same year my dad died, a slim black book began to appear in bookshops. Like a shadow, the book lay on display tables, a bestseller, a notable release, following me between shops. This book, Mortality, was the last of Christopher Hitchens, his final lucid words, before cancer slipped him away. I had been aware, in a vague kind of way, of Hitchens’ death, but at that point I had yet to read a word of his work, had never watched his debates that seem to make up half of YouTube. I had grazed against him briefly a few years before when, like so many teenage boys of that period, I was a loud atheist reading The God Delusion. But beyond that I knew only Hitchens’ name, and it wouldn’t be for another two years until I actually bought and read his final book.

It is in the opening of Mortality, that Hitchens reckons with the painful separation between health and illness. On the morning that cancer truly changed his life, he describes the attitude of the paramedics.

‘They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist.’ 

There is a lot to be said for this image of the sick living in a different country, surviving in part as an exile. When you are over in that kingdom of the sick, in the land of malady, there is always the chance – especially in the case of cancer – that every word said, every message passed across the border, might be the last. Because my dad was away, constantly aware of time and its new limit, everything became more valuable, both to him and me. In the last weeks, he became confessional, and open, and honest in a new way. He could no longer speak purely as my father, because everything he said was also from a dying man. 

When I was told that my dad had died, in the hospital bed installed in his living room, I didn’t cry. I was still living with my mum then, so I could go downstairs and tell her, but after that I carried on with whatever I’d been doing (in my memory, I was writing, but this feels wrong). As more people were told and offered their condolences, I began to feel uncomfortable. When anyone said that they were sorry, I’d say it was alright, and I’d change the subject. I cried at the funeral, spurred on I think by the ceremony and the full pews, but after that I settled back into passivity. Instead of really dealing with the loss, I turned it into a self-effacing joke. This is something both my sister and I have a habit of doing, of trying to use humour to avoid or allay emotional exposure (a gift from our mum who, when her own dad was losing all of his muscle to bowel cancer, shared the running joke of, ‘wow, you’ll have to tell me what diet you’re on’). But really, I don’t believe I was using humour to avoid processing the trauma. Instead I was avoiding the necessary step that would even allow me to acknowledge there was trauma at all: self-pity. 

Self-pity is, as far as I can tell, one of the most universally despised actions. It is one of the first emotions to be mocked and to be suppressed, and of course, I both mocked and suppressed my own until I simply could not find it. Perhaps I didn’t really cry over my dad’s death because I’d had a long time to expect it; it was in no way surprising news. But the fact that I didn’t talk about it, or really think about it beyond the immediate effect – I would have to buy a new suit for the funeral – was a self-imposed defence. I repelled self-pity as if it would have been dramatic to outwardly mourn. 

When John Gregory Dunne suffered from a fatal heart attack, Joan Didion had every right in the world to live and breathe and wallow in self-pity. She had not only her husband taken from her but her life, too. Indeed, one of the benefits, in the end, of not being with my dad on a daily basis, was that his death was not tangled up with much else. For Didion, the opposite was true. ‘You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends’ she writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, and then, two sentences down: ‘the question of self-pity’. Our aversion to such behaviour feels instinctual, like our bodies can’t help but cringe when we see it in others and in ourselves. ‘The very language we use when we think about self-pity betrays the deep abhorrence in which we hold it: self-pity is feeling sorry for yourself, self-pity is thumb-sucking, self-pity is boo hoo poor me.’ It is seen as a self-indulgent, almost childish response to sadness (Hitchens, too, writes of keeping a lid on his self-pity, his retort being an intellectual bravado). 

Tragedy plus time equals comedy. But in trying to make the response to my dad’s death a joke, I was reducing the equation to tragedy equals comedy, which really means nothing. Or if it does mean anything, it means refusing to look at anything with patience. Because, as I later learned, tragedy plus time also equals an allowance for self-pity; it gives permission to actually understand what loss is. As time moves on for Didion and she moves further from the night Dunne died, she is able to begin to mourn. 

‘Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention. Until now there had been every urgent reason to obliterate any attention that might otherwise have been paid, banish the thought.’ 

