Gunfire in my dreams, and beyond the canvas tent flaps a humid jungle landscape I will never visit but perhaps lives in me somewhere as ancestral memory. Inside I see my father as a young man, clean shaven and handsome as a movie star. A doctor is telling him his blood pressure is too high and that he’s being honorably discharged. What they can’t say, because they don’t yet understand this phenomenon, is that it’s caused by PTSD. He must have been so ashamed, I say. It’s not bullet wounds, or an amputated limb. Not something visible at all. Our eyes meet and all I can think is how young he looks. Or maybe he was relieved.
When I was a kid I imagined my dad’s death a lot. It was always one of two scenarios: either I would watch him shrink in my vision as the lifeboat I sat in lowered slowly into the cold water, leaving my father to await certain death on the foundering Titanic, or I would watch from the safety of the underground tornado shelter as, gripping the flimsy door to keep it latched and me safe, he was sucked up into the maw of the roaring funnel. The influence of history and pop culture on those scenes is obvious, and certainly I was a morbid child by nature anyway, but as I lay here in the midnight dark I wonder if there is more to them than overactive imagination. I wonder if my younger self sensed on some instinctive level that her father would be taken from her without warning and sought to prevent this looming disaster by compulsively imagining worst case scenarios. Or maybe she was simply attempting to blunt the inevitable future pain of his loss by repetition. Either way it didn’t work, perhaps because in those scenarios he was always sacrificing himself to save me when in the end there was no danger, no moment of swift choice between his life or his daughter’s. I was only a child, after all; back then I understood the threat disasters posed, but not that human ineptitude could just as easily shatter my fragile world.
I dream about you often enough now that my heart lives in a perpetual state of confusion, convinced this surreal oroboros of childhood homes and reinvented memories is somehow the correct reality until the moment I wake and the narrative fragments. Yet even fifteen years later I still haven’t the nerve to scold my heart too sternly for its naivety; what if by breaking it just that much more it loses the ability to dream of you at all?
I remember you in the summer:
the heady scent of fresh cut grass
wild blackberries warmed by the sun
eagles soaring high in a clear blue sky
I remember you in the fall:
the trumpet call of geese flying south
white fog tangled in evergreen trees
leaves and pine cones crunching underfoot
I remember you in the winter:
the gleam of bare branches encased in ice
wood smoke drifting on the chill wind
snowflakes falling in lazy circles
I remember you in the spring:
the chirp of baby swallows in their nests
footprints through the dewy grass
daffodil faces lifted toward the sun
It has become such a trite phrase, an excuse for bad tattoos and wild partying. But what does it mean beyond those trivialities, beyond the shallowness of YOLO culture? What does it mean to truly live a regret-free life?
It means forgiving.
It means forgiving the past for taking you to this present. It means forgiving yourself for not understanding what was happening at the time, for not clinging to those final moments with tooth and nail. It means forgiving those who may have hastened that end through their carelessness or the flaws in a broken system. It means forgiving every person their lack of omniscience – yet especially yourself. It means forgiving yourself for the things you did and the things you did not do and how that closed all the doors on every possible future but one.
And it means accepting.
It means accepting that you can neither change the past nor predict how it will affect the future. It means accepting that we are only human and that we all make mistakes, every one of us every day, and nothing can change that either. It means accepting endings and embracing beginnings, always. It means accepting a new normal. It means accepting that new normals are not inherently bad, only different.
And it means being able to one day look upon a gravestone without flinching. It means knowing in your heart you did all you could and continue to do all you can. It is not an easy philosophy. It is not a philosophy of misspelled tattoos and drunken selfies. It is a philosophy of hope tempered with the weight of experience. It is a constant striving to do what you think is right in the moment and a constant forgiving of yourself and others once the moment has passed. It is closing the door on the past, yet never locking it.
