FOR THE MAN with one foot in the world of spirits and one foot in ours, I call on the ghosts of his ancestors, my ancestors, whom I never knew, but who loved him and nurtured him and guided him when he was young. Before he turned so secret and inward, before he grew so closed and impenetrable. From my fingertips, I send out threads of light and ask these spirits to wind them around his body to create a cocoon, to shield him, protect him and heal him now.
For the man who never had much more than a sniffle the 38 years, I’ve been on this planet, who now has taken ill. And I am not there.
And I am restless for news, weary with anxiety and not knowing. I go to the green chapel deep in the fir and birch and sit on the travelers’ stone and wait. It takes me back in time to a throne of snow—
—which he built for me in the backyard after a snowstorm one winter. I think I was three or four. Can’t remember, exactly, just that it was during the first Regan administration. I was mesmerized by how he could move and sculpt such massive weights and volumes of snow when I didn’t have the dexterity to even build a snowball that wouldn’t fall apart in my mittened hands.
The hours hunched over the dining room table at night reviewing my math homework. Math far beyond my capability to comprehend at that age. With the patience of Job, he’d explain things to me until I was too tired to think. He’d say alright, get to bed, and he’d stay up, and work out the problem. And when I’d wake up in the morning, the answers worked out would be laying there on the dining room table, and he’d explain how to get to the solutions to me over my honey nut cheerios. How many late nights did he stay up deciphering my math homework? Too many to count. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he still had notes of every one of those math problems, drawn and redrawn on his special sciencey graph paper from his own university days.
Each morning he’d wait with me at the bus stop. After finding my seat, I’d put my hand up on the window and give the Vulcan sign of peace, the one with the fingers splayed out like a V, and he’d return the greeting, to a roar of laughter and derision by the bigger kids in the back of the bus. They could make fun of me all they wanted but I didn’t care one good god damn. I was fiercely proud that my dad was a Vulcan. And that we spoke Klingon to each other. By the end of the school year, wouldn’t you know that the whole back of the bus was giving him the same Vulcan sign of peace each morning as the bus pulled away.
I’d see him reading under the lamp at his desk in the evenings, reading or teaching himself languages like Latvian or Aramaic or Spanish or Vietnamese. Despite struggling with dyslexia and English being his second language. Surrounded by books and papers and files and notes scrawled out on napkins. Always reading, always learning, always hunting for knowledge. He used to read to my sister every evening, and could and can still recite Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by heart. His favorite poem. Mine too.
Years later, when I moved back home to take care of my mother during her cancer. I did a lot of puttering in the garden in the evenings to calm my mind. When he got home we’d talk gardening and physiology. Or he’d tell me about his latest discoveries at work.
With her initial prognosis, the outlook was not good. Stage one, then two, then three, then four metastatic cancer. Ten centimeter tumor. Needs to come out. Probable loss of arm function. Spread to ribs, vertebrae, skull, liver, three months to live…every doctor’s appointment and every test offered a bleaker outlook than the one before. Dad and I would talk while walking the dog at night, navigating through the labyrinth of her test results. He’d ask me questions and I’d answer to the best of my ability. He gave me piles of textbooks with chapters on breast cancer marked with post-it-notes. We talked about the leading-edge cancer therapies I’d find scouring through medical journals, how to pose questions to her doctors to get a positive result. With the calmness of mind and the skill of a chess master who could think six, seven, and eight steps ahead, he helped me navigate these crucial first months of managing her cancer, and sixteen months later, she was restaged from stage four to all clear.
My duty done, my job as carer redundant, my time had come to leave the place I once called home. I had my own unforged paths to navigate.
