Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Middle

Can I take a message?

Those were the first words I said to my father after nine years and the last ones I said to him that I'm sure he heard.

I sat hard on the flowery bedspread of my college dorm room trying hard to sound like anyone else besides the ten year old person he forgot to pick up that day too many years ago. My telephone was pink and somewhere on the other end of the line was the unmistakable voice of my dad. Gentle and unchanged after all this time.

Can I take a message? The words were athletes running at a painted paper banner. He told me to tell myself that my dad had called. There was no call back number.

For countless days after the call, I stood in the florescent light of my bathroom and practiced what I would say to him when he called back. The plan was to act surprised, of course and I feigned cautious elation in the mirror until I was sure my first semester as a theater major had paid off. He didn't call back and I ended up changing my major to English and blaming it on the derelict stagecraft professor. If you're wearing a tool belt to work, you aren't a professor.

On one of my few visits back home to see my mom, I took a detour and got lost in an area close to the old trailer park where I vaguely remember spending time before my dad bought the farm. I'm not being morbid. He actually bought a farm when I was seven or so and kept chickens named Mathilda and a calico cat named Dog who came a runnin' when whistled for.

The dilapidated marshy mess I found in place of the trailer park was a forlorn version of what I had remembered. The swimming hole had dried up to nothing more than a muck-covered duck pond with weeds and the few shoe-boxy mobile homes abandoned there sunk sadly into their graves. Keillor's Woebegone Lake.

I didn't see my father until a year or so later. After taking a rather cliche walk to the intensive care unit, the nurse pulled a papery blue curtain around his bed for privacy purposes and then left me alone to wonder what private things I would dare say with only a feeble curtain keeping my secrets from the poor guy next door. Maybe it was from his secrets she was protecting me. Like a mother hen.

What was it I had waited for? Oh. Yeah, the damnation.

For the twenty or so standing ovations in which he was standing elsewhere while I bowed on my high-school stage waiting for that storybook moment I'd find his face in the crowd and he'd be holding flowers and the Beatles' In My Life would suddenly play through the auditorium speakers. Or for the time Kelly Furzelbacher said I poked her with a tack and her mom wouldn't let me play with her for a whole year. (I can remember drinking grape kool-aid from an ALF mug that day, but for the life of me can't recall any moment in which I actually poked Kelly with a tack.) And for not teaching me how to drive or not interrogating my only boyfriend in high school (who certainly warranted interrogation at the least).

What were you doing then, Dad?

Where were you while I snuck out of my bedroom window to meet girlfriends in the cul-de-sac at midnight to drive around the neighborhood talking about boys and sex and mean girls? Or when I got my wisdom teeth pulled and fainted from the pain pill the dentist prescribed when I was sixteen? How about all the breaths I had taken between the day in the car-port and now? Huh? Where were you? What were you doing? Wake up and tell me, damn-you.

There's a lot of noise associated with a hospital. Pristine white orthopedic sneakers squeaking on sterile tiles and low voices discussing the status of each patient before shift-change. The corner of my dad's curtained cubicle was crammed with the electronic cadence of the blooping machines composing a symphony somewhere between his life and death. His yellow skin shocked me and the tubes running from underneath his blankets to the few bags and pans under the bed nauseated me, but I stepped close to him and saw that his hands were what I remembered.

Suddenly I was caught off guard by an abyss of guilt for that one phone call. My raw deal list was long, but forgotten. And I started by saying, I'm sorry, Daddy. And I was sorry.

For pretending not to be me that day. And for damning him to the tunes of my Sinead O'Connor and REM cds on the drive from my apartment to the hospital. And for telling a kid at camp that my dad was dead the summer before seventh grade- something I have never admitted to doing. Re-reading that feels like being slapped.

I was sorry. I am sorry. Sorry is what I am, not you.

My daughter has a saying for when she forgets a thought she is trying to convey. Five year-olds are so particular when choosing their words. She says, The paper got lost in my head. I'm sure the papers with regrets and angst for those ten years are scrawled with Sharpie ink and in there somewhere. I haven't forgotten them or torn them up or burned them into ashes. I just couldn't find them when I stood by his bed that day listening to his breath being sucked in and pushed out making every moment new again, however sad and painful it was.

And I was punched in the face with the fact that it wasn't the "look what you missed out on" and "piss on you for leaving me" that I had been waiting all this time to say. Or his tears I was hoping would come. It was ten gorgeous childhood years of questions about him I was hoping to have answered and a deluge of tears I wanted to feel on my own face for the times I should have cried, but didn't.

His eyes didn't open that day. Or for weeks after. I commuted two hours there and two hours back on days I didn't have class or days I couldn't think of something to do more important than waiting for him to un-coma. Soon I stopped going to the hospital and started listening for the phone instead. His brothers and sisters flew back to their respective southern states. I got a D in Government and Economics that semester and I began bracing myself for the call that would inevitably come. When it did, it wasn't at all what I was ready for.


HappyHourSue said...

That was amazing!!!! Seriously- so well written and touching. Great job.

Mrs. G said...

Thanks, Sue. Now go have a mohito for me. I'm t-85 days until I can get some actual happy out of happy hour and I'm chomping the bit.