The Girl I Didn’t Save

Cameron Dezen Hammon reflects on her frustrations as a Christian music minister for the terminally ill, unable to heal a cancer patient she cared for, and struggling to be compassionate at her belligerent Jewish father’s bedside.

Cameron Dezen Hammon| Longreads | excerpt from This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession | September 2019 | 24 minutes (6,521 words)

 

“She’s saying ‘thank you’ when she blinks like that,” Hannah’s mother says.

Hannah is dying. She lies in her bed, in her bedroom, surrounded by cards and flowers. Her mother sits on the edge of the bed, stroking her hand. Hannah’s husband of one month is beside her, propped against pillows, cross-legged. A few close friends are here as well—they sit against the wall, knees pulled to chests, or lean against the window ledge. Every few seconds Hannah’s ribcage rises in a struggle for breath.

Matt and I met Hannah three years after Budapest, while we were working for the young Baptist at Koinonia. It was the first church we worked for with a congregation comprised of people roughly our own age, and Hannah, twenty-seven, fit perfectly into its little galaxy of artists, lawyers, and schoolteachers. She flitted easily between groups of friends, always smiling. The pastor often calls Hannah his favorite, but no one minds. Hannah is everyone’s favorite.

In April, a surgeon cut a growth from her arm, a tumor she’d named Fred in an attempt to bring humor to a humorless situation. We’d been praying for her, getting updates on her surgery through the blog she started, email, or text. The pastor updated the congregation on the good news from her doctor after the surgery—clear margins, no need for further treatment—and we let out a collective exhale. It felt like a bona fide miracle. We didn’t say out loud that our prayers had healed Hannah because maybe we weren’t sure. But we enthusiastically shared her story with unbelieving friends and family members as a testimony to God’s faithfulness. Then we turned our attention elsewhere. Hannah began planning her wedding and imagining her future. In August, at her four-month checkup, her doctor told her, and she told us, that there was bad news. Rapid metastasis. It was in her lungs, and then it was everywhere.

I’ve begun to understand during my years as a music minister that in the time we spend with the ill and dying, through our songs and our prayers, we’re supposed to be imploring God to intervene.

When I got the text message earlier this morning from the pastor asking me to go and sing for Hannah, it had been a few weeks since I’d seen her. I am unprepared for how dramatically her appearance has changed. Her head is smooth, bald as it had been, but absent the colorful scarf that’s been part of her uniform since losing her thick chestnut hair. Hannah’s pretty face is smooth too, no eyebrows or lashes. Her skin, all over her body, is gray. Her eyes are closed. Hannah’s mother’s hands lie lightly in her lap. I pull a chair from the desk and sit beside her.

“How are you?” I ask dumbly.

Hannah’s mother smiles and squeezes Hannah’s hand. “We’re glad you’re here.”

“Should we sing?” I ask.

I’ve begun to understand during my years as a music minister that in the time we spend with the ill and dying, through our songs and our prayers, we’re supposed to be imploring God to intervene, and we’re constantly reminding ourselves, and maybe reminding God, that we believe God can intervene. 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 pull my chair closer and silence my phone. The room is quiet. Hannah has adopted the firefly as a kind of spirit animal during her sickness and treatment, so fireflies in different forms—stuffed animals, ceramic figurines, drawings—are all over the room. The phrase she uses in her video blogs is pasted up as well: SHINE BRIGHT, FIREFLY. SHINE BRIGHT. Hannah’s video blogs have gone viral in the past few months, and the people around the world rooting for her, praying for her to be healed, have grown to near legion. Now, Shine Bright, Firefly—which at first represented hope for recovery, and then hope for remission—has begun to represent hope for a peaceful death.

It’s unpopular at Koinonia to admit that one holds a child’s view of God: a white-bearded old man with a clipboard, measurer of punishments and keeper of scores. Our God doesn’t resemble that old God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of the Old Testament. The historic God, the literary God. The God of our parents. Our evangelical God is young. He looks much more like the young-man Jesus. He looks, more and more, though we don’t admit this aloud, like the young man leading our church. White and Southern. Loving and pious. Somewhat conservative but cool. A God who would lay down his life for his friends, as Jesus did. Hannah is our friend, and though we can’t literally exchange our lives for hers, we want to imitate Jesus in our care of her. If marrow or blood or a kidney was needed, one of us would readily offer. We would feel relieved to be able to help in a practical, tangible way. But Hannah doesn’t need anything like that from us. We offer what we can: our presence and our prayers.

