"I don't know what to say, Detective,"
"I don't expect you to say anything, just a nod will tell us all we need." She says, motioning for me to follow her downstairs.
"Is it cold in the morgue?" I ask,
"A little, but try not to think about it too much. We don't have to stay there long; it will only take a moment." She has a kind face, and I know she means well. But with each stair we descend, it feels like I'm stepping deeper into my worst fears.
"How long have you been doing this?"
"This is my 2nd year at this department,"
"Do you often take daughters to the morgue to identify their fathers?" My question is meant to lighten the mood, but it just makes me feel worse.
The detective laughs lightly anyway, "No, this isn't exactly normal for me either. I'm with the state government in fraud and monetary theft: check forgery, money printing, or something like that. So, you can see how I got roped into your father's case." We pass another landing and descend to the lowest level.
"Have you been working on this for a while?" I ask while trying to ignore the extreme drop in temperature I felt.
"Almost five years. I haven't told many people this... but your father is the reason I moved here. This is where we last tracked him,"
"Was he good at what he did?" I ask, mostly out of curiosity, but a small part of me admires that he managed to get away with it all for so long.
"One of the best." She cocks an eyebrow at me, and I follow her away from the stairs and down a dark hall to the door marked MORGUE.
"Ready Brit?" Detective Anders asks me, and I nod. We step inside the fluorescent filled room.
"Ugh, it reeks of formaldehyde?"
"And bleach." She adds,
"Is this...him?" I gesture towards the covered body, "He seems shorter than I remember," Anders' eyebrows furrow.
"Really? Like significantly shorter?"
"I don't know. I mean it's been fifteen years. Maybe the sheet makes him seem shorter, but when I was a kid, he just seemed so tall."
"Larger than life?" She asks,
I let out a small laugh, "That's exactly what my mom used to say."
"Here we go," her hands move towards the white sheet obscuring the face,
"WAIT!" I cry before I can stop myself. Detective Anders' snaps her hands back,
"What's the matter?"
"S-sorry, I just...I haven't seen my dad since I was nine. I always thought he would come waltzing in one day, you know? He would tell me that all our problems are solved because he was back. Out of all my siblings that you called, I'm the only one who responded, right?"
"That's because I'm the oldest. So, I remember him best. They only remember his anger, and exhaustion, the arguments, and the empty refrigerator. They remember the door slamming shut behind him and never opening up again.
"But I remember the good stuff: reading me bedtime stories, him teaching me to ride a bike. He put on a princess crown and had tea parties with me. When I was eight, I failed my first grammar test, and I came home in tears. But he made me a cup of hot chocolate and told me to breathe. Just breathe, and everything would be okay. Because 'remembering to breathe is the first step in remembering who you are and what you stand for. And if you remember who you are, you will never lose your way'. So it took me a long time to forgive him for leaving us like that. But he thought that by sticking around, he would only drag us down."
"It's difficult for children to realize that their parents aren't perfect," Anders says quietly,
"He wasn't perfect. He wasn't even close to perfect. But at least he tried, and he wanted the best for us -- which is more than I can say for most fathers."
"Are you ready?"
"Not quite. I need to know more...how did he die? Where?"
Anders sighs and crosses her arms, "He was found shot, off a service road about seven miles north of here. It was one bullet to the back of the head, so he went quickly."
"Do you know who shot him?" I ask,
"Brit, being nervous is completely normal, and I get it. And you can delay this until you're ready, but learning more about how this happened...it won't make seeing him any easier."
I feel my throat tighten, "How will I even know if it's him? If you had asked me fourteen years ago I wouldn't have any problem giving you an answer. But now? I barely remember what he looked like fifteen years ago. He's changed since then, probably has new scars, a new hair color--"
"Yes?" My heart flutters,
"I've never shown an estranged relative to someone before. Usually, it's family members who have seen each other recently. But what I have learned is that it doesn't take much to recognize family. Something inside you will just know, you'll know if it's him."
"Okay." Anders smiles and moves towards the sheet again, "And," I interject and she pauses, "If it is him...where do I go from here? My siblings and I? Don't speak. My mom died three years ago. And I think that for the last fifteen years, and especially the last three years, I've been clutching to the hope that he would come back even tighter. Because if he came back...there would be someone else to blame.
"Once he left, I was suddenly in charge of the house and my younger siblings. This meant that I was to blame for everything: Rosie wasn't asleep on time, Sam didn't finish his homework, the house was too dirty, dinner wasn't cooked. And if he came back, he could take care of all of it. But now it's too late! It's too late. Once you pull back this sheet, it will solidify everything that I have ever feared."
"That I am completely alone." My statement rings out in the quiet room settling over us colder than the temperature.
"You know what I've learned in my job? No one is ever truly alone. Look, families are complicated. I imagine having a father who committed fraud for seventeen years makes everything more complicated than usual. But running away from things will never fix the problem. Your father learned that: he ran away from everything and ended up more alone than anyone. You can't start fixing things until you learn who is on this table. Now, I'm going to pull back the sheet, and we'll move forward from there. Okay?"
Anders' shaking hands pull back the sheet, and I feel myself exhale and the blood rush to my head.
"Brit? Is it your father?"
Remembering to breathe is the first step in remembering who you are and what you stand for. And if you remember who you are, you will never lose your way.
I take in a breath, "Yes, it's him." Anders covers the body again and directs me out of the morgue.
"Where are we going? The exit is that way,"
"I want you to decompress in the conference room for a bit, and I'll bring you some coffee."
It feels like hours before the door finally opens again, the coffee in front of me has grown cold. I look up, expecting Anders, but instead meet a pair of eyes that mimic my own.
"Brit?" Before I know it I'm on my feet.
"Sam! She's in here!"
"Hey, Brit. Long time no see," an easy smile slides across his face. I'm transported back fifteen years ago to the three of us outside on hot summer nights capturing lightning bugs in our hands and eating cold marshmallows out of the drug store bag.
"What are you guys doing here?" I ask,
"We-" Rosie looks at Sam,
"Detective Anders called us. She said that... you identified the body?" Sam says,
"Brit," Rosie steps forward, "Is he dead?"
"Yes." I manage to whisper, and Sam clutches the doorframe.
"Are you okay?" He asks, "I mean...after seeing him for the first time in fifteen years?"
"I'm fine. There's no point in just standing around here. There's nothing left to do. So, we can all go our separate ways." Rosie grabs my hand and starts to speak. Then in a flurry of tears, she throws her arms around my neck,
"I'm so sorry, Brit. I'm so sorry you had to do that alone."
"Thank you for doing that for us. For taking care of us, as you've always done." Sam says beside me, and I feel his arm around my shoulder.
And for a moment, I breathe. Just breathe.
I breathe in the love of my siblings. At the same time, I breathe out the anger towards my father. Because in the end, he did just what I always hoped he would: he brought me family.