My mother and I share a lot of private memories, things for which only we were present – the time we got locked in a dark sauna and I was thoroughly convinced we were going to die; the time we accidentally ordered so much food at a Chinese restaurant that it was like the chocolate factory conveyor belt scene from I Love Lucy; the time our car was nearly hit by lightning during a tornado warning and we rode out the storm in a little diner in the middle of nowhere; all the times we sat talking over dinner or laughing at stupid reality TV. We share countless private memories between us, both mundane and magical, silly and serious, yet there is a specific shared memory which binds us beyond mother and daughter – a memory I have barely touched in the last eleven years.
I was fresh out of my first year of college, just eighteen years old, and my parents and I were on vacation in northern California. We had driven to the ranger station at the top of Mt. Lassen, a ride during which my mother had kept her eyes squeezed shut for fear of the steep cliff-side just feet from the car. She hated heights, hated seeing the tops of trees passing by below as the car wove its way up the steep, winding path, and probably didn’t trust her own driving skills enough to risk the attempt anyway. On the way down, though, she had to take the wheel and remain calm for us both while my father sat stunned in the front seat by an inexplicably painful and disorienting headache. We didn’t know why the headache struck so suddenly or with such force, only that he needed medical assistance – and so my mother faced her lifelong fear to get us all to safety. I knew she was on the edge of panic that whole drive down and yet she reined in her fear to keep her teenage daughter, who had never seen her beloved father so vulnerable, from panicking too. Thanks to her we made it safely back to the tiny town at the base of the mountain and hurried to the local hospital. If my father was cogent enough to commend my mother for her bravery at the time, I don’t remember… and at this point it’s only she and I who remain to tell the tale.
My mother is made of steel and I could provide a hundred examples of her strength just off the top of my head; anyone who knows her could. She fights for her family, for her friends, and for her community and has always set a positive example for everyone around her. However, I’m the only one who can offer up this particular memory as proof of her unyielding bravery. A check for a million dollars couldn’t have convinced my mother to make that stressful drive back to civilization on her own and yet she did. For my father, mysteriously sick, she did. For me, young and terrified, she did. Maybe if we had known what the upcoming days would ask of us she would have quailed at this first test, but all I remember is her determination in the face of the frightening unknown.
I talk a lot about the ways in which I’m like my father because I’m proud to carry them on in his name and make him present in every moment with me. However, what I should say more often is how much I hope I am like my mother. How I hope I have inherited her courage, strength, and conviction. How I hope I may act quickly and calmly to protect my little family when emergencies strike. How I hope I may so bravely face down any and all of my fears to do what is right for those I love. Anyone can tell you my mother is a little blond spitfire who doesn’t back down from a challenge, yet only I can tell you about the time I saw her at her bravest. It’s not a happy memory to share between us, nor are any of the other memories from the week that followed, but it remains preserved and clarified in my mind as testament to the strength for which I want always to strive.
It’s been ten years. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days. In that time, three years of college; three of Americorps; three with a ‘real’ job. Two degrees and one diploma. Four years with the woman I love, who you will never meet. Forty-two foster kittens. Some hundred thousand miles on my car. One car accident, zero broken bones. Two trips to Washington DC, one to Yosemite, one to Switzerland. One new Jurassic Park movie, which you’ll never watch with me, and too many Tremors sequels. Three tattoos, going on four. One wedding to plan and one to attend. Three times a bridesmaid and once a bride. Zero fathers to walk me down the aisle. Zero dads to dance with. Zero you but countless dreams and too many things I’ll never get to share with you.
I’m a member of the Dead Dads Club. It’s a shitty club and you don’t get to choose to become a member; one day it just happens, congratulations, you’re a member for life now. At first I didn’t dream about him at all, or if I did he was always in the periphery, silent, watchful. Then it was dreams where I didn’t know I was dreaming and he was back – he had never died, he had been resurrected, he just walked through the door one day and didn’t know years had passed. Then it was dreams where I didn’t know I was dreaming and we were just hanging out together – riding in his truck, baking chocolate chip cookies, me telling him about Assassin’s Creed. Then it was dreams where I knew it was a dream and he didn’t understand why I’d hold him hard and sob into his chest. Now it’s dreams where I know it’s a dream but I still tell him over and over and over again how much I want him to come to my wedding. I cry, hard and ugly, and the dream never lasts long enough. In the dream it feels unbearable, the thought that he’ll miss this, too, just like he missed so much else. When you’re in the Dead Dads Club, the list of things they miss just gets longer and longer, and yet you’re continually blindsided when something new comes up.