When Hannah could still walk, she came to the church for prayer. We huddled around her in the dark sanctuary, several ministers and many of her friends. We laid our hands on some part of her body—a shoulder, the top of her head—as we prayed and sang hymns. We asked the Holy Spirit to blow through the sanctuary, through Hannah’s body and through each of us. We prayed that God would restore her body to the way we believed God had designed it, had intended it. We closed our eyes and tried to envision cancer cells being destroyed and healthy cells replacing them. Later, when Hannah could no longer walk, her husband carried her into the church—her head wrapped in that colorful scarf—where we repeated the same process. In December, she settled into a chair and said, “Christmas miracle?” and shrugged.

At that prayer gathering, what we called a healing service, one of the ministers told her that God had given him a message, that she would become a mother to several children. At that four-month checkup, when the metastasis was discovered, her oncologist told her that there wasn’t time to harvest her eggs; her cancer was too aggressive. If she survived, the doctor explained, her eggs would be too damaged from chemotherapy to give birth to a healthy child. The minister at the healing service didn’t say his message was a metaphor. He didn’t say that these children she would mother would be a part of her legacy as a teacher, sister, and friend. God had told him, he insisted, that her body would give birth. Her ravaged, weakening body. The minister had a Pentecostal background—a tradition that strongly believes in miraculous healings. Healing on “this side of eternity.” Though we doubted—silently, privately—we couldn’t help but hope. Maybe he was right. Who were we to say? Hope was what we knew how to do.

It’s February now, and Houston is cold and gray. Hannah’s hospice attendant, a kind woman with noisy, colorful jewelry, is in the kitchen making coffee—I can hear the gentle metallic chime of her bracelets and the rush of the running water. 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.

O Lord my God, I sing, when I, in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made. Hannah’s mother joins me, and Hannah’s husband too, for the second line. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. My voice is steady, despite the dryness. I look at Hannah’s husband, who sits beside her in the bed. I rest my hand on Hannah’s, feel bones flutter under the thin skin like the blades of a fan.

I finish the first song and remember that there’s a bluesy gospel song that Hannah likes. It’s about climbing a mountain, even if you don’t get to the top. As I sing, I think of the “you” in the song as God, asking the speaker to climb an unsummitable mountain. Hannah’s cancer is an unsummitable mountain. On the other side of that mountain, the song promises—and so do I—that there is nothing but blue sky. Maybe even I have not yet accepted that the time to plead for healing has ended, if that had ever been a fair plea. If I’m not asking for healing with my song, with my prayers, then what am I asking for? Is comfort enough? I try not to look at Hannah’s face as I sing. I focus on the fireflies, the cards, the headboard, the pattern on the quilt.

I think of Sabrina and her migraines in that room off Tompkins Square Park back in New York. Had my singing helped her? I wanted my singing to help, but I felt complicit in something that wasn’t helping. What I’m doing now, singing the songs that remind us all of what we believe—that Hannah is headed to a safe place with no more tears, no more pain—motivates me. But what if. What if Hannah isn’t going anywhere when she dies? What if when she closes her lovely eyes for the last time, she meets nothing? What if she meets absence, death? This is the first time I’ve allowed myself this level of doubt, allowed my mind to canter out into the field alone, without the leads of belief to reign it in. The shift that had begun in me in Budapest, where I’d questioned the belief that only the saved will make it into heaven, has brought me here, where I’m now questioning if heaven even exists at all. This shift feels heavier, and more consequential. It’s one thing to question an aspect of theology; it’s another to question the foundation of the faith. But the words of the songs I sing communicate a certain, unwavering faith, even if I can’t. The sun begins to set, and I finish the last song. I hug Hannah’s mother before quietly making my way out of her room, through the kitchen where the hospice attendant is reading a magazine, and out to the street to my car. I get a text message at five the next morning from the pastor, telling me Hannah is gone.

