In Memory, Always
October 3, 2010 in death
I came across a picture of you the other day. Well, a picture of us, really, when it came loose from the photo album to skitter across the floor of my new living room. I don’t know why I keep the albums; I never go through my photos, they just sort of sneak up on me. Like then. I gave chase, just barely beating my dogs to it and sweeping it off the floor. It is just one in a collection of pictures that wrenches my heart for what should have been. Maybe that’s why I don’t go through them, even though I seek out and hoard every one I can get my hands on.
I am young, two at the most, sitting in a hairdresser’s chair, big green eyes staring at the camera beneath a mop of curls that I wish had stayed with me into adulthood. I must have been about to squirm right off my booster seat, if your hand wrapped around my arm is any indication; you’re both smiling and giving me the hairy eyeball – your last chance, southern boy way of trying to charm me into behaving before your temper got the better of you.
My memory runs deep, but I have no recollection of this event, just like I don’t remember how I got the burn scars on my rib cage or when I stopped liking tuna fish sandwiches. There are plenty of things I do remember, though, things that make me trace your face and make my heart ache for you. Make me wish for more time.
I remember when I learned to stay away from a hot stove.You stopped trying to intercept me from trying to touch the bright, shiny burner and instead sat back and waited, mug of cold water in hand for seared fingers. I got picked on in school, and you would tell me to stand up for myself; when I bloodied the nose of a boy two grades my senior, you scolded me for resorting to violence, but I heard you say later that night on the phone how proud you were of me.
I would run and jump to touch the top of the door jamb going into the hallway; one time, the last time, I didn’t see our black dog in the darkened hallway until it was too late, and I twisted to avoid crushing her; my landing tore every ligament in my right ankle. I must have screamed bloody murder, because I had never seen you move so fast in my life. My six year-old self didn’t know it, but you were in your fifties, and had hurt your knee running from the kitchen to where I laid in the hallway, my foot distorted to a grotesquely impossible angle. That knee bothered you ever since, though you never told me and I had to find out from my sister.
I remember when you would dance around the house to Elvis, crooning the words to “Hound Dog” into your brush, or sing “9 to 5″ along with Dolly with socks stuffed down your shirt to look like her, to my never-ending amusement. I still have that brush, its back flat and wide, smooth from years of spanking my butt when I misbehaved. It’s in a drawer with your reading glasses, and several white handkerchiefs you insisted on carrying with you even though no one used them anymore – the last vestiges of southern hospitality, at least according to you. ‘Men used to carry handkerchiefs all the time, Pumpkin, so that they could always appear presentable. Nowadays, they seem content to wear their dirt on their faces’. Indeed.
In that drawer also are letters – scores of them, all addressed in your familiar chicken scratch, and all via various prisons and assisted living facilities around the state. Some were cards, others were elaborately drawn pictures commissioned from the more artistic of your cell block, but mostly they were letters; pages upon pages that tried and failed to replace the mountain of a man that was my father. I grew older, went through foster care and puberty, but in your letters I was still the same age as the day you went away, still the eight year old with an awkward smile and scraped knees that insisted on sneaking out of her room late at night to watch you peck away on the word processor – still your Pumpkin, your Scooter, and your Sugar.
My sister did her best to always know where you were, but it was hard with you moving around so much. She located you the first week of October, 2005, in a hospice facility. I went to visit, nervous to see you after ten years. I knew hospice was usually a bad thing, but I hoped you would be okay. You had to be. I had wracked my brain on the ride over, trying to figure out what to say, where to start. A decade of heartbreak and missed opportunities stretched before me, vast and plentiful, tumbling around in my head like a spin cycle gone wrong.
In the end I needn’t have worried. The nurse advised me that your condition had worsened in the past few days and as a result you were on very heavy painkillers, and probably wouldn’t be up for much conversation. When I walked into your room, I thought I had the wrong one. Surely this man lying in bed wasn’t my father. At six foot four, two hundred and fifty pounds, you had always been larger than life; now, you seemed but a shell of your former self. The hospital gown hung from your thin, gaunt frame, and you looked so small hooked up to IVs and various machines. Your jet black hair, which had always been thick and full, was gone from the numerous rounds of chemotherapy that failed to kill the cancer spreading from your lungs.
You were indeed out of your mind, the medicine doing what it could to quell the pain that wracked your body and the moans that rattled in your chest like a death knell. I watched you for a long while and then, there, in a dim hospital room in a bad part of town, I let everything go. I told you about the homes I stayed in, the nights we went without food as punishment. I told you about the schools I had gone to and the sports I had played. I whispered to you my darkest secrets amid the steady hush-hush-hushing of your neighbor’s ventilator. I told you the words I couldn’t write down and put a stamp on.
It’s been five years since that night. One thousand, eight hundred and twenty-five days since cancer did what prison could not. I wish it could get easier, this missing you. I wish I didn’t feel so short-changed when it comes to you. I wish… I wish a lot of things.