It must be very beautiful to be finished. When the train rushes into the station, to let the wind blow into your face. Suppose your whole life surges back to you. I try to believe that Harris summoned all the beauty of his life. — Sarah Manguso, The Guardians: An Elegy
Over a telephone line my father tells me about his life. It’s been five years since the day I dropped another line and sprinted twenty blocks to a train to a taxi to a farm where my father nearly lay dying. I remember his face the color of a bruise and the gash still raw from where he smacked his head on the pavement. Standing in his home painted yellow, where swords and feathers festooned the walls, I shook a bottle of pills in my hand. Why didn’t you take them? What do you mean, you forgot? Who wakes up after thirty years and forgets to take their pills? In a small voice, I said You’re killing me. Furious, he told me he didn’t need them anymore, that he had a new plan. He was drinking wheatgrass every day, you see. He was a fit fellow even though everyone around him was dying. And hadn’t he collected me from the train station in Locust Valley — when the sky was a blanket of black and the squirrels ravaged through the trees — and put me into the car when I couldn’t stand from all the drink? Didn’t he put up with the wine lips all those years? My mother, me, difficult women on the road to ruin — he shouldered all of this. A year sober, I leaned against the wall as if it had the ability to buoy me up and I wondered if this was the very definition of retribution.
Sorrow never hides, it just lies dormant. It festers, metastasizes and spreads like sickness. We’ve been here all along, it torments. Here’s our card; we’re in the business of reunion. That night I dreamt of a woman with moths for eyes.
This was the year his boss’ heart stopped and all the horses were sold, when my father was forced out of the home he’d known for ten years. In that moment, when his face was all swollen and his apartment barren, I felt the shackles clasp tight around my ankles. And my body went cold, as if all the power had gone out. There goes the moths fluttering out of your hair. Rewind the tape and I was back to where I’d started: parenting a parent. Mothering without a map. Having to clean up the blood and pack the bags in the car. I needed to say goodbye to all that, so in a restaurant in Long Island I told my father that I was done being a parent. And we didn’t speak for five years. Until now.
It occurs to me that my mother and I had abandoned our cats. Funny the things that linger.
We start by exchanging words between our telephones, not picking up from the place we’d left off but going somewhere new. We both have new jobs and we talk about my mother, how she has a new family now. How she’s a mother to a daughter who has the name I was meant to have. We don’t tread in the waters that were those lost years; we text in present tense.
When we finally gather, it’s like old times. We take comfort in the stories that used to make us laugh. He takes new pills now, blood thinners, and they make his legs hurt. After a few moments I wonder aloud if he should be taking them. We laugh cautiously and press the sentences on. He tells me about his new life, a home beautifully made on a new farm with a family who adores him. When I tell him about Paris, he proudly talks about the aftershave his boss wrapped in tissue. Smiling, I nod into the phone and ask him if he’s happy. My father’s life is uncomplicated and quiet, and this pleases him. And part of me wonders if he aches for the world and everything in it, or if this, this life, is all he ever wanted. Whether he’s content being a man who works on a horse farm, lives in a warm home and takes wheatgrass in the mornings.
When I hung up I realized that there’s nobility in living a quiet, dignified life. My father is possibly the most honest man I know. He is the embodiment of good, and sometimes I feel small against all that goodness. That I was always the ambitious one — I was the savage who wanted the world and every single thing in it. And maybe I judged him for serving as a mirror to a flaw in my character. Maybe this is why we lost all those years. Maybe he and I will talk about it one day.
What I do know is this. When he asked me about my writing, my baking, my life, when he asked me if I was happy, I remember not answering the question. I remember changing the subject. The hand that shook the bottle now shakes the head no.
Remember the photo that your mother took? The one of you with the whisk? Remember that? my father asked once. You looked really happy. When I hang up the phone I whisper to my pop that I’m getting there.
Last week, after French class, I was exhilarated. Practically levitated all the way to Smith Canteen. Ordered a pile of delicious (delicious!) food that I knew I couldn’t eat because it was SO. MUCH. But it felt like home to me. The flaky crust that caved into the sweet pumpkin, the sage mayonnaise on the turkey sandwich and the peppery bite of the sausage biscuit gave me shelter during a time when I’m starting to climb my way out of the betweens.