Our unspoken denials are actually for our own benefit. Hannah got sick, and then she got worse. Despite our prayers.

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. I’d ask him to consider forgiving my mother; I would describe the forgiveness I believed God extended to every-one. I would also try to listen to my father’s perspective on their marriage, something I would’ve never considered before my conversion. Eventually, my sense of obligation to hear him wore thin. The last time he called with a fresh tirade about my mother, I finally told him to stop. I told him not to call me again until he was ready to have a real conversation. We didn’t speak for months after that, not until he called with news about this upcoming heart surgery. He would be flying to Cleveland from New Jersey, he said, even in his increasingly weak state, and he would need help navigating the hospital.

“Kyle will take me, fly me over there,” he said, “and get me checked in if you can come for the second half.”

The difficult half. The half that will include incontinence and confusion, breathing tubes and heart monitors. Kyle is my half brother, my father’s firstborn son from his marriage to the woman he left for my mother. Kyle and I didn’t grow up together, and we’ve always had a somewhat rocky relationship. But if Kyle can help, I thought, I should be able to as well. I’d been to Cleveland once before, in college when my boyfriend’s band played a show at a dive bar. It was cold, that was all I remembered. In truth, I’d have preferred to stay in Houston with my friends, with Hannah’s friends, to help organize her funeral. But my father needed me. He didn’t usually ask for help directly. I bought a ticket to Cleveland.

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.

Shortly before we moved out of that town in New Jersey, when I was fourteen and my parents’ divorce had been finalized, after the house sold and we packed up all our things, my father had a heart attack. It was minor, but it was painful and alarming enough for him to tell my mother about it, to ask for her help. Instead of calling an ambulance, she drove him to the hospital herself. With me and my younger brother in the back seat, she calmly pulled up to the curb in front of the emergency room and dropped him off. Not one of us said a word. He got out of the car, one hand protectively over his chest, and slammed the door. My mother pulled away from the curb, away from the hospital, the town, him, and the life we’d had there. Sometimes he reminded me of this during those late-night calls he made to me when he was drinking.

I apologized for it, many times, though of course I’d been too young to have any influence over how that event unfolded. I hoped my willingness to apologize would inspire him to do the same. Look, I was saying,this is how it’s done. My faith dictated this; it gave me a template for uncoiling these hardwired hurts and grievances. Be humble, ask for forgiveness, then forgive.

My behavior didn’t inspire my father to do the same. When our conversations reached that vulnerable place, it was always one-sided. I kept trying. I kept praying. I brought him up when prayer requests were taken at the Bible studies and small-group meetings I attended week after week. “This time it’s to do with his kidneys,” I’d say, or “It’s his heart again.” I was too shy to bring up the harder things, the emotional wounds. It was simpler to ask for prayers for physical healing. My friends were always eager to pray for him. They encouraged me to visit him, sent prayer lists around like chain letters with my father’s Jewish name on them, which I thought he’d get a kick out of. I rarely mentioned to them the angry late-night phone calls I still got. Instead I focused the attention of my faithful friends on healing my father. What was even more important than healing his body was healing his soul.

“Do these people know you’re Jewish?” he asked me a few years earlier, when I’d tried to gift him a copy of the New Testament. He lay in a hospital bed then, recovering from another heart surgery, a valve replacement. The doctors had used a porcine valve, a pig’s valve. It was a common surgery, one that others he knew had, but the non-kosher nature of implanting a piece of a pig’s heart in his body made him pensive. Though he wasn’t kosher, had never been kosher, there was a kind of dark poetry to the whole thing.

“Yes, they know I’m Jewish,” I replied. He was silent.

“Pray with me,” I said. I sat on the edge of his bed, on the thin cotton blanket, and held the copy of the New Testament I’d picked up while at the airport. It wasn’t that my father’s death was necessarily imminent, but that in order to have the courage to face him, I had to be the person I’d become. Not the old me—the girl at the top of the stairs who’d dared refuse his offer of a ride to a voice lesson. I had to be the new me, the minister. The Bible, the prayer, the language I used—it was all a part of that new person I’d become.

