“We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock… We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
After my father died, I began to follow men around the grocery store. Middle aged men, men with dark hair and bald spots, glasses-wearing men in white sneakers and too-long socks, in tucked polo shirts, in dark suits. Men with thin hair combed back, a slight tan. Men who looked like him. I began to see my father in strangers, began to watch these strangers for a glimpse of my father. I watch men who look the way he might have looked were he still alive; a more pronounced bald spot, the jowls and papery skin that come with age. I don’t follow them through stores and streets, but I let my gaze linger. With these strangers, I stage an exhibition of how he moved through the world. You would be amazed how many random men at airports and in cars at stoplights have caused me to look twice, look closer.
My father was a computer engineer. In the months surrounding my birth in Henderson, Nevada, he drove an hour to a government facility in the desert, and boarded a jet plane with blacked-out windows. Even he didn’t know exactly where he went, just that he couldn’t talk about it to his wife (my mom)—not to anyone.
These are only pieces I’ve heard, from him when my sister and I visited, from my mom and grandma, but as I was growing up I didn’t know exactly what he did for a job. Aside from his drunken ramblings about aliens and Area 51 at a Ramada Inn when I was twelve, I still don’t. There is no reason to believe that he worked for the CIA, or the FBI, or any government agency that would feasibly require someone to fake their death, leave their life, disappear. But a year after he died, I began to have dreams.
In the dreams, my father faked his death because he was undercover for the CIA. He’s back now, alive. He’s glad to see me. He pulls up a chair to a desktop computer and I catch him up on everything he’s missed: pictures from my high school graduation, trips to Europe, and grad school. There are variations: In one dream, he didn’t work for the CIA at all; I go to grab a bottle of wine from my grandparents’ basement on Thanksgiving, and find him hiding behind the shelves, among the ancient moonshine and pickled okra.
In one, he’s lying on the hardwood floor of my apartment completely bald, completely naked except for his glasses. I try to show him the pictures, but he won’t move. I tell him I’ve been writing about him. I try to push him into my office so he can see, ask him if it’s okay to write about him, if he’s mad, if he likes the words, what he thinks, but he won’t talk to me, he won’t tell me, won’t say anything.
I woke up smelling his aftershave, haunted.
I play these games, look for him in crowds, dream about the CIA. But it wasn’t until I was sitting on the elevated train headed to Sears Tower in Chicago that I realized:
I actually believed he would show up there.
My dad began his life in Harvey, a suburb on the south side of Chicago. Now, a simple Google search auto-fills the space after Harvey, IL, with “crime rate,” and reveals images of derelict buildings burnt and boarded, grotesquely peeling billboards, and taquerias with steel-barred windows.
My grandma, Irma, describes an idyllic American boyhood, where my father, Steve, competed in the neighborhood Pinewood Derby and played baseball under cool skies, paying no bother to grass stains. My grandparents moved to Palatine, on the north side, when Steve was ten or eleven; he took his south side accent with him then, and into adulthood. Even after living all over the country, the hard whine of an “a” punctuated his voice, especially when he said “Chicago.” It’s the only word I can still hear him through clearly, the only way I can remember how his voice sounded.
These are things I was told in adulthood, only because I asked. Because I only thought to ask after he was dead seven years, when I realized I didn’t know him. I’m still not sure I do. After discovering these details, more questions sprout from me like twigs and branches than there are answers to flower them.
What I have for sure is this: a black and white Polaroid photo, labeled Stevie, April 1962. A small boy stands on the concrete steps of a brick house. He is wearing suspenders and a bow-tie, his head almost too big for his body. He smiles for the camera.
Before I hang up the phone, Grandma Irma says, “I have a whole box full of those old pictures and his school projects. Would you be interested in seeing any of that?”
I tell her yes, and she promises to go through the box and send them to me, as soon as she gets the chance.
I have never felt overcome with grief, but rather, overcoming, like I forget I am constantly climbing a very steep hill. It was not until five years after his death that I actually missed him, craved him the way I occasionally crave spirituality or an imagined lover. But guilt has always been my default emotion; I feel guilty that my first thoughts after learning of his death were selfish ones. I feel guilty that I never cried in front of my family. I feel guilty that the relationship between my father and I was a strained one, exacerbated by his drinking and my resentment. I was a shitty teenager to him. Most teenagers are shitty to their parents, but most of their parents aren’t suddenly murdered.
