I view my father’s death through kaleidoscopic glass. The shape of things, the colors, the images, I twist my hands around and they all blend together, morphing into mutants of memory. My father’s left eye slipping to where his hand should have been. My mother’s slender feet stuck on top of a china cabinet. In this way, I can turn the refracted images into art.
My life is a series of unconnected senses.
High school smells like pear scented candles.
Being goth smells like that perfume I bought one time from Hot Topic with the purple Amy Brown faerie on the box.
Fathers are more difficult to pin down. Are they starch and stiff ties? Are they a freshly conditioned car mat? If I strain, I catch a whiff of grilled steaks and gunpowder, of spearmint toothpaste masking spent cigarettes and gin.
When I tried, I always failed to read him. I think, perhaps, he was written in a different language.
One time, on a business trip, my father drove by a billboard advertisement:
QUIT SMOKING NOW
The words burned red against the backdrop of a naked back stuck with twelve-inch needles like a porcupine. My father called the number and made an appointment that day, slipping the treatment in between depositions and client meetings. Nothing was more important than stopping the body from killing itself, he reasoned.
He lay down on the table and let the acupuncturist poke the addiction out of him, and when he came home, he did not smoke another cigarette for twenty years.
My final memories of my father involve a stogie and a balcony porch.
I smoked a cigarette once.
Sitting on a park bench with a friend while my hand shook so hard I could not hold the white stick steady.
I had done something bad. A poor decision to out-rank all those I’d condemned as a self-righteous young person.
And suddenly I realized,
We are not sinners and we are not saints.
Later I drove to my father’s gravesite. Dressed all in black I crouched beside his headstone, one hand on the ground. I told him how sorry I was for hating him. I told him I now understood his humanity. I begged his forgiveness, then sat on a park bench watching the elm leaves turn red in the distance.
I am still waiting for his ghost to appear.
In the pictures we kept he stands smiling on a boat deck or reclines amongst palm trees. His legs which look like my legs are crossed one over the other, stretched out on an Adirondack lounge chair.
I think, imagining him happy is a form of therapy. I think, it must be a way of saying goodbye.
When my mother found out that he had been shot, she was wandering the grocery store aisles. Her head bowed against her half empty cart and she kept wandering until the milk expired.
Then me, sitting on our orange leather couch.
Then my brother in an airport terminal with us gathered around him, head buried in his hands, arms resting on those cold metal arm rests.
I remember my sister as a stray laugh in black with her bouncing blonde curls, though probably, I reason, it was not a laugh, but a sob.
I keep writing my father’s death, turning it over, changing the details, making it sound more relatable, distancing myself from it, churning the facts like silt settled at the bottom of a wine cask, or relegating it to a subplot in a short story—something forgettable, something forgotten.
It is easier that way, burying the details, trying not to focus on the image of him lying on the ground beside his black Jeep Cherokee; the back-door open where he was loading his guns into their cases; the fatal rifle loosely placed, its barrel hanging out of the black folds as if about to speak; him shuddering, prostrate in the compacted leaves.
He taught me to make ammo in our garage, under the flying eagle of his NRA banner. I scrubbed out the brass with a wire bristle brush, set the primer in the casing, measured and poured the gunpowder, topped it off with a bullet. I was not strong enough to pull the lever on his press, so he pulled it for me and pulled out a gleaming, sharp-tipped rifle round.
A thing of beauty
And cheaper, too.
That was years before one of his rounds tore through his own chest, so, of course, it is silly of me to wonder if I made the bullet which killed him. Absurd, really. Practically impossible.
Another time I smoked a cigarette I was driving home from college.
SR 27 in the middle of the night with whole stretches unlit through the cow pastures and orange groves.
I pulled over on the side of the road and I climbed up on top of my car
darkness and the roar of crickets and the patches of fog
and I lay there on my back looking up.
I cried because, even in this impenetrable darkness, I still couldn’t see the stars.
I am beginning to worry they do not actually exist.
I saw my father cry once, though, “cry” is not really the right word.
I saw my father lean over and touch a group of names etched into the cold black marble of the Vietnam Memorial.
We had learned about Vietnam in History class, and when I brought my father to school in his camo fatigues with his purple heart pinned to his chest, my classmate asked what the reception was to soldiers returning home from the war. He paused and looked at our fifth-grade teacher and did not respond to the question.
I picture my father on his death bed of leaves with his two hands cupped around the gunshot wound in his chest. The alcohol dims his eyes, and he has to pull his hands close to his face to see if they are wet. Red droplets on his cheek which he tries to wipe off. I imagine him opening his mouth, but perhaps the bullet has grazed his lung. Perhaps his diaphragm. In any case, the sound does not come because he lays there for minutes, thirty, then forty, before his friends find him.
My father was awarded his purple heart for being the only soldier left in his unit after their helicopter landed on a mine. In the version of the story I have heard, his buddy jumps into the helicopter before him. He sits in my father’s seat and does not move. My father sits across from him, in a place separate from his usual view. His buddy laughs, as if the future was a big joke and he was in on the punch line. In the version I imagine, he watches as his buddy gets blown to pieces.
My father lays half-conscious on the ground, looking up at the shadows which stand in for his friends.
I imagine his friends’ conversation—
Do they discuss their potential liability for finding a dead body? They do not need to call their lawyers, but should they call their secretaries? Should they order up coffee so they can go in on the weekend and pour over precedent cases?