“You Would Have Been 70”
In 2007, I missed telling you about my history classes.
In 2008, I missed you helping me buy gear for my fieldwork on Mount Rainier.
In 2009, I missed showing you the rock samples I collected in New Mexico.
In 2010, I missed seeing you at my college graduation.
In 2011, I missed introducing you to my new favorite band.
In 2012, I missed hiking in Yosemite with you.
In 2013, I missed introducing you to my girlfriend.
In 2014, I missed you helping me move into my first official apartment.
In 2015, I missed discussing Ray Bradbury with you.
In 2016, I missed showing you my engagement ring.
In 2017, I will miss you walking me down the aisle.
This is a long time coming, I know. I’m not even sure what I’ll say here. Happy birthday, I guess. Did it ever feel weird to you to have been born on Pearl Harbor Day? I suppose everyone remembers the date that way, but what a downer, huh? Though it’s a day that will live in infamy for me for a different reason. A happy reason, I try to remember, though it’s more bittersweet than anything else. I wonder what you’d be like, if you had lived to see this birthday. A little older, a little grayer, but still strong as an ox, I’ll bet. I wonder what your current projects would be; the Model A, of course, and a Harley of some sort. Would you still have the ’56, or would you have sent it off to a new home in favor of some other needy vehicle? You’d like my car – he’s very reliable and I try to take good care of him. It’s hard, though, not having a dad to turn to for that stuff. We have Greg, of course. You’d have liked him, I think, even if you’re the exact opposites in temperament. Did you know it’s possible to put up the Christmas tree without swearing the entire time? I didn’t either!
I’m sitting at my desk right now, in my very own cubicle. How adult, huh? Don’t worry, though, I have pictures of cats everywhere and lots of Christmas decorations. Pictures of my girlfriend, too. I wish you could have met her. I think I wish that more than anything. You and Mom taught me what true love looks like and now that I’ve found it too, I’m trying my best to follow in your footsteps. To be the caretaker, the provider, the protector. It’s a small family I’m building, just us and a dog and Bruno (though we have transient foster kittens most of the time), but so incredibly important to me. Was this how you felt about us? Is that why you kept every school assignment, clay figurine, report card, childish doodle, and even my baby teeth? (That was SO GROSS. What a creepy surprise! Why did you keep those?) Is that why we keep finding old home videos? Those are what I’m most thankful for this holiday season, even if hearing you say my name nearly made me break down in tears.
I’m not ready to write all the stuff I need to say, I don’t think, but I can say this – even eight years later, you’re still teaching me and I’m taking those lessons to heart. I might have regrets, but I’m doing my best to prevent any others.I’m doing my best to live the life you would want me to live. I think I’m doing pretty well so far. What do you think?
When will the dawning break? Oh endless night
Sleepless I dream of the day when you were by my side
Guiding my path; Father, I can’t find the way
You promised you’d be there whenever I needed you
Whenever I call your name you’re not anywhere
I’m trying to hold on, just waiting to hear your voice
One word, just a word will do to end this nightmare
Sometimes I feel like I’m overflowing with all the things I want to tell you. They’ve accumulated over the years, you know? Eight years of stories, questions, secrets, interesting facts and finds. I want to tell you about Rose’s Pawn Shop; I think you’d get a kick out of the fact that my favorite band is a bluegrass band. I want to tell you I ended up majoring in Geoscience and History, not English; would that surprise you, or not? I want to tell you about this Roger Zelazny short story I read – it has the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman in it! I want to tell you about field work in New Mexico, climbing to the base of the Nisqually glacier, studying Japanese biological warfare, and the crazy, wonderful professors who made that all possible. I want to tell you about trying to explain recycling to immigrants from Sudan, Vietnam, Ukraine; I want to tell you about teaching emergency preparedness to children and teenagers and adults. I want to make you see Jurassic World with me, even though we both know it will be awful. I want us to go see Jaws in theaters for its 40th anniversary. I want to tell you I remember the first time we watched that movie, and every movie you ever showed me. I want to tell you I discovered the magic and power of Bradbury too late to discuss him with you, and I’ll always regret that. I want to tell you I’ve finally fallen in love, and I know you’d like her, and I know you’d be happy for us. I want to tell you I look at time differently now, and relationships, and life. I want to tell you we’re okay, but we miss you terribly, and things can’t ever be the same.