Grief as I know it has been more like a wall, constructed as I descended the stairs and saw my mother’s face, heard her voice as she told the Story for the first time; the Story my family would tell a million times over until it was learned by heart. Until the lines were practiced, even the intonation of each word memorized. I descended the stairs a teenage girl and walked back up them not a woman, exactly, but some kind of newly-born, unfamiliar creature. I closed my bedroom door behind me and my life officially began.
Of course, there’s no way to know if any of the stories we tell are the truth.
This is the story I tell to others—to myself—about my father’s life and death, about the tiring complexity of how I handled (or didn’t handle, or am still handling) the puzzle of it all.
Once the story solidifies, everything before the moment of impact becomes myth along with it. There is only life as we see it in retrospect. There is only after.
Here’s another story: I visited Chicago for the first time the summer before I turned thirteen. With my dad and sister, I remember walking through streets that sprouted into skyscrapers. He took us to Sears Tower. The guide on the ground floor told us that the building was built to sway with the wind. As the numbers on the screen rose and we approached the 100th floor, I was terrified the elevator cables would snap. I didn’t look over and see my dad shaking, or wringing his hands, but he must have been. He was too nervous to ride escalators at the mall.
At the top, he looked briefly over the city, pointing out Wrigley Field. I inched toward the glass, woozy with height, and imagined the sensation of a plane toppling the building, or the floor underneath us capsizing. I could have sworn I saw the bridge where we had walked earlier. I could have sworn I felt the building sway.
The morning after he died was meant to be the first day of my senior year of high school. My mom and I stood in line at the DMV, where I got my first driver’s license, and I drove with it for the first time to give her rest during the ten-hour trip to Alabama.
The viewing room was all dark wood and floral chairs. Dim yellow light shone on his coffin. When we got there, we saw that his hair was styled in a way he never wore it. My grandmother took a fine-toothed black comb from her purse, spit on it, and combed back the dark strands.
My mother held his cold hand and kissed his face and cried. She told us we should touch him, too, that it was our last opportunity; he was going to be cremated. She said, It’s still your father. The last time you’ll see him.
My sister and I stood back, not wanting to come too close to the dead body. We asked everyone to leave the room, so we could be alone with him. It’s the kind of high-maintenance request that we never would have gotten away with if we hadn’t been, on that day, Princesses of Grief, the young bereaved daughters of the beloved. Family and strangers alike closed the heavy oak doors behind them, closing us in.
My sister and I looked at each other, smiling the way children smile when they know it’s inappropriate. We dared each other to step towards the casket, into the yellow light. Tried to shove and then jumped back, until together we walked forward.
What was lying there didn’t seem like our dad, but a wax mold of him, a shell. Though the grotesque inanimateness startled us, so did the sense that he could begin moving at any second, zombie-like. His body looked like it could just as easily have been shucked-off empty as rise up out of the coffin and begin to scold us.
My sister poked his hand and giggled, squeamish.
Cold, she said.
I said, He’s wearing eyeliner.
We looked at the place his head rested on the white silk pillow.
I wonder if they stitched it up, one of us said or didn’t say.
I peeked behind the pillow, where the bullet made contact, and I saw red.
Joan Didion opens her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, with the first words she wrote after her husband’s death: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.”
Didion’s and her husband’s lives have been, in many ways, defined by their words branded to paper. But here, she writes about the futility of trying to convey the story of his death. She writes, “This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning.”
The first words I wrote about my father after his death were: There are some things you never knew about me. Since then, every sentence has been a revelation that there is so much I don’t know about him, may never know. My writing has become a search, not only for the cosmic meaning in life and death and sudden rippings from one to the other, but for what it means to live with a death in the blood.
Losing a husband is not like losing a father. Except maybe it is. There’s something about the shape a man leaves when he’s gone—work unfinished, days untangle-able. I remember the funeral of my maternal grandfather and how my grandmother shriveled without his elephant largeness, how she became a trembling bird in a dress as pale blue as a drowned child’s cheeks. Whether heart attack at the kitchen table or blood spilt on a living room carpet, there is a need to exorcise the story, to relay cause and effect so that we can be done with grief, or at least, tell ourselves we are.
In the days between our arrival and the funeral, my sister and I occupied ourselves with small adventures into town. We drove to the mall and stole hemp bracelets from Earthbound, bumper stickers from gas stations, and snuck un-tagged halter tops into her purse. We shoplifted and drove around and ate McDonald’s in the car. One afternoon we returned to a police cruiser parked in my grandma’s driveway.