“And say what?” he asked gamely. “What would I say to God?” A yellow plastic water pitcher sat perspiring on the table beside his bed. The florescent overhead lights buzzed.

“Father God,” I began, “I am a sinner.” He was quiet. I continued. “I am sorry for the wrongs I’ve done . . .” I knew this part would be difficult, maybe impossible, for him. The only time he’d ever offered what could be construed as an apology was during his one brief stint in AA, when I was in college. He’d written me an “amends” letter, part of twelve-step recovery work. His apologies had to do with his drinking, though his letter was not specific. We hadn’t seen each other in seven years then. After the divorce, I’d had no contact with him. But the amends letter surprised me. I hoped that maybe AA would help him to turn a corner. I finally agreed to see him in person, when I was home on winter break, and we made a date to have dinner. By the time the evening of our dinner arrived, my father was drinking again, his anger had returned, and the amends letter had been long forgotten.

“I believe you died for my sins,” I continued. “I believe you rose from the dead so that I may have eternal life in you.”

The words hung in the airless room. My father’s hospital roommate shifted in his curtained bed; Fox News played on the television.

Part of me cringed at what I was doing, as I’d cringed in Budapest leading Mark through this prayer, but I wanted my father to pray the Sinner’s Prayer maybe more than I’d wanted much else.

“I invite you to come into my heart and my life so that—”

“I’m not ready for this,” he said.

I looked at his large, red-rimmed eyes. His once-black hair had gone white and stuck out in puffs on either side of his head. I could see his bony shoulders beneath the thin hospital gown. He looked like a madman. At the time, I believed in the words of the prayer. I believed there were words powerful enough, if spoken in the correct order, to persuade God to accept a person no matter what they’d done before. I wanted God to accept my father. I believed that if he did, then my choices would have been right all along, even if my father and I never got our relationship right. If my father prayed this prayer, as I had, then nothing else, not what he’d done to me or I to him, mattered. All was made new. His heart would give out, eventually, I knew. That mattered less.

“Pass me the remote,” he barked, and pointed to the TV screen above my head. I set the Bible down.

Cleveland is as cold as I remember. Thick snow drifts pile on either side of the interstate, streaked with dirt and exhaust.

“It’s lake effect,” my taxi driver says, pointing at the heavy gray sky beyond his windshield. “Snow tonight.” He frowns.

It has been so long since I’ve lived somewhere that snowed, somewhere snow is a nuisance and not an ethereal wonder. I press my nose to the window as the taxi barrels along the highway and pull the collar of my coat up around my neck. I’m supposed to be sad now, carrying the mantle of this solemn trip and of Hannah’s death, the anticipation of my father’s condition. Yet I feel a kind of childish delight at the snow, delight to be on my own far from Houston. When the taxi driver pulls up in front of the hotel, I’m relieved to see it’s within walking distance of the Cleveland Clinic, a well-lit elaborate complex made of glass, metal, and light. It looks like a city more than a hospital, or even like one of the light-spangled oil refineries south of Houston. I pay the driver and strap on my backpack.

“How many keys will you be needing?” the desk clerk asks as I drop my bags and unbutton my coat, sweating now in the blast of steam heat. He looks down at my driver’s license. “Mrs. Hammon?”

I unzip my jacket and push my suitcase up against the counter with my foot. Would my father need a key? No, he’s in ICU. Matt is at home with Sydney, planning Hannah’s funeral. Who else would need a key?

“Just me,” I say. “Just one.” The lobby is empty. A fleet of coffee carafes sits on the far end of the check-in desk, and eighties pop music plays quietly over the PA system. The desk clerk runs my credit card and hands me the single electronic key.

I take the elevator up to my room and imagine the myriad reasons why women check into hotel rooms alone. It will be years before I meet the man I will become obsessed with, yet in this moment I think of what it would be like to be waiting for a lover in this hotel room, instead of waiting to see if my father will survive surgery. It will also be years before I know that such thinking is a typical symptom of sex and love addiction—sexualizing feelings of grief, loss, or loneliness. The rush of seduction, even the rush of thinking about seduction, as anesthetic.

