Navigating the Sandwich
Finding Quiet in a Chaotic World
Pandemic reality, especially with an aging parent, is hard to navigate. I need, we all need, a little quiet
In the aftermath of my father’s death I wanted only quiet. I walked miles in search of it, on roads that grew increasingly thin. I chased its possibility through the cool shadows of familiar rooms. I lay awake in the darkest hours, but even then a nearby fox would call out for love or a deer would high step through fallen leaves or a squirrel would bumble around in the gutter, and the sounds of the world would undo me.
It’s easy to forget how noisy the world is until all you want is quiet. A refuge built of noiselessness. A sanctuary lined with feathers. A way to live with all that you — as you walk, as you chase, as you lie awake — cannot help but remember.
In February my father had turned 90, and I’d thrown him a party. One week later I’d sat with him in his two small personal care rooms, trimming his fingernails, helping him address his cards and letters, gossiping the small stuff, working through his needs as was our habit. Shortly after that, his retirement village shut down; they instituted the quarantine rules. He was not to open his door. He was not to eat with friends. He was not to listen to Arne play the piano, not to walk the halls to the village library, not to go outside, not to play Wii Bowling in the village basement, not to see me, not to accept any food, any book, any gift I might send him.
Suddenly his world was a no world, his circumstances mirroring the circumstances of tens of thousands across the country, countless more around the globe. Suddenly, isolated, cut off from those he loved and what he loved, my father began to lose his grip on much of language. Anxiety overtook him. Sometimes rage. He began to forget how to use the phone, how to answer SKYPE, how to write his cards and letters, how to remember that I loved him, how to remember all the days that I had been there, with him.
Pandemic reality is hard to navigate. I need, we all need, a little quiet.
It was August before I was allowed back inside my father’s room. Early August, and only then because, so very suddenly after so terribly slowly, he was dying. He’d hit his head in a fall early that day. His lungs were filling. My phone had rung late at night — a phone I had almost turned off and almost not heard — and when, miraculously, I woke to the ringing and went flying down the stairs, I couldn’t understand what the retirement village nurse was saying. Do you want us to take him to the hospital? Do you want us to call hospice? Do you want us to give him morphine? I didn’t think to ask, until I did, whether I would be allowed to see him.
Yes, they said.
Yes? I said. After months of no, I didn’t expect it.
What are you doing here? my father barked when I arrived, my husband having done the driving. Five consecutive words from a dark and drowning place, his voice made stentorian with its dying. He was my father on a bed beneath the blinding bright of lights. I was his daughter behind a mask, at midnight. There was a storm outside, and thunder was coming, and he was deaf by then, one hearing aid lost and the other one broken. He was deaf. and I knew he could not hear me, could not see my masked mouth moving.
I did not wish to shout at my dying father.
I did not wish to scream.
I wanted to say the precise right words. I wanted to say them to him, quiet.
After my father died the air seemed thick with sound. I couldn’t escape it. There was, for example, the carburetor rage of chainsaws tearing into trees, the thudding fall of limbs to the ground, the aggressive work of the choppers. The crowns of trees were rustle-rushing from the sky and clonking clomping to the earth, and this is what I heard; I couldn’t stop hearing.
I heard, too, the quarantine-bored boy kicking and kicking the trash can, kicking and kicking, until the overstuffed thing fell and the week’s cans, bottles, and boxes rumbled calamitously across the asphalt. I heard my neighborhood friend — another boy, perhaps eleven — riding back and forth over the whine of his electric wheels. I heard the leaf blower and the lawnmower, the hedge trimmer and the Census taker. I heard (I couldn’t help but hear) the girls on their bikes tearing after one another across my lawn, beneath my open windows, screaming accusations at each other — You’re such a thief, you’re such a liar, you stole my phone, you’re such a liar — their games ending only with the fall of the day and the promise, somewhere, of dinner.
And after that, the noises of the night: that fox, that deer, that squirrel in the gutter.
What are you doing here? my father had said, with some of the last words he had, and in the days and weeks after he passed away, I searched desperately for quiet, tried desperately to remember if I, in the final hour of his life, had brought him any comfort. I tried to hear myself over the noise of the world and the calamity of my own sadness, answering his question.
Because I love you, Dad.
Because I love you.
Words that now return to me in this early morning quiet.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of nearly three-dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Her essays are widely published. Wife | Daughter | Self: a memoir in essays, will be published by Forest Avenue Press in March 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.