Inside, a man sat with my mother at my grandmother’s kitchen table. He introduced himself as Detective Eric King, the detective in charge of my father’s case.
We took turns at the table with his tape recorder, where he asked about my father’s relationship with his wife, our stepmother of three months, Pam. My sister and I spent two weeks with them in the summer, so when it was our turn, we mostly talked about that.
He said he had listened to the voic emails my mom left on my dad’s phone that night, after she heard the news. He said they broke his heart, and he was so sorry. He gave me his business card.
Later that day, a neighbor brought over a rotisserie chicken, and my sister and I stood at the counter and devoured the entire bird with our hands.
My grandmother was witness to the two ruined Christmases we spent with our father. During the first, he was convulsing on the kitchen floor when she arrived to take us out to dinner. He whispered for Stephanie to come closer so he could tell her he loved her. Last words, like he truly believed he was dying. My sister began to cry. I stood back and watched, annoyed.
My grandma called the ambulance that took him to the emergency room, where the doctors found four times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood. He called a week after we left to tell us he was sorry, and he was going to quit drinking.
He spent the second Christmas complaining about a woman he had just broken up with. On New Year’s Eve, we were getting ready to see a play when the woman showed up at his door unexpectedly, a bottle of wine under her coat. When we met up with my grandma in the parking garage and she saw the woman, her eyes went wide.
During the play, the two of them got drunk and talked over the actors. They dropped the empty bottle of wine and it echoed as it rolled through rows of seats. My grandma asked, “Are you ready to leave?” and I nodded, so we left, and they followed us out.
At the house, my sister and I drank sparkling apple juice while the adults had champagne. After the ball dropped on TV, I went into my room to call my mom, and when I came out, the woman was sitting on my dad’s lap, sloppily kissing on the couch.
Six months later they were married, and three months after that she killed him with a bullet to the back of the head. I have always wondered what that bullet felt like, if an unfastened skull parts like the Red Sea or opens like French doors to the pale glow of sunlight. If it feels like an entrance wound or an exit.
When I announced I was taking a trip to Chicago, my grandmother called me.
“I don’t know what your plans are, but maybe we can meet outside the city for lunch?”
Language shapes our cultural consciousness, limits the ideas we can explore. The words we have for things influence the way we think about them.
As a child, I called him only Papa. Papa is the name of running through the kitchen and jumping into his arms when he had been gone on a business trip. Papa is the name of being small enough to sit shirtless in his lap. After the divorce, I began to call him Dad or Daddy, and now that he’s dead, he is My Father.
My father was not a writer but in the weeks before he died, he kept a diary. My mother says he wanted my sister and I to see it, “so they don’t make the same mistakes I did,” he said. My grandmother has it, but I’ve never been allowed to read it, though I’ve asked multiple times. She said, “There’s stuff in there you don’t need to know about him.” I told her I want to know who he was, that I’m old enough now to handle whatever I learn. She said she didn’t want me to think of my dad “that way.”
There’s a French word, aplaventrisme, which means, “to submit to authority without a fight.”
I met her outside the Schaumberg mall, a thirty-minute drive from the city. She gathered me into her arms for a hug, and touched my cheek, her eyes sparkling with genuine delight.
She squealed, “Oh, you look as beautiful as ever!”
“So do you,” I said.
She linked her arm in mine and we walked into the mall.
Oct. 8, 1959 – Aug. 23, 2009 Steven Charles Slaughter, 49, of Madison passed away Sunday. Survivors include his children…
Online, the rest of the obituary has been archived, so there’s no way to read it without paying for a subscription. It wasn’t easy to find hidden under the many news articles about the murder, most of them badly-written and featuring a weary mugshot of Pam in prison stripes. But here, the murder isn’t mentioned; he passed away, the way leaves pass into autumn.
There was no deathbed, no goodbyes under white sterile lights. He was my dad, and then he was my dead dad, with no space in-between to make sense or amends.
Survivors include his children…
That the word “survivor” is used to describe the family of the deceased strikes me as strange. What have we survived? Not grief, which by the time the obituary is printed in the daily newspaper hasn’t even begun to settle in a person. As if death had come for us, too, and we only nearly stepped back from the blade unscathed. We are all eventually the victims, leaving behind a trail of our own survivors.
“Episcopalians say at the graveside,” Didion points out, “In the midst of life we are in death.”