I slide my keycard into the door and toss my bags on the bed. Through the window I watch the last silvery light of the day disappear. I set down my backpack, lock the door, drag the desk chair up under the door handle, and pile the garbage bin on top of it. It isn’t that I feel threatened; it’s that I’ve become aware of my own sexual availability. I barricade the door to keep others out, and maybe, just as importantly, to keep myself in. Workers in orange vests four stories below sprinkle salt on walkways. New snow shimmers from the pitch-black sky. I exhale and stand in front of the window, stalling for just a few more minutes alone before what I know will be a plunge into the mania of my father’s presence, his illness, the hospital.


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“Where have you been?” he shouts. “Where have you been?” I stand beside my father’s bed in the ICU on the cardio-vascular floor. Life-sustaining machines beep, buzz, ring an alarm. Nurses rush between curtained pods, not exactly rooms but more like holding bays, each one the temporary home of a patient in some state of delirium. Every light is turned up to full brightness, therapeutic shoes slap against the linoleum, the thud of wheels on rolling beds, hydraulic arms being released, pushed back, modified. Patients shuttle by on gurneys, some motionless, with breathing tubes in their throats. Others thrash, like my father, like feverish children. A nurse leans over my father on his other side. “Mr. Dezen!” he says too loudly, as though he was shouting into a wind tunnel. “Your daughter is here to see you, Mr. Dezen!”

“Where have you been?” my father repeats, locking eyes with mine.

“I just got here, Dad, I’m staying at the—”

“What took you so long? Jesusfuckingchrist I’m here all by myself—”

“I’m here,” I say, raising my voice and moving toward him. “I’m here—” A stab of guilt. What has taken me so long?

His eyes roll back. His hair is puffed out at the sides like it was the last time I saw him, only now it’s thinner, whiter.

“He’s just come off the ventilator,” the nurse says. “He’s still got the anesthesia in his system.” He flips a switch on one of the machines tethered to my father’s bed and adjusts the bag of clear liquid dripping into the IV in his arm.

“He’s always like this,” I say, forcing a half smile, trying to make a joke. The nurse circles the bed and leans down over his ear.

“Mr. Dezen!” he shouts again. “Your daughter is here to see you.” Raw, chafed skin rims his mouth where the oxygen mask had been. Several drops of oxidizing blood, like rust-colored quarters, dot the blue hospital gown where someone, presumably the nurse, has made several attempts at finding a vein. The nurse leans back and looks at me. He’s young, with short, light brown hair and a tan despite it being February. The muscles in his arms and shoulders press out against his green cotton scrubs. He has several tattoos that are only partially hidden, though I can’t make out what they are.

“Miss . . . ?” he asks me.

“Dezen,” I hear myself say, though I haven’t used my maiden name in longer than I can remember.

“It may be a while before he comes out of this.”

What if when she closes her lovely eyes for the last time, she meets nothing? What if she meets absence, death? This is the first time I’ve allowed myself this level of doubt.

My father appears to have fallen back into a deep sleep, proving, I think, that his outburst had been drug induced and not a part of some justifiable anger he has over how long it took me to arrive.

I want to ask the nurse a thousand questions—Were you with him in surgery? Was the surgery successful? Why is he so combative? How should I handle him if he gets like that again?—but I say nothing. The nurse is attractive, and I’m distracted. Mostly I want to keep him talking so he won’t leave me alone with my father.

“Come back tomorrow,” he says finally. “Tomorrow will be better.”

Back in my hotel room, I open my laptop and find several email messages about Hannah’s funeral. One of the other music ministers has written about Hannah’s last few moments, including the words she said to her husband just before she entered a coma. “You have loved me so well,” she said. In his email, the minister suggested that Matt and I write a song with that phrase, and that we could sing it at her funeral. I say the phrase aloud to myself. The TV is on mute, and the curtain over the large window is drawn. You have loved me so well. I close the email message and type Hannah’s phrase into my computer, then several others. I write and delete phrases until I have a verse, and then a chorus. I call Matt and tell him I’ll be emailing him lyrics for a song. Will he work on writing the music? This is our method of songwriting, though we’ve never done it while in different cities.