I was eighteen when my dad died. I had not long come out of my first real relationship, and I had recently started a university course in which I felt, for the first time, alone. So rather than dealing with it, I moved all of my attention into these other, more active pressures. But this is also in hindsight, because at the time, I really felt like I didn’t need to process what had happened. I had waited for this monumental wave of loss to hit me, and since it never did, I believed that was it. Process complete. 

That wave finally hit me four years later, seemingly arriving from nowhere. I had just come out of the supermarket with a carrier bag of cat food, cereal, milk and bread, and I was walking beside the main road to get home. It was spring, or at least it looked like it was spring; it was late and the sun was catching in some trees up ahead, slipping off the new leaves and down the trunk, and I realised I wasn’t moving anymore, and that I was crying. I was crying so suddenly that I had no time to hide it from the passing traffic. And while nothing I could see had triggered it, all I could think about was how much I missed my dad.

I still don’t know why then, or why it took four years to happen, but it was only after that point that I could understand how the loss of my dad was going to affect the rest of my life. After this, things started to apply themselves to me in a different way. While I had read Mortality by then, I hadn’t let myself think why the book meant so much to me. I had seen that there was a morbid coincidence in the book being released the same year my dad died, but I still read it as another Hitchens essay collection. Now, however, I could read it more honestly. I could see that here, written by a man with very little in common with my dad, was a book that spoke directly to his experience of cancer. Or, more accurately, my experience of his cancer, which was him, ‘dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.’ It is this sentence that contains everything of what I remember. In the later stages of his deterioration, my dad did not lose his hair. Instead the reverse took place: he let his hair grow out, but the hair was white, silver, even, and his skin and his eyes, they became white with it – everything about my dad was reduced, like a lump of sugar, dissolving. In the final pages of Mortality, this idea is made physical on the page. We are treated to Hitchens’s ‘fragmentary jottings’, writing as he was until the last moment. The snippets, the sugar lumps here dissipate before our eyes, and in reading them, you feel as though Hitchens is passing through our hands, that his death is happening on the page.

‘If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.

Not even a race for a cure…

Paperwork the curse of Tumertown.

Misery of seeing oneself on old videos or YouTubes…’

Here in form if not in content, is my father in his broken epilogue – sentences, offered from across the border.

In her book, Didion describes literature as a source of information and control, a way of intellectualising and even perhaps limiting the damage of the loss. Maybe there’s some truth in that for me, too – at least once I permitted a little self-pity, an allowance that some of my reading applied to my own loss. With a book like Mortality, the fact that it appeared when it did means that it will always be a talismanic book for me, a direct vein to who my dad and I were in 2013. But I have stumbled on moments of clarity in other texts, in the poems Sean Hewitt has written in the wake of his own father’s death, in Kathryn Schulz’s essay, ‘Losing Streak’, and in that book I spent my teenage years disregarding, the New Testament. And I’m certain I will find more touchstones the more I read. But I’ve also learned that you can’t actively search books for these things. Like trying too hard to fall in love, reading too closely for a line or a poem that will suit your needs, is the best way to miss them. There has to be some distance. Distance is the defining characteristic of my relationship with the illness and the eventual loss of my dad. It is as I move further away from him, as I have more time, that I am able to see my dad and his life more clearly. Not to say that I will ever reach a limit, a point at which I can close the lid on his loss.

Tragedy plus time: after the doctors removed one of his kidneys – the most cancerous organ in his body so far – my dad described to me how he could feel the lack of it. He told me that, at night, while he was lying in bed and too sore to sleep, he could hear all the other organs moving when he moved, sloshing around in his body, trying to fill that new space. At the time he told it, it was to gross me out with body horror – his favourite kind of film – with the image of his blood and guts rolling loose. He described it in detail to make me laugh or nauseous or both. But now, eight years later, I think perhaps that’s all I’m doing in writing this; looking around in the empty space, trying my best to figure it out. 

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Connor Harrison is a writer based in the West Midlands, UK. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, Anthropocene Poetry, Longleaf Review, Babel Tower Noticeboard, and Marble Poetry, among others. He is an Editor at Tiny Molecules.