It’s 1974 and I’m standing in your shadow on the front steps of the public library. I am holding your hand smiling up at you, a halo of sunlight around your James Dean look alike face, Marlboro cigarette balanced on your lower lip. You are the best Dad. I am the happiest daughter. Your eyes, swashbuckler blue from the deepest ocean, look only on me. This is our weekly visit to the local library where you let me browse the stacks for hours. I can check out any book I want, no limitations. Today my head is buried in Madeleine L’Engle, pages smelling like Autumn. I am 8.
In 1976 after days of listening to me beg, you give in and buy Watership Down by Richard Adams in paperback. On the inside cover you write “With Love, Dad – May 1976” . I’ve read this book a thousand times. It is held together by a rubber band. It sits on my bookshelf to this day. It is the first thing I would grab in a fire.
It’s 1979 and I was crowned Queen at my junior high school dance. I shirked the trend of dresses and lace and instead wear a fitted white silk pantsuit with a silver belt and open-toed sandals. When they announce my name I am stunned. I walk on stage and someone hands me a bundle of roses. My lips quiver and my cheeks turn the color of radishes. At home that night, Mom snaps a picture of the two of us. I stand warm and happy in your embrace. Your smile is the width of my universe. Our joy is like a lantern, glowing.
That summer you take us to Yosemite Valley. We hike, float down the Merced River in an inner tube, swing off a tree rope into deep water where the river curves and eat smores by a smoking campfire. You find the perfect hiking stick from the branch of a fallen pine. When we get home you sand the stick smooth, carve Yosemite 1979 into its side and varnish it with a thick coat of shellac. I am 13 years old.
It’s 1981 and after more than 20 years at a global Aerospace firm you resign, shocking your family. You have helped build your last Apollo, you say. The walls of the Space Shuttle must survive without your equations, because you have done enough. Mom doesn’t understand. At home the fights between you grow. She pleads for an explanation. You tell her that government agents are following you and your every action is secretly being recorded and filed somewhere in a vault buried deep beneath the Earth. I cannot sleep.
At night I console myself with a flashlight beneath my bedcovers and all those Thank You letters you received from NASA and the astronauts. I cling to words about how you helped save the Apollo 13 mission. Mom is desperate in her pleas for you to see a Doctor. You ignore her and tinker away in the garage all day, insisting there are new discoveries to be made. I hear your whispers…of computing devices that can beat Vegas. I listen to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen 100 times a day. Nobody knows it has an entirely different meaning for me.
It’s 1984 and I answer the kitchen phone one day after school. It is a reporter in Las Vegas. Did you know your Father is in jail? He stands accused of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and illegal possession of a firearm? Was he the inventor of the computer allegedly used to beat the blackjack tables? The questions come rapid fire. He wants a quote. I tell him I don’t feel well and hang up. I do not speak for two days.
I hear Mom and other relatives whispering in low tones from the living room at night. My sobs are like stinging needles melting poison into my skin. Food suddenly tastes like raindrops kicked from Heaven and I eat everything. I am 16.
Finally, it’s 1986. We get to pick you up at the airport today! The trial is over and you’ve served your time in that Nevada jail hell hole. I have baked a pumpkin pie because I know it’s your favorite even though I’ve never baked before. There are chunks of nutmeg the size of peas in it. Though it’s summer, I have placed a ceramic Christmas tree on a pedestal table in the living room that lights up when you plug it in. There are presents wrapped in shiny red and green paper; a leather belt, an Elvis record and a new wallet. I am making up for the first Thanksgiving and Christmas you have ever missed with us. I look around the house to make sure everything is perfect.
At the airport, we hug and you smell the hair at the top of my head as if I were your baby girl all over again. I feel your bones. You look gaunt and the speech stutter you’ve had since childhood is more pronounced. Your eyes are still blue, though a little less Swashbuckler. Beaming, I can’t wait until we get home, so as we head to the car I tell you about the pumpkin pie. I am 18 years old and none of my clothes fit anymore.
In 1994 you live in a dank one-bedroom apartment in a sketchy part of town. You and Mom divorced long ago, sold the house I grew up in. You drink every night and tell long tales of government agents and illegal surveillance. You concoct brilliant ways to thwart them, begging for my assistance. I am the “only” one you trust. You say this often. I spend every hour of every day concentrating on top of that Dad tightrope…((keep you safe, get you help, keep your love, keep you safe, get you help, keep your love)). You embed your trust to an anvil and tie it to my guts.
I concoct brilliant ways to get you to a Doctor. Afterwards, you tell me in a hard low voice that he is one of them, that the pills are a tracking device in your stomach. You refuse to take them. I know that if I force it, you will blame me. This, of everything, I cannot bear.
I am 24 years old. I tear off, chew and swallow every sweet drop of food that falls from the sky until the expanded space between my skin and my bones is numb.
