Posted: Mon, January 07, 2013 | By: Fiction
by Nathan Beauchamp
You will always remember the day you saw your father cough up a stream of phlegm and blood into a ceramic toilet bowl. You peered through the thin crack in the doorway, watching as he heaved and spat, his hair matted to his forehead. You must have made a noise, a small intake of breath or the creak of floorboards under your feet, because he raised his head and a wash of pain and shame crossed his face when he saw you. You rushed back to your bedroom and slipped under your quilt. Covered your face. As if the thin material of the blanket might somehow protect you from the awful truth.
The cancer had metastasized. No amount of radiation and pills, or the tears of your mother, or your own secret, angry tears late at night could save him. He grew as thin as a child. Pale so that you could see each blue vein under his skin. He lay atop his bed, listless, weak, and waiting to die.
It was good, your mother told you, to have him at home. To see him each day, even if it meant slowly watching him die. She did everything she could to preserve normalcy, half-carrying your father into the dining room and seating him for meals which he stared at with miserable eyes. Not even the false, cheerful nagging of the in-home hospice nurse could compel him to eat.
Before bedtime each night your mother read to you, stroking your cheek, running her fingers through your silky hair, trying to comfort you. But like the pills and the radiation and the tears which failed to impact your father’s cancer, nothing she could say or do diminished your sorrow.
Sometimes your mother placed you on the bed next to him and you felt his shallow breath through skin stretched over his ribcage as thin as paper. Your father didn’t know what to say to you and you didn’t know what to say to him. You sat in awkward silence, the love you felt for him emulsifying with your grief. A frothing, volatile mixture of emotions which made you feel like vomiting. You feared, irrationally, that you might have caught his cancer.
Your memories of your father before the cancer destroyed him grew so indistinct that you could only remember them after occasional, vivid dreams in which a man who looked nothing like the living skeleton on the bed, tossed you high into the air and caught you again with his strong hands. You woke from these dreams and couldn’t decide if they were nightmares. The ache they created inside you lasted far longer than the simple terror of being chased.
You will always remember these things. You remember them long after science all but eliminates death, far too late to have saved your father. You remember them as graveyards become a strange sort of museum, as all religions merge, united in peace. As children born with cells which never stop regenerating enter a world absent the humiliation of death.
But you do not remember alone.
Your memories of the loss of your father have taken their place alongside the similar memories of others. Curated and sorted into a codex of sorrow. They form a bridge to a past marked by tragedy, lives cut short, and the agony of grief.
When each child reaches twelve years of age, they visit an empathy facilitator. A profession created by the need to help the eternal appreciate what they have been given. Animal death is insufficient, as is even the most gripping fiction. The memories—some of which are yours—provide a rite of passage. The means by which those otherwise incapable of appreciating the gift they have received taste of grief, and by tasting, understand the true value of their eternal lives.
Those assigned to your empathy facilitation group join you, one at a time, and you explain the purpose of shared memory. You study each of them with solemn eyes, knowing they cannot fathom what they will soon experience. That knowledge can never supplant experience.
They rest on a cot and you help them get comfortable. Then you connect them to the codex. Their eyes flicker behind closed eyelids. Sometimes they cry out. Sometimes silent tears roll down their cheeks. Sometimes when you bring them back out of the codex they lash out at you. Others weep, or sit perfectly still, hands clenched into fists.
You comfort them, sharing in the injustice of what they and you have experienced together. You counsel them on how precious life is, and, until relatively recently, how fragile. They spend several days in your care until they go back to the community, changed forever.
And when you return to your home each night, what keeps you sane, what stops you from cracking under the weight of reliving grief again and again, are the other memory templates taken from your mind. You pull them on like comfortable old clothing. And you rise, tossed skyward, weightless, your father beaming up at you. He too, in his own way, transcending death.