When I return the next day to the ICU, the nurse from the night before is nowhere to be found, and my father is asleep. I pull a stool away from the sink and wheel it over to his bed. The machines beside him hum and beep. I can’t imagine how anyone could sleep with all this noise. Should I sing? And if I sing, what will I sing? I don’t want the nurse to come by and find me singing—that would necessitate an explanation that would include what I do for a living, and I don’t want to tell him that. Maybe I could sing something else, not a hymn but something my father would like. He loves show tunes, Broadway, big band stuff. The last time I saw him, he was very proud to recount his experience in a community theater production of Kiss Me, Kate. He launched into a bellowing chorus of “Luck Be a Lady” while his hospital roommate was lifted and turned by an orderly to prevent bedsores.

I decide to go down to the gift shop to see if I can find a CD of some music my father will like. He’s sleeping heavily. I wheel the stool back to the sink and head for the elevator.

I return with an Ella Fitzgerald compilation album. My father loves Ella Fitzgerald, and I’ve just gotten off the elevator when I hear a loud noise, a different kind of alarm going off. I don’t know what it means or who it’s for, but it reminds me of an alarm I heard once near the Upper West Side apartment where my mother, brother, and I lived after my parents’ divorce. I was walking home from the subway when I heard it, and as I got closer to my house it got louder, though with each step I expected the opposite, for it to get softer, for the disaster to get farther away. The fire wasn’t in my building, but it was too close for comfort. As I walk closer to my father’s bed, I have a similar sensation. I’m walking toward a disaster that isn’t mine, a disaster I should be walking away from.

The nurse is there, shouting into my father’s ear again, and several other nurses hover behind him.

“Mr. Dezen!” he says. “What can I do for you?”

One nurse adjusts the bag on the IV drip, and another takes his pulse.

“Get my salesman!” my father shouts. “Where is that kid?”

I stand as far away as I can while still being inside the curtained pod. No one notices I’m here, and I think about slipping out and heading back down to the lobby.

“Mr. Dezen! Are you in pain, Mr. Dezen? Are you uncomfort—”

“I need to talk to my salesman,” my father repeats, in the tone of a prisoner of war trying to negotiate with his captors. Before I was born, my father had been what was called a garmento, a traveling salesman who represented American textile manufacturers to the fashion industry, a breed of Jewish man now long gone, evaporated after the business was shipped overseas. He spent a lot of time in department stores, and when he met my mother she was working as a buyer for one of the largest. He would later tell me that after they married—when, he believed, my mother was cheating on him with her boss—she developed such acute anxiety that she couldn’t ride the escalator at work, though it was the only way to get from the sales floor to her office. My father believed her anxiety had to do with her guilt over the affair, or at least that’s how he framed it when he told me that story. I know that sometimes patients with dementia can recall with utter clarity a time and place forty years in the past. He doesn’t have dementia, but this outburst makes me wonder. It would be a cruel trick if he was stuck there, of all places, in his mind.

“I’m here, Mr. Dezen,” the nurse says. “How can I help you?”

The alarm bells are silenced, and the other two nurses leave the pod, move on to other patients, more pressing needs. My father’s eyes roll back in his head, and then close. The nurse turns to face me.

“I didn’t see you there.”

“Sorry,” I say, though I don’t know what I’m apologizing for.

“He’ll be all right.”

“What was that?”

“Sometimes older patients get ICU psychosis.”

“He doesn’t know where he is?” I have yet to have a lucid conversation with my father, and I am beginning to wonder if I’ll be able to at all.

“It’ll wear off in a day or so,” the nurse says and starts to leave.

“I wanted to ask you,” I start. Do you want to have coffee with me? What are you doing later? Please don’t leave me alone with him.

He stands at the threshold of the pod, with one foot on the other side of the curtain. “Shoot,” he says.

“Where’s a good place to eat around here?” I ask.

I don’t listen much to his answer. Instead, while he’s speaking I’m deciding what I will do with the information. Will I ask him to join me? I finger my wedding ring, and I know what I must look like—bereft, lonely, making small talk, desperate.