Grief as I know it is not a ravine with dark and raging waters, but a brick wall. The meaning and circumstances of my life had changed irrevocably but I continued to live, pressed up against it. Over time, the wall has eroded, secret fears and misshapen feelings trickling through the cracks. Sometimes I reach through a hole in the wall, grasp air. Sometimes I dig at the mortar and bloody my fingernails, futile. Sometimes I try to patch the holes with scotch tape and bedsheets, but when wind comes roaring through, when I gaze into the spaces and see a pair of hazel eyes lurking on the other side, it is only then that I am afraid of what’s left when the wall comes tumbling down.
I wonder if my father would condemn these words if he could read them. I wonder if he would see that there is love in my brutal honesty, that even in recalling his offenses I am trying to know the person he was, not the airbrushed icon death reduces the dead to.
I have always been adamant that if nothing else, I would not saint him simply for the fact of having died; I promised I would remember him realistically. But is that really what I’m doing? Is it even possible? The reality of who he was has changed with each year that he’s been lost and I’ve lived.
On the cusp of my twenties, I developed extreme anxiety and depression. I didn’t do my dishes for six months because I felt physically incapable, and garbage bags piled up to the ceiling. I kept a full-time job during college, where I worked hard to get promoted and still did well in school, but every night locked in my apartment I smoked pot and drank whiskey until I was crawling to my bedroom. There was so much space to fill, so much emptiness; I understood what my father’s nights were like, alone in his home. In the womb of addiction, I felt close to him. For the first time, I felt I was like him.
And though he disapproved of my becoming a writer, I use these words to preserve him and everything that came after he was killed. I am a writer, and the last thing he ever did in his life was put pen to paper. At the moment he died, he was writing.
The summer before I began grad school, almost a full year before my trip to Chicago, I drove to Alabama. I didn’t tell anyone I was going.
Driving through town was like journeying into the belly of a toothless shark. I passed the old Blockbuster where we rented DVDs each time we visited (now a DIY pottery shop), and the thrift store my sister and I stole scented candles from the week of his funeral.
Once I found Wall-Triana, I didn’t even need the GPS; it was like navigating in a dream—I suddenly knew where to go, and then the house was lying ahead of me at the end of the road.
It looked the same as I remembered it, the same gray garage door and tri-color brick, except that the front door seemed a slightly different shade of brown. I planned to knock and ask the people who lived there if I could look around inside, even began to plan what I would say, until I noticed the FOR SALE sign stuck in the grass.
I called the number on the sign. A man with a gravel-thick accent answered.
“Hi, um, I saw your sign at the house at 101 Dawn Drive? I’m just in town for the day, so I was wondering if there was any way I could see it?”
“I can be there in thirty minutes,” he said.
As I sat in my hot car and waited for the realtor to arrive, I wondered what the actual hell I was doing there. I felt crazy. I felt brave. It felt like something someone in a movie would do, not something I had done, was doing. A fly buzzed around the passengers’ seat.
The man pulled up in a white truck, and when I stepped out of my car to meet him, my flip-flop broke. He watched me struggle to slide it back on my foot as I hobbled towards the driveway.
He shook my hand and unlocked the front door.
It was exactly as I remembered it, but shrunken. The man told me the number of rooms and bathrooms, and that the last owners had refurbished some things.
“How many owners has the house had?” I asked, walking through kitchen, now painted pink, orb-like lights hanging over the bar.
“Just two,” he said. “The current owners bought it in 2009.”
“2009?” Through the hallway was the room I slept in, where I watched my dad remove his glasses and set them next to the computer each night. “What about the first owner?” I asked.
“I don’t know much about them, it’d be back in the records I suppose.”
I was surprised to realize I had forgotten the existence of whole rooms: the laundry room that led to the garage, and the bathroom by my old bedroom. The linoleum on the kitchen floor, where he laid that winter as he seized and called out for my sister, kept the same blue-bordered squares. The crown molding had been painted black in the dining room, which we called “the dancing room,” because our dad kept it empty so we could slide our socks over the wood floors and twirl like ice skaters.
The man said, “Through here is the master bed and bath.”
His room was much smaller than I remembered, too, the ceiling more sharply angled over where his bed used to be. In the bathroom, the new owners hung a cloud-shaped light fixture over the Jacuzzi, but I could still remember the mint smell that lingered there as I watched him take a wet comb to his hair. Looking into the mirror felt a bit eerie, like a private joke between my Dad and me that the realtor wasn’t in on. Dad, I’m here again. Look who I am now.
