I couldn’t hear as much as experience it, feeling like I could be a part. The grand orchestra of existence sang around as much as inside me. It was so much more than sound. Moreso the spirit of symphonic resonance through my being. If someone told me that music was eternity, I would’ve washed in it and never thought back.
It took two months of speech therapy to regain my voice. Twice as long to read again. Aphasia wasn’t nearly as frustrating as years of regaining my own body through physical therapy and that paled in comparison to the impact on the wife and daughter I couldn’t remember.
To their credit, they never stopped supporting the stranger in the hospital bed who looked so much like their husband and father. I’d woken up thirty-four years old in a fifty-six year old man’s body. Doctors gave soul-crunching hope. I’d prefer they hadn’t blown smoke up anyone’s ass, but doctors had to get through the day too. It’s hard telling a daughter that her father forgot a childhood she’d cherished or a wife that her husband’s oldest memory was nearly half a decade before they met. Mine had to do both.
Imagine waking up to a wife you didn’t know when you’d said you didn’t believe in marriage a week ago. Last I remembered, I’d considered a vasectomy. Then I was staring at a daughter, teenage even, I never wanted. I had the heart to stay quiet, but it’s hard to overlook when they’d grown as a family with a man I hadn’t been yet and had actively avoided becoming.
They had no clue about the dog I kept asking about, a rescue I’d found five years ago. Five years ago to them was when my daughter was twelve. I could do the math. My dog was long dead and their husband and father hadn’t existed yet. Not in any way they recognized.
It wasn’t all bad news. I’d gotten three books published. Three more than I ever dreamed. I’d finished my apprenticeship and the benefits were covering my hospital bills and recovery. The union hall even called to say they’d investigated the accident, proving it wasn’t my fault and promised we’d be taken care of. I guess I’d gotten over qualms about making ends meet on apprenticeship wages.
The therapist struggling with my reading comprehension suggested I try reading my own books, thinking it’d help to read my own words in my syntax. I only recognized the earliest, but it proved to be my Rosetta stone back to literacy. Doctors can feed us a ton of crap, but I thanked God for that one.
My daughter was in college dorms by the time I had the strength to move back into the house. I’d put it off until their home didn’t need accommodations for me. It was enough having a stranger move in without their home mutating for my sake too. They’d suffered the nascent corpse of their loved one walking out of their lives as I staggered in his skin.
The plan was I’d take our daughter’s vacant room. It lasted one night. I took the couch instead. The pictures of myself living a life I’d never had or wanted was too much. Two months later, I insisted my wife take a vacation.
It was clear she was cracking and I was reminded why I’d never wanted to take on the responsibilities of marriage. We lived comfortably, more than I ever expected to. We could afford air-fare from our card’s cash-back rewards alone. I’d always used them to make ends meet getting groceries or funding a night out. It was just another reminder of how far I’d fallen from reality. My truck didn’t even run on gas anymore.
The office was my only sanctum. I recognized my handiwork in every chamfered edge and castle joint corner. I’d promised I’d make a room just like it and fill shelves with books I’d read and written. Years of hard work had paid off. My footstool, the first mortise-and-tenon project I hadn’t tossed in the firewood pile, was under a new desk where I’d penned books I couldn’t remember.
Shelves held old notebooks I wouldn’t open. Notebooks were great repositories for bad ideas. If I couldn’t remember the idea the next day, it probably wouldn’t have left an impression on the reader either. But I didn’t remember a damn thing anyways. I hadn’t written a word in those books; not really. So why not crack them open? I was, after all, just a reader.
I pulled one off labeled March twelve years ago. My daughter would’ve been seven and I hated kids. It seemed an interesting hell to watch myself navigate. But I wouldn’t get around to reading it for three days.
The letter between the cover and first page was labeled “In case of ACTUAL emergency!” I couldn’t tell if it’d ever been sealed, but maybe I wasn’t the saint they’d painted me as because it was already opened. The first line was the string of words I’d needed to see for years:
We’re in deep shit if you’re opening this again. (Thank God, it really sounds like me!) Relax, I get it. This was NOT the plan (Damn straight!), but when did we ever make good ones? Let’s be honest, we’re a mess. We’re not good at living. What were we even doing before Lynn? (Getting by fine and well, that’s what.)
