When Dad Died

Though based on a true story, this is a work of fiction. 

Father has died and my heels are burning. I can hear the skin crisping off in clean flakes as the ground rises up to keep me running and breathing. Today is day four. I am aware that mother is worried about me as I turn a corner and let the Jersey heat sting my face. I wonder what will happen once the sun discovers that all of my sweat has gone and I have no more to surrender.

As I blur past Seventh Avenue, I think of how father used to read me his poetry when I was a child. I remember hearing him wake to write, propped in his bed at 3AM. The scrawl of a ballpoint pen. The click of a lamp that rested upon a nightstand. This morning, when they searched the house, they found that not a single poem was written for me. I have been running for thirteen minutes. My chest squeezes with deep resistance, but I can’t slow. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Each step is one farther away from the man who was once alive.

I crush my eyelids down and will them to stay closed. What does the world look like, without him in it?

On the second day after father died, mother sniffed as I shuffled past her into her therapist’s office. The therapist grinned at me through prescription half-moon spectacles. Both ventriloquist and dummy, I strung myself up and smiled at him brightly. He told a joke; I laughed. He reached out a box of tissues, I took them. “For comfort,” he said kindly, and so I dabbed the corners of my nose and mouth. Dr K shifted his weight from one slouching cheek to the other and his face wrinkled as he poised his quill above his parchment.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Dr K told me; I inclined my head. In that moment, I wished that I had bought a jar the day that father died. That way, I could have captured all of the I’m sorrys and put them in the jar next to my side of the bed on the nights I feign sleep. When the darkness came I would be able to lift the lid and keep the sadness from overwhelming me. Smiling at the thought of all of my lightning bug sorrys flittering about my room, I muttered several lies to alleviate the silence.

“We really weren’t that close,” I said airily, tonguing the inside of my cheek. I consistently bite the lower right side of my lip by accident. More scarred tissue. “Hmm, is that so? It says here that your father was only fifty-six. He was very young to pass. How do you feel about that?” he asked me, on his face an exaggerated frown. 

He muttered my questions and I fed him learned responses before I was shuffled once again out of the office and into the back of mother’s car before the sunlight could taste me.

That was two days ago. I don’t know if I can remember yesterday. Today I know where I am running. 75 percent of the human body is made up of water; the other 25 is the waste of space that allows me to function between the last time I jumped in the ocean and the next time I will be able to. This love affair started the first time I set foot on a beach. As a six-year-old, I counted sand dollars, examined dead shoe crabs. I let nature love me back. Most of the time, it’s hard to let anything love me back.

When I finally see the shoreline, I let my feet slow and take my breaths in heaves. I walk with my hands on my knees to an intersection and pace myself. Making my way up the boardwalk, I stare at the ocean as I move quickly toward the sand. If father were here, we would stop, listen, and wait patiently for a Gopher tortoise to cross the footpath, or search for the tiny lizards that live in the dunes.

But today, on the fourth day since father has died, I am alone. I walk forward and sit at the edge of the water. I dig my toes deep into the sand, letting the water lap onto my feet and soak into my shorts. I hang my head low and listen to the piercing call of a seagull.

I let him cry for me.

I think of the things I should have done for father. I plot a list of all the arguments I will never be able to resolve with him. I go into denial for another moment – I need to call his cell phone, I know that he’ll answer – then I am angry for all the ways I let him down.

I relive several conversations yelled in moments of teenage angst. I feel my face burning with regret before I start bargaining with God. I promise that I will never cheat on another one of Mr Cohnon’s tests if you bring him back to me. And I’ll quit smoking. I add my own apology, for father, to the jar of lightning bugs. I bury my hands in my shallow lint-filled pockets.

Beachgoers are a mile and a half down the stretch; I can see the waves churning out surfboards and babies clad in fourth-of-July bathing suits. I turn back to the ocean and watch her in silence. Swishing quietly through the shallow surf, I feel a doleful cry brush past my lips and I press my hand against my abdomen.

Is it possible to keep sorrow restrained, if you press hard enough? My restraint weakens as my steps become uneven, drunken. A wounded animal, I fall, an explosion of sorrow spilling onto the sand. For the first time since father has died, I let one cry crash over another. Gaining control after his death is like writing with a non-dominant hand. But I am strong. I will endure. We women, we endure. Kubler-Ross, I need you. I swallow the stones in my throat. I want to write for father and his un-seeing eyes:

This small effort is for the kind and gentle side that we all need to work on.

I wish I had known to do more that April; I thought he was still in reach.

I know now that the next few years will be diminished because I failed in ways I never knew to try.

He did it better than most, but had to leave early.

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