I know that the night must end
And that the sun will rise, and that the sun will rise
I know that the clouds must clear
And that the sun will shine, and that the sun will shine
I know that the night must end
I know that the sun will rise
And I’ll hear your voice deep inside
There’s a part of me that will never accept there isn’t a spell to bring you back. That part of me will always wonder at the words, the ingredients, the timing. Maybe it’s possible, it will argue. Maybe you just need the right combination of Bradbury and Zelazny, Irish Rovers and Bob Seger, a circle of beach sand sprinkled with Guinness and in the center an eagle feather laid atop a Harley Davidson t-shirt; maybe if you just keep searching you’ll find enough little memories to place at the foot of that weathered stone until one day “No Regrets” won’t make your heart twist to read. And I hate that part of me, but I can’t stand to snuff it out, because what if it’s right?
Some days I want to glean meaning from your death. Other days I know it was just some random shit thing that happened. In my dreams society has crumbled, humanity reduced to warring factions and desperate survival, and still what I miss most as I stand by the ocean is hearing songs on the radio that remind me of you. Upon waking I struggle for a moment, wondering why my mother is dating someone, until I remember (over and over and over) – you’re gone.
[ My arch nemesis and I provided each other with some writing prompts. This is the first she gave me. The limitations are it must be serious and canon to the story in which both our characters appear. Her prompt is below:
If my fragments for The Lodestar’s Lament are canon, (which I might make them) without the alternate ending – Mage has successfully totaled the island by using the Hook’s piercing tip to scratch open the rift at the bottom of the sea. Its pieces are either being crushed in a black hole or scattered to the edges of the universe in all cardinal directions. Her reaction? ]
It is a strangely silent Armageddon. The captain is uncertain whether this pleases or disappoints her. She is tired of feeling anything at all, honestly.
Mage watches from the deck of the Jolly Roger as the ruined island is subsumed back into the universe which birthed it, fragments drifting into a sky the color of burst galaxies and firework graveyards, and the heart of the island sinking down into a darkness that devours everything it touches. Only Mage’s power keeps the hungry nothingness from sucking in the floating pirate ship – and this, too, she will finally gift back to the world in which it belongs, and must stay, when she no longer needs its statement.
As the last of the island succumbs to the black hole’s pull, Mage turns and asks, “Is it enough?”
Behind her Tanim and Daren stand like motionless sentinels on either side of a stranger, one who has never before set foot in this world. She seems somehow a child of seven and thirteen at the same time, pudgy and pale, her long black hair a tangle of snarls and her blue-gray eyes filled with tears. She clings to a worn stuffed calico cat, so out of place on the black deck of the infamous ship.
“It was supposed to be,” the girl replies, “but…it’s not. Why isn’t it?”
Mage smiles sadly and comes to kneel before the little girl. She smooths her hair with a hand no longer twisted and blackened by the Hook; already she is returning to the one she was Before. “Nothing brings back lost family, my dear,” the captain tells her charge. “But fear not. We are your family, and we cannot be taken from you.” Glancing briefly up, Mage exchanges a look with the two men that seems to add though you can be taken from us.
“Captain, it’s over,” Mage straightens and follows Tanim’s gaze to the bruised darkness which once contained a place she might, given time, given grace, have called home. For a moment she does not speak, only stares at the reclaimed emptiness of space, then bows her head and utters something beneath her breath in a language none alive still speak.
With a sigh that forces itself into a pale smile, Mage turns back to the girl and lays a hand on her shoulder. “Come along, little one, let us leave this place. It is time for me to become The Wanderer again.”
happy birthday, Dad
wish we could take one last ride
I’d give anything