Nothing. We weren’t doing anything at almost forty. Now we’ve got our book published and another in the wing! (And two more you don’t even know about yet.) That was the dream! Without Lynn providing financial support during that winter lay-off, we wouldn’t have followed through. The threats to lock us in the office probably helped too.
She was the first reader, the harshest editor and the first sale of the first copy. Remember when she said she wouldn’t let us read her copy? Because it was hers! She’d put as much in as anyone else, including us. It took her three weeks to realize we’d signed it and written that dedication for her. She all but beat us, bawling her eyes out, before cooking a whole corned beef brisket. (Our favorite.) We didn’t eat until nine that night, but it was the best brisket we ever had.
Until the next one and there’ll always be a next one with her. When she said, “’til death” she meant it as a promise as much as a threat. She knew we’d have moments like this (I doubt that) where you’re being a bitch, afraid to suck it up and be a real dad. She understands what that means for us given what we dealt with. (That’s not fair, guy.)
I know it isn’t fair bringing Dad up, but it’s not fair to Lynn and definitely not fair to Jackie if you run off because parenting is hard. Life ain’t easy, but Jackie deserves to have her father around. Sure, we didn’t have the best role model, but that’s not their fault.
Jackie turns seven next month. We’ve got a real chance to do right by someone who deserves it like we did. Raising a kid is hard and she’s so much like us it’s terrifying. We remember what trouble we got into and sometimes it feels like we’re paying for it now, but isn’t that part of parenthood? She does the thing and we know how to handle it because we’ve been there and done that plus more. Woulda been nice if Dad stuck around for us like that.
We swore we’d be better than him. Lynn deserves better than Mom got raising us solo and Jackie deserves to know her father isn’t some absentee schmuck and thinking it’s because she wasn’t good enough, because she really is. She’s so fucking worth it. Good news: All you’ve gotta do is show up. Better news: Lynn isn’t going anywhere. (Unless I ask, I guess.)
We’re not good at this. It’s as foreign as reading Chinese or eating frog legs. But who better to recognize how not to do things that someone who grew up downhill of everyone’s poor choices? Face it, we’re built for bullshit. But Lynn isn’t and I don’t want Jackie to be. Trust me, you don’t either. I’d know.
If you need someone to tell you what to do, here it is: Don’t be like Dad. Stick around. Knowing us, those bullets would need to be silver and we don’t have the budget for ‘em. Suck it up and get back to work. There’s no easy outs anymore, guy.
Remember that old poster from the bar way back when? “When you feel like quitting, remember why you started” or whatever? Sure, it’s about alcoholics, but it ain’t bad advice. You’re not quitting and if you need to remember why you started, look at the photos covering all the walls. It’s been a great ride and I’m not ready to get off. If you think you are, remember why you strapped in. You won’t regret it.
I’d forgotten years of my life, but remembered how much I loved letters. They’re tangible thoughts sent through time from a past we lost touch with. After years, I’d regained the most important tool for recovery: my own words. Placing the folded letter back in its envelope, I noticed scrawled dates on the inside flap.
Curiosity is the spark of adventure. I grabbed notebooks, thumbing through pages for relevant entries. Each date was a new catastrophe. The car accident when Jackie was nine that we blamed ourself for. Lynn’s parents dying and her subsequent collapse. Jackie’s first period while Lynn was away on business. Every time, I’d reread the same letter and notated the date in my notebooks, the treasure-trove of memories I’d lost.
I must’ve called Lynn twice a day that week. I wanted to hear the perspectives I’d missed. It was over two decades of a relationship and parenthood condensed into thousands of pages of ink and paper. It could’ve been millions and I’d still miss details that meant the world now.
It wasn’t easy. The memories never came back, but when Jackie brought Lynn home from the terminal at the end of that week, I pulled her into a vigorous swinging hug. It was awkward, like dating all over again, but we lived together. At least I had the largest stockpile of cheat sheets in the world like I’d always wished I had. I couldn’t remember when I’d changed and decided to take this journey, but I was more than willing to make new reasons to see where it went. If I had any doubts, I knew where to turn.