Life in Flames

A few years ago, just before we separated, on a summer night that was hotter than I can remember, my wife and I were sitting on our porch when a man engulfed in flames entered our garden, passed before our astonished eyes moving his arms as though conducting an invisible orchestra, and jumped into the small pool that, in my spare time, I’d been building for my children with the same hands that are now writing these words.

I wouldn’t be lying if I told you the most terrible part of that image of a man wrapped in flames was that the entire thing happened in complete silence. In truth, much more horrible than the appetite of the flames was that the cursed man didn’t scream, that the only sound we heard while he ran through our garden was the sound made by the water when he submerged himself, not even when the ambulance came to take away his wounded body did we hear a word from his lips.

This strange thing happened during my father’s final suffering, when I spent my days reading at his bedside. My father had lung cancer and had decided he wanted to die at home, not in the hospital. I suppose that was one of the reasons my wife and I separated, though, of course, that’s another story.

My father’s illness was advanced, the metastasis had affected other organs, but something inside of him refused to die. I’m sure he hardly suffered, though there was something on the verge of obscene in his struggle against death, especially because I know how much he wanted to die. But his body—stubborn, uncompromising—refused to give him a final release, fought to retain the breath of life, clung to this side of the world.

Sometimes, when I think about those days, I wonder if it was the book I was reading to him that fueled his life, if before he could die he needed to know how the story ended. (The title of the book doesn’t matter much. In any case, I can tell you that the book held one of those stories that deserve to be heard at least once in life.)

The room where my father suffered was in the back of our house. There, the garden became a stone walkway that led to a wooden door that my children had painted red. Just beyond the door was a hedge of rhododendron and, on the other side, stood our neighbors’ house.

While I lived in that house (I don’t anymore, my wife kept everything, including the bed my father died in), I didn’t have much contact with them. They were a young married couple. The man must have had a long commute, because every day very early he left in his car and didn’t come back until very late, never before eight. Sometimes he didn’t come back at all, but never more than two nights in a row. By the time of this story, his wife was pregnant.

Every afternoon, while I read at my father’s sickbed, window open because of the heat, the sound of my children playing and the smell of the reseda growing in our garden came in through the window, and through the window I could watch my neighbor sitting at the kitchen table with a book open before her. Sometimes I stopped reading, looking for a moment at my father (who, with eyes closed, was perhaps recreating the images that my voice created, or was thinking about friends already gone, or maybe just confused for a moment) and then watching my neighbor turn the pages of her book or stroke her belly.

To lose myself momentarily in that vision—freed from the work of reading to the man who gave me life and, with it, all my troubles and joys—was comforting. Looking at that woman, whose name I never learned, made me feel less alone, closer to the ultimate answer that governed the why of that existence being extinguished before my eyes.

I don’t know why I decided to spend my fathers last days with him reading a book. He was never a great reader, and I myself preferred to see a movie or restore a piece of old furniture to reading a book. But during that terrible summer I felt that I had to fill the last hours of his life with something beyond my physical presence. And I also didn’t want the last voices my father heard before he died to be the bitter, harsh voices my wife and I filled the house with during that time. And so I read with verve, savoring every word, lingering over each description, enacting the dialogues, gesturing ever silence. (Needless to say my father was a selfless, docile, patient audience who never complained that I had selected this story and not another one. There are times in a man’s life, especially once it’s over, when there is no choice.)

From time to time my neighbor got up from the table, walked into the kitchen or out of it, but she always, sooner or later, returned to her book. There were times, too, when she would go to the large kitchen window, lean her forehead against the glass and look out. At those moments I guessed at how lonely she felt, that she wished her husband didn’t have to leave her alone in the house every morning, and how sad it was to squander his youth on the road or some dirty office rather than being with her and the child growing in her womb.

And so I thought, in those days, that she too was reading a book as a way of killing time, a way of approaching one of the truly important events life has in store. Of course, birth and death are as close as two books on their shelf, as two readers in their own glass bubbles, as two houses separated by a rhododendron hedge and a door some kids painted red.