“Let me know which one you end up at,” he says, smiling, and leaves. His smile is clean. Not suggestive, not even coy. I look over at my father, who’s now sleeping, and I wonder if the nurse thinks I’m behaving as a daughter would normally behave. Would a daughter who loved her father be more distraught? Would a daughter who loved her father be flirting with his ICU nurse? I’m relieved my father is asleep, though I’m not sure how long it will last. I pull the Ella Fitzgerald CD from my bag. It seems ridiculous now. I run my finger over the song list. My father’s heart monitor beeps steadily.

He wakes up once more before I leave for the day, and I show him the CD. “Nice,” he says weakly. I remind him of a conversation we had a few years ago, when Ella Fitzgerald was performing at Carnegie Hall. It was to be her last public performance, and as we talked, I fantasized about flying up to New York and taking him to the concert. I imagined us sitting elbow to elbow in the perfumed dark. That was the sort of thing I liked to imagine I would do with my father. I couldn’t afford the concert tickets, or the plane tickets, and sensing that, maybe, he said, “Some other time.” I was fairly certain there would be no other time, or times, so every time I spoke to him I forced myself to say, “I love you.” Every time we spoke, since that day when I was child and we’d left him at the hospital, I thought it would be my last chance, and thinking ahead, I didn’t want him to die without me having said “I love you.” It had less to do with the feeling itself, maybe, than creating a seal against future grief. It was what I thought my future self, my future fatherless self, would want me to have said.

“I love you,” I say. It’s six o’clock, and a nurse has just brought him a tray of food. I hope he’s finally settling down.

“I love you too, honey,” he says.

Over the days that follow, he has several more outbursts, a few of them directed at me. I cry in the ladies’ room more than once. Though I see him through the worst of his recovery, I feel, for the first time since my conversion, that no song, no prayer, no petition will change a thing about his illness, or about anyone’s illness. Just like nothing would change my father. Not my love or my lack of love. Not my effort or my lack of effort. The new creation I have become is not new enough. I think fiercely about the nurse—his tattoos, his hair. I imagine us walking together. Meeting for coffee, talking. I begin to talk to him in my head. In my fantasy he mostly listens but pauses to say, “You’re a good daughter, Cameron.” Instead of going out to look for the nurse, I finish writing the song for Hannah and call my husband.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I say. I try to cry, to underscore the urgency to Matt, to convince him that buying a new plane ticket, one that would get me home a few days early, is worth the expense. I can’t cry. I worry what I might do if I don’t get home soon.

“What about your father?” Matt asks.

“I just can’t do this anymore,” I reply.

The next morning, I get on a plane to Houston. I’ll see him once more, after he’s diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I’ll spend that visit in a similar mix of hope and hurt. Alternately praying and griping about his temper, his unpredictability. When he passes away, alone in a nursing home, I won’t have seen him in almost two years. I imagine I will carry the guilt of that, and the grief, not only for his death but for our relationship, for what it was and what it could’ve been, for the rest of my life.

I’ve heard it said that a person gets her idea about God from her father. When we prayed aloud at Koinonia we so often said, “Father God,” at the beginning of every petition, as we had when we’d prayed for Hannah. I knew early on that I would have to get rid of my idea that God was anything like my father, but in the end, it turned out to be easier to get rid of my father. To move to the other side of the country, to put as much distance as I could between us. To call him only rarely, and to rarely take his calls. To see him infrequently. Only then, I thought, could God have a fighting chance of becoming God’s self in my mind, and not a poor replica of an imperfect man. But my strategy failed. It felt as though nothing I did, or could do, would make a difference—to God, or to my father. It’s not that I expected, really, my father to become kinder, to become more like a father to me, least of all due to something I’d done. But I allowed myself to hope that some wrongs would be made right.

* * *

Cameron Dezen Hammon‘s writing appears in The Kiss anthology from W.W. Norton, Ecotone, the Literary Review, the Houston ChronicleNYLON, and elsewhere; and her essay “Infirmary Music” was named a notable in The Best American Essays 2017Cameron hosts The Ishpodcast on love, art, and politics. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University and is a writer-in-residence for Writers in the Schools in Houston, TX, where she lives with her family. This Is My Body is her debut book. Find her on Twitter @CameronDHammon.

Excerpted from This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, published by Lookout Press on October 22nd. 

Longreads Editors: Sari Botton and Katie Kosma