They are all bankruptcy lawyers. This kind of thing is out of their standard jurisdiction.
One asks in a serious tone whether the number for 9-1-1 is the same in the country as it is in the city.
One takes up my father’s hand, gingerly so as not to smear blood on his fresh shirt, and asks him if he did it on purpose. He won’t tell anyone. But seriously. Before you die. Did you do it on purpose?
I once tried to kill myself with twelve small, blue Aleves. I took them one by one laying on my bed, looking up at the angry band posters on my pink-painted walls trying not to vomit, and waited for peaceful drowsiness to overcome me.
Nothing happened. I felt nauseous as I returned to the hard slog of living. Then again, I doubt I was really trying that hard. I still had a fear that what happened when you closed your eyes could be far worse than what happened when you opened them.
I worried my fate lay inside a bleeding tree.
The ambulance arrives. Flashing lights against the hunt camp cabin. Racoons frightened off by the sirens. I picture the narrow country roads, my father bumping in the back-seat gurney while an EMT presses against his wound with a blood-soaked towel. I picture his eyes rolling back in his head, his consciousness slipping in and out of focus. I picture his inner being drifting through the barriers of life and death trying to decide if he should decamp to the other side.
I picture the sky in the world that lies across the border—gluttonous with stars. Stars swirling inside his soul. Stars as footstools and head rests. Gleaming stars in a twelve-point crown.
Who could resist such a dazzling alternative?
And then I wonder why the afterlife I’ve imagined for my father differs so starkly from the one I’ve imagined for myself.
My father once rowed to the middle of a river in the heart the Viet-Cong. His unit’s mission—to retrieve a bit of detritus that had sunk to the silty bottom of the water. Shots riddled their boat. Enemy fire pouring down like acid raindrops.
When they rowed back to shore, their boat could no longer float, but all the soldiers were free of holes. This is something of a miracle, and maybe they were tempted to think big thoughts about how God had a future for them.
He does not last long in the hospital, or maybe he does. Maybe he has been laying there for days, or maybe he dies on the way there. Maybe he has been dead this whole time, and the thump that they think is his beating heart is really just the sound of hammers on his rib cage as his soul tries to burrow its way out of its fleshly cage.
That echoing resonance we mistake for life. The dissonant sound of electric impulses which together make our neurons fire out the word, “Love.”
And then—this is where I come in—the call to my mother. I am sitting in the living room. And she is standing in our kitchen. We know that he’s been wounded and have been waiting for hours to hear of his prognosis. The words trail through the telephone wires. I hear her scream. A long and sonorous No.
And below that, the sharp sound of scissors slicing through the air cutting me off from my future.
In the weeks following his death,
After the flood of well-wishers stemmed,
After we cooked or threw out the last casserole,
I used to excuse myself in the evenings and tell my mom I was going to places I was not. I was going nowhere. I was driving in circles. I drove from my house down the waterfront length of Bayshore, over the bridge, through east and west Davis, four or five turns around the loop-de-loop, back over the bridge, up Kennedy, to the bookstore parking lot, to the park, to the McDonald’s drive through or the Wendy’s drive through or the Chik-fil-a drive through. I ordered some fries, sat in my car, held them in my lap, stared out the windshield.
On occasion I would find myself parked out in front of my friend Eric’s house. His mother was the kind of woman my mother would approve of. His mother was the kind of woman who approved of me. When I went there we listened to Modest Mouse while he did his homework, then we turned off the lights and watched Daria sitting side by side on a couch I thought was too big for two people to occupy comfortably. Comfort for me would have been crawling back inside another human being and never leaving. Comfort, in theory, was a warm hand, but all the hands I reached out for were cold.
Most of the cigarettes I’ve smoked were bummed off of friends while drunk at bars. I went outside when I needed a break from the panic of music and stood in the cold air and tapped the ash against my thigh until it burned out.
They left me alone in the room with the body.
I looked down on him in his black suit and his tie
Grey skin, not tan, loose fitting around his bones like a sheath.
Cheeks pressing down against his jaw.
If I had tried to move his hand it would have resisted.
I did not try to move it. I did try to touch him. To touch a dead body, I thought, is something everyone has to do at some point in their lives. I reached out and placed a hand upon his.
I did not place a hand upon his. I brushed his hand with my fingertips and the cold gooseflesh sent shockwaves up my hand and I retracted it in horror.
My body spread out in all directions and there was a rumbling sound that escaped from my chest and I twisted towards the ground, not kneeling, not falling, not prostrate, held up by my hand hooked over the sleek wooden casket. Was it brown or white or silver? It seems important that I cannot remember this detail.
Tears forced themselves up from my quivering body and exploded into the empty space of the room and I screamed within my chest, why did they leave me alone to do this? Why do they leave me alone with my screaming, with his body? Do they think this is a good idea? Do they think that this is something I need to do? I am only sixteen. I am only sixteen.
Later, I wished I could have found the courage to place a hand over his and cradle it sweetly like they do in movies.
His guns went missing after he died.
The empty safe door hanging open while my step mother gestured helplessly at the stacks of bullets. Empty rifle stands, empty foam handgun molds. Thousands of dollars up and walked away.
Why everyone threw up such a fuss about them, I’ll never know. If I’d had the chance to wrap my hands around those weapons, I would have sent them flying over the river, the bay, the gulf, the cold Atlantic. They would have looked like heavy black birds sailing away from my open palms.