By 1997 you live in a trailer, unable to keep a job. Your teeth are rotting in your jawbone. I visit often to make sure you bathe, buy groceries, take in a baseball game. Every day I do not find you dead is a small miracle. Today I insist on taking you to Dennys for something to eat. You agree, but there is mischief in your voice and a wildness in your eyes. You take a thick paperback novel from the kitchen counter and cut a miniscule section from a random page with a small pair of scissors. The piece is no more than centimeters tall and 2 inches wide. I can tell the book is old because when closed the pages outer edges are red and the font size is very small. You open the cupboard and place the book on a shelf. Outside, you turn to lock the door behind us and tape that tiny slip of text across the doorframe. You look at me.
I say nothing, because there is nothing to say. I know what this is.
When we arrive back home you gingerly remove the piece of paper from the door, take the book down from the cupboard and open it to the page with the missing section. And like the last piece of the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle, it fits perfectly. Your smile speaks a thousand meanings. For in this tiny moment you are safe. Your home has not been breached. I let your expression pool inside me like a once dried-up puddle in a vast meadow that catches rain. I will take this small miracle. I will take anything.
In 1998 I came to visit you on my birthday. You won’t answer the door. I let myself in only to find you sitting alone in the dark, rocking in your easy chair. I turn a light on and notice the loaded handgun on the kitchen counter. I point to it. My hands shake.
“What is that for?” You tell me they are no longer trying to break-in at night but in daylight as well.
“How do you know Dad, how do you know that!?” You can hear them, you say. And the next time you do your going to blow their fucking heads off. Your voice is firm.
“But…Dad, what if you heard something and it turned out to be just the mailman?” (I do not voice what I am really thinking, what is splintering my bones…what if it’s me coming to visit I’m the only one that does Daddy, what if it’s just me?).
I am 31 years old today.
Disneyland uses the law of Eminent Domain to tear down your mobile home park and build a shopping and entertainment center. You get $23,000 for the trailer. You have us move your every possession into a storage unit. You keep the clothes on your back, your hand-rolled cigarettes, the cash and one small hard-sided suitcase circa 1950. That night you tell me your secret plan. You will board a random train, to destination unknown, and vanish like a mirage on the horizon. The government cannot find you this way, you insist. You are hacking up brownish red fluid into your handkerchief when another small miracle occurs – you agree to come stay at my apartment until you are well.
You are 58 years old.
Over the weeks you disappear several times, at first leaving a note indicating that while you love me you will never see me again. These choice words written in your stark flourish with blue ink eviscerate me. I sob so hard I crack a rib. The world is utterly useless, doctors, lawyers, family…words on a page. Nothing changes. Nothing helps. There is only descent.
In 1999 I somehow manage to shower and clothe myself. I arrive home from work and there you are, sitting on my patio smoking a cigarette, smiling as if you are not at the very core of my lost little girl heart. Your face has aged. Hair gray. And those blue, blue eyes with lids hanging in loose folds now. You start to say something when you notice, for once, the look on my face. There is no small miracle to count here Daddy. I run to my bedroom and slam the door, anger blossoming out of my stomach in waves. I do not come out until morning. I make us both pancakes for breakfast and listen to you say, in a small low voice, that it might be time to visit Grandma in Minnesota. I put you on a plane the next day.
You never come back.
It’s the year 2000. You have had a stroke and can’t get out of the apartment. The police are called because you locked the world out by wrapping a length of heavy gauge chain across your front door from the inside.
You live full-time in a nursing home now.
In 2002 I fly out for a visit. You still recognize me but it’s difficult to understand what you say. You’ve lost most of your teeth. You never mention government agents, conspiracies or secret files. I spend time swiping at the drool rolling down your chin with my napkin while showing you pictures of the custom paint job on my Harley. Grandma who plays piano by ear, does so daily for the elderly here and brings you homemade Swedish meatballs because you haven’t yet been placed on a feeding tube.
You just turned 61.
It’s 2003 and I write letters often, describing the details of my life – a business trip to Boston, a Halloween bash at my place, losing my voice for a week from screaming when the Angels won the World Series. You are on a feeding tube 24 hours a day now and when you aren’t in bed, they put you in a wheelchair where your head rolls to one side. You no longer have the ability to speak. The nurse tells me your eyes shine like blue halogen when she reads my letters to you.
At 3:15 am on February 24, 2004 I got a phone call from the nursing home. You have died. Three days after your 63rd birthday. I sit on the edge of my bed until dawn slips through the crack between my heart and the floor.
I am a Daddy’s girl, after all.
I am 37 years old.
Hey Dad, it’s me Trace. I wish you could see me now. I’m doing much better. I have surrounded myself with things of wonder; a purple clawfoot tub and walls painted the color of wine and gold. I have a mutt named Piper who loves my lap. I can never own enough books! I read every night until my eyelids burn. If there is anything after this life besides dust, I hope it found you. I haven’t found all of myself yet but I’m getting damn close. While I have never, in all these years, been able to write about you, you are the singular reason why my life is filled with the joy of words and books.
You are my story.
You are this page.
You are these words…I love you. Always.
© 2008 mstrace
This is a short-story/open letter of a sort. It marks my first completed attempt at writing about a subject I have struggled with for many years. Many thanks to those of you who read it, because my Dad always wanted everyone to read.
Dad, this is for you.