A window opening to reveal a nearby magnolia tree.

Pretend you don’t know the ending to this story. Pretend he sits up in bed and says your name, asks for a glass of water. He does not moan in pain when you touch his hand. His favorite Christmas album doesn’t play on repeat, singeing the melody into you, over and over again, and the May warmth never seems an illusion. Pretend that white doesn’t surround you: white sheets and the white washcloth over his eyes and the bare white walls and white flowers on the magnolia tree outside his window, the petals fluorescent, and brilliant next to everything inside, mocking all the other colors. Time reverses from this moment so that every memory he loses, he finds. Pretend he experiences dusk at the lake for the first time, the way the sun turns the horizon crimson and then every shade from fire to marigold to rose, so he can stare upward and point out the planets as they appear, smiling, easily, and in the growing darkness his laughter carries over the beach, out onto the still surface of the water, traveling. Pretend no one can have wonder stripped away from them. Pretend no one can have what keeps them wanting to live stolen or eroded or forgotten.

Here, he gets up from this bed and after a couple months, returns home again and then you walk in one day and he wears his olive-colored wool hat that he loves and he says your name, like your name is so essential it could never be forgotten. After a couple years, he stands straighter, walks taller, sits in the jade reckoning of the backyard again, smiling at the camera in that way where all his kindness populates his eyes, everything he gave away so freely, never worrying that one day he might not have enough for himself. Pretend one day he starts to preach again, and the people welcome him home and you stand awkwardly in the corner and watch as they encircle him like they know now that he almost vanished from their lives and so cherish him all the more. Pretend they have vases of white Calla lilies in the sanctuary and he wears a white stole like white doesn’t mean that everything needs sterilization and bleach, that white doesn’t mean that he has ended up in this place, with hallways of bewildered and roaming people and the woman who sits in a wheelchair by the front door with half her pale face engulfed in the violence of a black and violet bruise.

Pretend he doesn’t lie here for five days, the white sheets wrapped around him, while the rain strips the magnolia of all its petals and the rest of you surround him, talking softly, planning everything that is supposed to come after. Like he is already gone. Because you know watching him approach death minute by minute will never leave you. Pretend you tell him something different, pretend you tell him you will all be lost without him, that he has to stay because you need him. Pretend you haven’t had to lose him every day up until now, for years, so in a way you found yourself almost ready for this. And pretend it could never seem like a relief that he let go, because of all he has had to endure. A person can’t lose everything they know and love because they can’t remember any of it; a person can’t unlearn how to speak and use the bathroom. They can’t become mute, and fall again and again until nothing protects them from their own vulnerability. Pretend that the cruelty of what happens to him shocks the world around you. Pretend that strength isn’t measured by what a person can do, but more by what they can endure without becoming bitter or cruel in the process, so your dad is still the strongest person you know. Pretend that when you come to see him after he is gone, his skin doesn’t appear so much closer to the color of the walls and the sheets, like he could somehow just fade into this last place you saw him alive. Pretend you are able to believe that he becomes whole again in death and everything taken from him comes back. Pretend you can believe, without hesitation, in a loving God even though nothing about what kills this man feels loving. Pretend your dad talks to you in your dreams instead of just seeing him from afar, as if in an overexposed photo, fading and waving as he is bleached into a field of white noise.

Photo by judy dean, used and adapted under CC.