I wished the realtor would stop talking about the amenities and price points, or that I could have more time to explore the house alone, but I knew I was fortunate to have been inside at all. I blurted out some excuse and thanked him, and he gave me his business card.
I intended to go to the house where my dad was killed. I always assumed I would want to see the room he died in. But after seeing the place where he lived—the house he bought after the divorce and lived alone, where we visited him and knew him—I decided not to. I was surprised that in the end, remembering the place he lived felt more important than investigating the place he died.
We got a table for two at the PF Chang’s inside the mall. My grandmother ordered a water with lemon and unfolded the cloth napkin into her lap.
She asked how my studies had been going, and we talked about her her hip surgery. I was enjoying spending time with her. I didn’t plan to bring up the diary, but it happened anyway.
“I wanted to talk to you again…to ask you about the diary Dad wrote when he was in rehab?”
“Well…so, I know we’ve talked about it before, and you said there are things in there you don’t feel like I should know about him…”
“Oh, there’s nothing in there that would be useful to you. It’s just things they had him write there, as part of the program.”
“I just…I’m trying to figure out who he is. Who he was. There were things I didn’t understand when I was younger, like the drinking. Things I resented him for. And now—okay, I haven’t really told anyone this, my mom or anybody—but last year, I had some troubles with alcohol. Just for a short while, but in going through that I think I finally understood a lot of what he was going through. He was lonely.”
“He never got over your mother, after the divorce,” she said.
“I get that now,” I said. “It was hard for me to understand then, when I was a kid, and all the things he did…but, you know, I’m writing about him now, and I’ve just been thinking how valuable it would be to have something he wrote. In his own handwriting. To look at it and be able to think about the place he was when he wrote it, what he was feeling…and if he wrote that diary in Bradford, it must have been only two or three weeks before he died. That would be so important to have. For my writing, but also just for my life.”
She said, “I’ll have to look at it again. I don’t know what all is in there. I’ll have to take a look, but I’ll think about it.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about answering me right now, just think about it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
This is a story I never tell: When I was in third grade, my father tried to explain that he tested things at work, using words I couldn’t spell. I liked experiments, or the idea of them. I asked what kind of experiment I could help him do, and at the kitchen table after dinner, he told me about air-sealed rooms in laboratories, and how scientists inject mice to see if what they’re testing is safe to try on monkeys, or humans. He asked what I wanted to test. This was after 9/11, the planes and flames and the word “terror” still echoing on TV a year later, and I didn’t know what anthrax was at age eight but I knew it was a white powder that killed people and it could show up anywhere, in the mail or on teachers’ desks or even at the White House. It was a problem I hypothesized to solve with the things I knew and had handy: a purple gel pen, a shiny silver nickel, and the albuterol capsule from my inhaler. My dad sat at the kitchen table with me and helped me formulate a plan, how I would draw on the nickel with the gel pen and then melt the metal down, stir in the albuterol; how once the vaccine was finished we could go to a lab and test it on mice. I wrote it out on a piece of paper with the same gel pen I imagined could save the world.
The next morning before I left for school, on the kitchen table was a typed and stapled document, printed on fax paper with perforated sides. It was my experiment, typed from my notes after I had gone to bed.
Sometimes I think my father didn’t do much for me. But he did that.
After lunch with my grandmother that day, I drove back into the city. I didn’t want to go to the Tower, but it felt like an obligation to the memory I had there with my dad, to the person I was then.
And then, sometime between boarding the train at Division station and getting off at Quincy, I realized that some subconscious part of me believed my dad was alive, and that if I went to the top floor of Sears Tower, he would be there. As soon as I thought it, I knew how irrational it was. Somehow years of looking for him in passing cars and airports turned into an underlying presumption that if I were to just look hard enough, go to the right place at the right time, he would come out of hiding.
I have always understood that my father is dead, but dead is different than gone. Dead is a veil that separates you from communicating, but gone is deeper. Gone is ruin, a deletion that can never be undone. And the thought I’ve never truly confronted—that there will be no reconciliation, no closure—feels like falling through air. Dead is easy to grasp, but gone is like the bottom dropping out from underneath.
Coincidentally, Sears Tower changed its name to Willis Tower in 2009, the year my father died. It was full-blown night when I stood in the elevator and climbed past the fiftieth floor, then the ninetieth. I didn’t want to be there, chasing him up into the sky. I was terrified the elevator cables would snap.
