Writing 101 – Assignment.
Tell the tale of your most prized possession. Use as many words as it takes.
My red scrapbook is old, musty and bulging with a lifetime of love letters, keepsakes and photographs. It is where I keep the Apollo 17 pin that I wore while watching the last rocket (that would ever land on the moon) launch from the white sands of Cocoa Beach in December of 1972. Nestled among the yellowing pages are my blue and gold embroidered Presidential Physical Fitness patch, and my nickel-plated Vietnam POW/MIA bracelet; the very bracelet that I wore religiously for months until it broke in half. I secretly worried that the breaking of that bracelet meant my soldier might never return home.
When you’re thirteen years old, you can get carried away with magical thinking.
But the very first page of my scrapbook, the one with my baby pictures, is where my heart lives. There are four black corner stickers hugging my most prized possession in the world – a photograph of me and my daddy. The caption reads: “Vanessa 9 months, with Daddy”. My childhood scrapbook is not neat, organized, color-coordinated or of archival quality. But it’s mine, and mama’s handwriting under that fading photograph is proof we were once a family.
In the picture, daddy has me in his lap at the kitchen table, my pudgy arm, hand splayed, rests between his forearms on the scratched surface. Daddy is studying the cards in his hands, deciding on the right move, a curl of blond hair lay loose on his young brow. A freshly lit Pall Mall, smoke rising, rests in the groove of an ashtray next to a pencil and a folded piece of paper for score-keeping. I can almost smell the flash of lighter fluid and hear the crisp metallic snap of the silver lighter closing, a series of moves I must have witnessed hundreds of times through the years.
My big eyes look at mama behind the camera as if asking permission for a piece of Christmas candy in a bowl next to the ashtray.
Twenty seven Christmases later I had to force myself to take a picture of daddy with the token present I brought him. He was so sick by then he couldn’t even open it himself, or even say ‘thank you.’
Daddy died on a cold February day, in a rented hospital bed, of a glioblastoma multiforme – the nastiest of all brain tumors.
The Hospice people placed the bed, the morphine machine and the IV pole in the dining room for its central location. There would be no more family meals anyway, so what the hell. We were all there when he took his last breath; my three sisters and I, a step-sibling or two, our stepmother, and a couple of daddy’s Air Force buddies. Most of us had been there for days – just waiting, because waiting was all that was left to be done.
Waiting around for my father to die is the worst thing I’ve ever been through. Worse than my ten-year marriage to a drug dealer, and worse than being pregnant in jail; giving birth with no epidural and no one by my side but an angry nurse pushing her craggy index finger in my face and telling me to ‘SHUT UP’ whenever a scream passed my parched lips.
No one knew what to say that whole week before daddy took his last breath. It’s absurd and awkward and unfair – an unscripted horror for which nothing in life can prepare you. You’re not sure if he can hear you through the morphine drip. Are you supposed to laugh when you remember the time daddy built the ice skating rink in our backyard, and we all had so much fun ice skating, being the hit of the neighborhood for once? Are you supposed to bring up the time when Daddy came home drunk and insisted on taking us out to dinner, so we all piled into the car and he passed out in the middle of the intersection? Or the multiple mornings we found him passed out in the front yard – he had somehow driven himself home but could not make it into the house.
There is no easy way to watch someone die and there are only so many ways and times you can say good-bye. It is a torturous nightmare wrapped in shame because you just want it to be over already.
Like much of my childhood, the time when daddy found out he was sick is all foggy in my brain. Everything happened so fast. One day he was daddy; Vietnam Vet, Air Force retiree, smoker, drinker, man of few words, and then he was a puffy, hairless stranger who knew exactly what he was trying to say but it came out, “thunk der rippin pledded” instead. You could see the deep frustration in those sad sapphire eyes, the only recognizable feature he had left. Between the diagnosis and the day he lost his words, we had about two weeks. That is not long enough for a man who has only ever said ten words on a good day. Daddy never got the chance to speak his regrets, give voice to his fears or tell us how he felt. The brain tumor stole his words and scrambled his brains right before our very eyes.
Sometimes I took off work on my lunch hour to drive him to his radiation treatments. I would pick him up at the house he and my stepmother shared, help him to the car, and try hard not to stare at the purple magic marker lines drawn on his shaved head.
Medicine is not an exact science. When they found the tumor on the MRI they said it was inoperable but the next day they opened up his head anyway, just to take a look. I’m still not sure who ok’d that regrettable decision. I secretly think that if they had just left him alone, he wouldn’t have lost his words, or died – certainly not so quickly. When you’re twenty-seven years old, you can still get carried away with magical thinking. Sometimes it’s all that keeps you from screaming at the gods and losing your mind. Just as they suspected, the fingers of the tumor had permeated every part of his brain, so they stitched him up and began radiation to try to shrink the monster in his head. All it did was make him sicker and scary looking because he lost his hair and puffed up like a balloon.
“How do you feel today Daddy?”
“Yen?” he said with a quizzical look.
“Do I turn right at the next light?”
“That norgotten… fell…” he replied, as he gestured with his right hand, up toward the headliner of my Ford Escort station wagon. His last word fell slowly from his unsure lips like hot chocolate melting off a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“Ok,” I said, choking on the lump of angry grief perpetually lodged in my throat. I patted the top of his left leg three times, each tender pat an exclamation point to the ‘FUCK’ I screamed inside my head.
When I got him back home the nurse would take over and I would get back in my car and cry. I cried for all the times I hated him during the worst of mama and daddy’s drunken fights. I cried for the years after daddy and mama got divorced that I only saw him once or twice until I was fourteen and we came to live together again. I cried for the hours he spent teaching me how to drive a stick shift. I cried for the times he went to AA meetings and the times he didn’t. I cried for all the conversations we never had. And I cried for my one year old baby girl who would never know her Papa.
Then I went back to work.
We buried Daddy on a cold and rainy February afternoon. He was 51 years old. My body jumped with each crack from the rifles of the seven honor guards, my heart swelled as the trumpeter sounded “Taps”, but my tears did little to wash away the pain.
Over the years, daddy’s quiet spirit has visited me. He shows up in my thoughts and my water-color dreams and he tells me things. He told me once how proud he is that I’m so independent. He said he was there that Sunday morning when my daughter was baptized. He let me know that he’s ok and that I’m ok too. And he said he loved me more than life itself when that old photograph was taken and he loved me all those years he let alcohol separate him from us, and he loves me still. And I believe him.
If believing in daddy’s love beyond the grave is magical thinking, then induct me into the hall of fame of magical thinkers. Hell, while you’re at it, nominate me for President!