Since then my strongest memories of him are at airports. Departing from airports, reuniting at airports, knowing that he’d always be there waiting. In true DC government official fashion, he’d be there at least an hour before my arrival as he would be checking on my flight as I was in the air. Checking, double-checking, in secret, from hidden locations, watching. Years would pass and I’d be afraid I wouldn’t recognize him at the arrival gate, but I always could, immediately, mostly by him wearing the same army-grey t-shirt and government-issued black jacket liner with the elbows worn out—no matter if it were winter or summer. His dark hair silvering above the ears, his jaw and eyes and physique becoming more squarish with years, but always, always, the same hawkish impenetrable gaze. Watching, watching, seeing me before I would see him on the other side of the arrival gate.
For days before a departure, he’d go over the layout of the airport, complete with maps and diagrams, and brief me on exactly where to go, how long it would take, whose planes left from which gates and their general destinations when we’d be leaving to allow an extra hour for him to get his hazelnut coffee and a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel from Einsteins. So much information I couldn’t possibly take it in and yet he’d crammed it all into his head somehow. Vulcans have predilections to be walking encyclopedias, and he was no exception.
Following the first smattering of sniper shootings that terrorized the DC area, I along with so many others, became terrified of public places, so much that it was hard to leave the house, even to go to the grocery store. Behind my sister’s school was the site of one of the incidents. Walking the dog down the street felt like walking into a war zone. I didn’t even feel safe to get gas for my car. He saw how paralyzing my fear had become. One bright Sunday morning, he drove me to the local shopping center and parked the car at the edge of the lot. Then he pointed to the big box stores. Every site they choose shows careful deliberation; they know how to not get caught, he explained. What they want is a rooftop, with clear shots, to a large number of people out in the open. Like this parking lot, he said, his words sending a cascade of shivers down my spine. The roof of the parking garage in that corner is perfect. They can take some shots and then hide behind the parapet and move without being seen. He gestured to the highway exits across the street, feeding onto 395. Exits in multiple directions, he said. The more options for their getaway, the harder it is for them to be tracked.
Adopting his clarity of thought allowed me to face my fears head on. To think more rationally, to not give in. I could feel safe walking the dog down the street, at least. Although to this day, I still have problems with parking lots, always scanning rooftops out of the corner of my eye.
Two of my most cherished possessions are both photos of him. The first was taken when I was about one, my second winter. There’s snow on the ground and leggy swamp maples in the background. He’s holding me, a little bundle in a snowsuit resonating pure joy and contentment in my parent’s arms. And he looks so happy, it almost doesn’t look like him. The second photo is a candid someone took of him after my first solo recital. My eyes are closed, and his are too. He’s just handed me the flowers on stage and has about-faced to go back to his seat in the back of the hall. I’ve just stepped out of the spotlight but am lit up by the light of his smile.
I wish I had held on to his smile with both hands so I could give it back to him now. I wish he’d retire and rest, maybe even join me in rural wherever I end up, where he could find peace. I wonder if by hearing the language of the rain and trees again if he could break free of old patterns and anger and limiting ideas. If he could rediscover a lightness of being that has been lost in him too long.
Every time I say goodbye to him at the airport, I always harbor this deep sense of guilt for leaving him, a deep sadness that I could not stay or take him with me. A fear that that goodbye would be the last goodbye for who knows when I’d come back. He watches me as I go through security and even until I turn the corner to go to the departure gates. I don’t know if he knows how much I love him. I don’t think I’ve done anything much to make him that proud of me like he was when that last photo was taken, but I wish I could again someday. But more than that, I wish I could harness light and send him the healing he needs.
S.B. Goncarova is a writer and visual artist based out of Montréal. She has been the grant recipient of the Puffin Foundation and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her visual work can be found in the Archive of Digital Art, Danube University, Austria, PS1 MoMA Contemporary Art Center Digital Archive, The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Art Library, and Rutgers University Special Collections. She loves creating sound compositions for films, combining almost-whispered spoken word with nature sounds, city soundscapes and meditative music. She is currently working on some short video pieces for her ASMR youtube channel called Abba ASMR, which feature segments from Harnessing Light. (Her nieces call her Abba.) Her next book, "Education of a Diva," is due out in 2020 by Clay Grouse Press.