At night, while my father fought, clutching his bottle of oxygen, my wife snored softly beside me, and my children dreamed of electronic toys and superheroes, or whatever healthy and well-fed children dream of, I lay awake thinking about the man in flames, about my neighbor reading, and the life, still unaware of the fate that awaited it, strengthening with its placenta. During those deep nights of absolute solitude, while time moved sadly toward my father’s immanent death, I chanced to discover something that had never before been clear to me. What appeared transparently clear to me, as if before then I’d been looking through dark glasses with the wrong prescription, was that, if you look carefully, the world is a very strange place and we have to correct our gaze constantly so that terror doesn’t overwhelm us at the breakfast table, during business meetings, or while having sex once a week.

That was the kind of thing I’d think lying in our bed which love had fled with long, silent steps.

In my father’s final days of life I got used to moving around my own house in the dark at night, like a thief. First I’d go to my children’s room and listen to them moving in their beds, small puppies gorged on meat and milk. Then I’d go to the pool to see the traces the man in flames had left there, a strange stain near the drain, like those chalk drawings the forensics make of the shape of the body, but this shape seemed made with indelible ink. But my nightly rounds, inevitably, ended in my father’s room. In his light sleep, as fragile as an insect’s life, I watched as night by night he turned into a mask of himself. Felt how bone was gaining on muscle, how his skull fought to sprout in the center of his face like a putrid flower.

One of those nights, the last before my father died, I saw my neighbor. And that vision nearly drove me mad. Because she was naked, completely naked, as beautiful as an oil painting. Her nakedness was so intense that, for a moment, I wanted to wake my wife, my children, even my father, to see it. I didn’t desire her, nor was I embarrassed to watch her without her knowing. Just a kind of cold ecstasy, if such a paradox is possible. I wouldn’t have wanted to touch her or kiss her big, round belly; I only wanted her to stay there, drinking that glass of water, that the thirst that had woken her in the middle of the night, beautiful as fire, would never be quenched.

When she left, when that beauty was torn from my eyes, my father woke. In his eyes, set like flints in lean meat, there still shone a small light, augural, a glint of intelligence. Then he said the last word I remember hearing him say:

“Read.” He said.

And I obeyed. I read one page, then another, then one more.

The first light of dawn the next morning surprised me there, in his room. A citrus light, full of pollen and the scent of cut grass, surrounded us, cast a spell around our book, joined us for the last time, a bit mythological of course, as father and son always are.

When I read the last word of the book, I looked up at him. He was moving a little, and seemed to be asleep. So I kissed his forehead, fluffed his pillow, and checked the levels of his oxygen bottle. As I left the room I felt the sharp lack of sleep that wakeful night, so I went to breakfast and told my wife I was going back to bed.

My wife insisted that I come outside, to our garden, and have breakfast in the fresh air before going back to sleep. I agreed, and that’s when I saw them. The neighbors’ car sped past our house, but I could still see how she, my oil painting, was contorted with the pain of a woman about to give birth.

That night, after dinner, at almost the same time the man in flames entered our garden waving his arms, my father died. A little after, maybe half an hour or so, while I sat with my family waiting on the porch for the funeral home car to take his body to the mortuary, we heard brakes screech out front. A minute later we saw our neighbor. He was disheveled and his clothes were wrinkled, as though he was coming back from a party or a fight. But something about him told me he was incredibly happy.

Sometimes happiness, the excitement it produces, makes everyone seem a friend, a brother, and you can’t hide it. And he, of course, could not. That’s probably why he took a few steps toward our porch and when he was a few feet away he called to us at the top of his lungs, not knowing about our recent loss:

“I have a son. We called him Julio.”

Then he turned and was lost in the shadows, walking toward his house.

Then my wife, mother of my children, said the eight words I’ll never forget. She said:

“How strange. The child has your father’s name.”

And then, while I looked fixedly at my wife who I no longer loved, while within me some doors closed firmly and others threatened to stay open forever, as the world once again showed me it’s absurdity, its chance and coincidence, its small revenges and rewards, I thought about how much secret pain exists all around us: the women who wait, the children who lose their parents, the men in flames.