The Skydeck was cold, gray carpet underfoot as tourists walked the circumference of the floor, taking pictures inside glass boxes that suspended them over the city. A group of Mennonite women in long dresses and bonnets passed through the gift shop. I didn’t remember there being a gift shop. Did we buy something there? I have a memory of seeing the bridge where we walked by the water, but that was impossible from every angle. What did we do in Chicago all those years ago? What did I think coming back here would solve?
I pressed my nose to the window and stared past the glare of ceiling lights into the blackness, conglomerations of stacked buildings were lit up in orange. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t force the tears to come. I wanted this to be a defining moment in the story of my grief, but what if there is no story, no narrative to make sense of?
There is an Inuit word, iktsuarpok, which roughly translates to “the anticipatory frustration of waiting for someone to show up,” and there is a Korean word, won, which means, “the reluctance to let go of an illusion.” But what came to me in those moments were Joan Didion’s words:
“Why did I remain so unable to accept the fact that he had died? Was it because I was failing to understand it as something that happened to him? Was it because I was still understanding it as something that happened to me?”
Grief is commonly described in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Joan Didion describes grief in rolling waves that manifest as, “a tightness in the throat, choking, need for sighing.” I have never known grief except as a word that feels like ambiguous truth. If there is pain, it is the dullest pain, punctuated by unexpected moments of irrational mourning. His death is numb weight I carry through the world. Half of the flesh that made me has died, so it would make sense if the part of me that is made of him has died, too. I once heard someone say that the people who are most depressed are the ones who don’t realize they are, so perhaps my grief is so prevalent, like a misty cloud enveloping me, that I can’t see it. Perhaps I am not a person experiencing grief, but grief embodied, unaware of itself.
This is a story I never tell: The night before we left Alabama for good, we went out to one final dinner as a family, and afterwards my dad took us to the toy store, where he told us we could buy whatever we wanted. I picked a Barbie doll dressed as Hermione from the Harry Potter movies. When we got back to the hotel room where my mom, sister and I would stay before our immigration to Texas the next morning, my dad sunk down onto his knees to hug us. He was crying. He told us he loved us, wanted us to know this was an important moment, not to forget. My sister cried and clung to him. I held my doll and smoothed down her wild hair, the corners of her plaid skirt. I wanted him to leave. I wanted this to be over.
I come home on a Wednesday night to see a package propped against my door. I bring it inside and set it on the couch.
I change clothes, make a small and tasteless dinner. I answer emails. I watch a few random Youtube videos, and one freezes mid-play, won’t load or move past the minute-mark even when I refresh the browser. I look at the white box on the couch next to me. I sit on the floor.
I cut it open with the sharpest key on my key chain and pull out a block of bubble-wrap, yellow envelopes, and crate paper. With stuck and stapled notes, my grandmother’s pristine handwriting guides me through. On a black folder, she writes, Student at North Texas State—Mom’s request for Christmas present. Opening it reveals a picture of my dad in the mid-eighties, almost comical with feathered hair, a chunky Casio watch, and a wispy mustache. In a larger folder, she’s written 1973 in pen, directly on the bottom left corner of the photograph, etching it into the grass where a boy kneels in a baseball uniform, wearing nothing of my father I recognize except for his eyes.
On crate paper, Grandma Irma’s handwriting says, One of my favorites. I brush back the packaging and find a gold-framed portrait of our family—dated 1999, it’s a picture I remember taking. We are color-coordinated in gold and black; my mom has short hair and a leaf broach pinned over her heart, my sister is soft-faced, and my father stands in the back wearing a red tie, the width of his shoulders spanning our bodies like a mountain range.
I stare at myself, garnished with an enormous gold bow, a small golden cross hanging from my neck. I try to catch my reflection in the glass and make it match up with the younger girl’s but nothing about our faces seem the same. Even the shape of my mouth when it smiles has changed.
Underneath the packaging, I spot an envelope labeled Bradford.
I carefully pull out a thin stack of papers, my fingertips in tremor. On top of the stack is a sheet of yellow lined paper, the kind from the legal pads my grandmother keeps in her house, covered in her cursive. An introduction. Her own story.
Bradford family sessions were 3x wk for 2 wks. Pam refused to go—too busy! The enclosed sheets are his worksheets he brought home with him…I hope this doesn’t make you sad. It doesn’t cheer me up any!
When I spot my father’s handwriting, I immediately begin to sob. His block letters are scribbled in blue pen on a simple piece of creased notebook paper, words marked out and underlined, and suddenly I am transported; the veil is lifted and I am there with him in a space before the Story was ever told or imagined. He is sitting at a desk in a beige room somewhere, his skin warm, his heart beating, organizing his pain into bullet points; and I am somewhere miles away, sixteen again, at dance team practice or theatre rehearsal or lounging in a lime green bedroom with my friends’ names drawn in bubble letters and posters of punk bands stapled to the walls.
Before, all I had of his handwriting was the last birthday card he sent me, two weeks before he died, where he had written Sweet Sixteen! on the pink envelope and signed, Love, Dad.
Now, I can see the spaces where the pen ran out of ink and dragged his E’s into N’s. I can touch that window to the past.
In sifting through the worksheets, I notice that he always used blue pen, and I wonder if this was by choice. Maybe it’s calming for addicts in withdrawal because when the pen bursts from nervous chewing, blue ink splatters the tongue as a Rorschach of waves collapsing onto shore like a spent lover, not the void-black tentacles of fever dreams.
I had steadied my breathing, but when I arrive at the final piece of paper I choke out sobs again, lungs wheezing, and I sit in a ball clutching the page in silent wreckage before I can even begin to read it. After the first line, a manic laugh slips out, remembering how nerdy and melodramatic he could be. I reread it five times, tracing the slant of his pen, breaking down over one line again and again.
The page is filled up by his blue words. The header says: GOODBYE.
DEAR ALCOHOL (AKA DISEASE),
SO, HERE WE ARE AGAIN, YOU RAVENOUS BASTARD.
YOU HAVE BEEN ALIVE INSIDE ME SINCE MY CREATION, MANIFESTING YOURSELF IN MY TEEN EFFORTS STEALING LIQUOR FROM NEIGHBOR’S GARAGES…AND THAT DUI BACK IN ’91, HUH? YOUR FINEST HOUR. HOWEVER, I WON SINCE I DID NOT LOSE MY SECURITY CLEARANCE…
YOU AWAKEN AND DESTROY MY FIRST MARRIAGE…
NOW I HAVE TO CONTINUALLY WORRY THAT YOU MIGHT HAVE SEWN YOUR EVIL SEED WITHIN MY DAUGHTERS…
IN THE PRESENT DAY, YOU THREATEN TO DESTROY MY MARRIAGE TO THE MOST WONDERFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER MET…
ENOUGH! BY THE GRACE OF GOD, I HAVE DISCOVERED THE ONLY WAY TO DRIVE YOU OUT.
I’m not sure what I believe happens when we die. Most often I assume there must be some “after” to consciousness, a place where my dad is and where I’ll see him when I am also dead, but I have never felt his ghost in this world. In the days after his murder, my aunt claimed to see him rounding the corner of my grandmother’s house, and my mom claimed to hear his voice, but I have never felt him there. Not at his funeral, or at my sister’s wedding, or my graduations; not at Sears Tower, and not now that I am calling out for him with everything in me. And I think that if the air is empty of him in this moment, more than any of the others, he must be nowhere. He must be gone.
When I am finished with tears and wild noises, there is still another yellow envelope, labeled photos.
I watch my father grow from black and white baby portraits to his fourth birthday, to his eleventh, to bell bottoms and blackheads on his nose, to the marshmallow-pink suit of his senior prom. Finally, he stands left of frame, a blurry wisp in red cap and gown.
I shuffle through the Polaroids, watching his body morph and build around his brown eyes. My chest expands. I feel my limbs burn and see the sad freckles on my arms and know I cannot come away from this unchanged, knowing if I ever have a son all I will do is think of these pictures, that in every small and large boy I see out in the world I will be reminded of what they lose as they sprout thin like sunflowers and their Halloween costumes fade into suits. How the space around them will billow in their absence. The sudden emptiness left when they are lost.
I understand now why my grandmother grieves so deeply, why she clings to the fact of his death so tightly, why she texted me just weeks ago: u know my grief is still the lion.
Imagine the sweetest thing you have ever given yourself to. Imagine a closet full of Polaroids and the remainder of a life spent grasping at what you split your own bones to give breath to and loved with more than words and can never touch again.
Erin Slaughter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Kentucky University. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest, and was nominated for a Best of the Net Award and a Pushcart Prize. You can find her writing in the Bellingham Review, Sundog Lit, