by Matthew Haynes
On a Saturday morning, about noon, when I have risen from a gin sleep, questing the house for coffee, taking my place in the line outside the bathroom door, gripping my thighs, remarking at the delight of visiting home, curious at turning twenty-seven, my father tells me to pee in the backyard and then join him out front ‘ he has something to say.
Outside, the porch is more worn this spring, missing planks peephole to a dark fusty earth below. The cat makes mischief in my mother’s flowerbed. The neighbor’s dog barks then whines. Rising about the valley is a serrated Rocky Mountain and atop that, an eighty floor Virgin Mary, starkly white and garish.
Once I sit, straddling the thick, stone porch balustrade, my father tells me that he has lost something. He tells me that he has lost part of his life. My head is still in quicksand from the night before, and I wait a moment, letting the such catch my neck, loosening my throat. Then I ask what he means, and he mumbles a bit, lighting another cigarette just in time to cough, first deep and cumbersome’convulsive’some gaggin, and then shallow and phlegmy. He laughs when he does this, looking at me with embarrassment, but a bit proud too.
I am home for my father. A short, funny, Italian surgeon at the Veteran’s Hospital is fixing my fahter’s aortic aneurysm and the splintered arterial contusions associated therewith. WebMD tells me that it is a dangerous procedure, but with an astounding success rate. Dr. Mandiciono reports that everything should be fine if his lungs hold up.
I have come home for my mother, who refuses to accompany my father, who believes that he may be better off dead, but who is unsure of her life without him.
I have come home for my Aunt Pat who is worried her brother might die, and I have a hunch, is prepared for some unknown reconciliation.
His top denture slides from his gums. He adjusts his jaw like a camel chewing. With years of practice, he crosses his legs at the knees then leans forward, resting his right elbow, point to point, and says:
I was just getting ready to go to work for Christ’s sake. I bent down to tie my damn boot’
He pauses, catching his breath, maybe trying to remember each movement, trying to remember the details, or maybe too scared to want to remember anything.
And that’s it. I don’t remember what happened after that.
Another pause, bottomless this time.
Next thing I know, I’m, casting a fishing pole from a boat on the Flathead.
He stares at me with soggy blue eyes lilting between tired lids. Deep creases have formed over his face, meeting and departing like desert cracks. His wrinkles are less a sign of age and more of maltreatment. While my father thinks every day may be his last day, sure that he has cancer, having smoked for fifty years’two cartons a week’and positive that his rapid, thin breathing means heart failure, the doctor says that he is pretty healthy.
I ask if he wants a warm-up, then seize his coffee cup and re-enter the house before he answers. There is fresh brew and I pour myself a mug. There is no cream and the bowl of sugar has congealed and is tinted amber by sloping coffee doctoring. I leave it black and return to the porch, a few sips in me.
My father goes on to explain that in September of 1966 he was getting ready to go to work, laying asphalt for the Highway Commission. As he bent down to tie his work boot, he felt things slipping from him. He felt his vision leave him. He felt his hands lose contact. His last effort was calling his sister, my Aunt Pat. And that was it. Then nearly one year later, in August of 1967, his hands make sense, his vision returns, and balance is restored. At that moment, he casts a fishing pole, a little worried that he doesn’t remember getting in the boat, questioning why he isn’t at work. There are men seated next to him, friends who have come to take him out. One tells him that he has been in a psychological institution’that he has been lost.
My father is very uncomfortable telling me this story but I make him tell it over again, because I want to be sure that I understand, because I want to be sure that the story doesn’t change.
Two days later, in the waiting room, while the seven-hour surgery lumbers on, I ask my Aunt about my father’s breakdown in ’66. She purses her lips, pulls her head back, a jaw like my father’s pushing forward, distracting my depth of field, not so wrinkled, but budding old nonetheless.
It was a bad time. He’d just gotten divorced, sweetheart. His first wife took the kids. Our dad had died. Our mom was sick. Your dad just lost it.
Aunt Pat tells me that she had to have my father committed to Warm Springs Mental Hospital. And she tells me that she regrets it. She tells me that he ran away and that she found him in the kitchen, ready to kill himself. She tells me that they sent him to Veteran’s institution. She tells me that while in the hospital my father wrote her letters. Most of the letters consisted of long lines of scribble that were supposedly words, but so poorly written, they were unreadable. Once in a great while, Aunt Pat could read a portion, and then on time two sentences. She tells me what they said, “I’m scared. I can’t dream anymore.”
When I ask my mother about this, she lessens it by saying that my father has always been crazy. She says that it didn’t matter because that was before she married him. Then she changes the subject to: “Did you know that your brother is almost 400 pounds?” Or: “Did you know that Irene Grosso from down the street died?” Or: “Don’t you think that my toes are looking better, not so black and purple anymore?” Or something like that. When she does this I always answer with enthusiasm, aware of her diversion.
During the surgery, I call my brother, Chuck, to give him the update. A nurse tells me that they are at midpopint and that my father is doing fine, though his body temperature has dropped ten degrees. It seems like a substantial decrease, and I ask what that means. The nurse says that it could permit his body to catch pneumonia or the like, but that they have him in a body warmer. Chuck is beside himself. He tells me that dad’s surgery has changed his life. That he wonders what the point of anything is. That he wants to love his kids all the more. After we hang up, I worry that he might have lost his mind, a recent divorce, kids being shifted between apartments, tight budget.
After a day of waiting outside the Critical Care Unit, I am told that my father will be fine. I see him a last time before going home. His lips are blood-crusted, appearing prune, rose-petaled. His eyes dilate and mucous tears inch his jaw line. He pulls the O-mask from his face and wheezes, the blood from his lungs catching deep in his throat, his voice sandy and tight. He tells me to drive carefully.
I’ve been forgetting how to swallow. I have to tell myself to breath and then use my tongue to make pressure and then tighten my throat before I breath again. It only happens when I think about it. If I am busy, if my mind is occupied with conversation or the dishes, laundry or playing Boggle, my swallow is smooth.
I am worried that I may end up like my father. Not losing my mind. Rather, not using my life. There are years missing from my existence. Days upon weeks upon months, open seasons of movies and groceries, and late night solitary drinks when I burst from my bed, uneasy, complacent, and apathetic.
I spoke to my father during the summer and had him tell me the story again. It hadn’t changed. I asked if he remembered writing letters to his sister. He hadn’t. I asked if he really remembers nothing. And he says that not that he thinks about it, he remembers crying. His voice becomes hesitant and I don’t go on though I want to.
My mother called me last week at five in the morning. She tells me that my father has disappeared. That at three in the morning, from the couch upon which she dozed that night, she heard him rumble down the stairs, she saw him navigate through the living room, dressed only in his blue robe, slippers, hunting cap, scarf and mittens, his fraying skin only pretending to protect his bone, and through the lisp between the uneven curtains, saw him dash into his car, and speed away. It’s been two hours and she’s worried he’s dead, or worse, picked up by the police.
In another hour or two, they find him walking down residential sidewalks, knocking on doors, asking for cigarettes, they think, though he has a carton at home, looking for handouts, making memories, so that the next time I visit, maybe he can say, I remember the time that I’