I must have said that to him a million times, the words flowing from my gullet like a hollow wind through wavering pines. The somber ballad of a lie retold.
Those words followed our every heart-to-heart, trailing behind them like the tail of a soaring kite. By the time of my great escape at the age of 18, that kite was in tatters, tumbling through still skies to the barren wasteland of what was once our family home.
My mind runs rampant at a cheetah's pace, and my memory equally as spotty. Even so, I still vividly recall those many moments of tense frustration shared between us during the twilight of my youth. Those cringeworthy scenes still play out in my head as if they'd only just happened, packed to the brim with moments I would be hard-pressed to ever forget.
I would hear him first, a gruff cough or two following the clatter of the screen door against its frame as he entered. The nervous quiet that hung in the air shattered by the loud thud of his heavy boots against the scuffed linoleum by the back door.
His footfalls echoed through the house as he passed through the den and into the kitchen, followed swiftly by the somber clink of his keys against the smooth surface of the counter.
The telltale squeak of the floorboard alerted me to his impending arrival. Through the door, my ears catch the long, defeated sigh he would release, a futile effort to decompress before entering. Finally, the jiggle of the door handle.
From the moment he passed through the threshold of my cluttered sanctuary, his steely gaze would be upon me. He never spoke, not at first. His thin lips remained clamped shut as they fought back the crashing waves on anger colliding against them.
While the ritual remains steadfast in my head, the many reasons behind the word of prayer often escape me.
What sort of chaos had I wrought in school today?
He’d ask for explanations, I’d offer only excuses.
He’d seek out reasons, I’d blame my impulses.
Those fierce eyes would change after that, shifting from rage to disappointment.
It was like watching a great tidal heading straight for me, ascending to terrific heights like a bird in the sky before plummeting just as terrifically back into itself, petering out into little more than foam when it finally reaches the sandy shore.
That look was disappointment incarnate; speaking aloud all of those words he refused to utter. It hurt me in a way no spanking ever could.
I wonder if he knew that, if he knew the weight I put on his opinion. Did I ever tell him? Another blank spot in my memory. A part of me hopes I did, at least once.
With otherworldly patience, he would explain why my behavior was unacceptable, why I needed to do better. Afterwards when the moment had finally passed, he would ask me if I understood, and I’d say yes.
I always did. I’d mean it, too... even if it was a lie.
A pat on the shoulder generally followed, an expression of love.
We did this little dance for years and years as I struggled to navigate that perilous period leading to adulthood. I was confused, self-obsessed, determined to make my own way. One thing was still evident, though. I didn’t understand. determined to make my own way.
With those teenage blinders thoroughly in place, I never considered things from his point of view, or how much he had sacrificed to give me the opportunities I had. The man was giving tree in disguise, but I didn't see it.
What would I give to go back with that knowledge? Would it make a difference? Does it even matter anymore? The well has been dry for over seven years. All that’s left down there is pain and regret. And yet, I dive in time and time again. Why?
Because I’m starting to understand.
Thinking back to that memory leads to another, one I'd somehow forgotten. I remember the is the sight of him hunched over the desk outside his bedroom in the yellow light of his antique lamp. There he would stay for hours, like Beethoven behind a set of ivory keys toiling away on his latest labor of love. The crisp paper coating the mahogany desktop overflows with the vibrant colors of the emerging art.
So it was, until the pain rendered the creative outlet into a joyless endeavor.
This much I observed, but I did not understand. Even when I’d manage the gumption to ask why he never pursued the craft that brought him so much happiness, there was only ever one response.
“I couldn’t, buddy. We didn’t have the money for that. I had to work.” he’d say.
Every single damn time.
After watching my mom and stepfather battle with bankruptcy, I simply accepted this answer at face value instead of reading between the lines.
It was because of me.
He had given up those dreams for me. Damned himself to a lifetime of backbreaking labor so I could have the opportunities in life he never received.
I’m understanding more.
As the end of June approaches, it’s time to see him again. Bathed in the piercing light of dawn, I lumber my tired frame from my shift at the hospital to the cemetery where he rests. Wet, freshly mowed grass sticks to the sides of my tennis shoes as I move from the sidewalk towards the obsidian headstone that marks his plot.
As I approach him, the me of today seems to crack. The mask of a man falls away and I am a little boy again, desperate to wake his dad from a long nap. It takes some time before I finally manage to speak. I look into the eyes of the relief carved onto his headstone and I feel my lips quivering. I press them down tightly in an effort to hold back the cries building in the back of my throat and let loose a long, shaky sigh.
“I understand,” I say to him.
This time I really do.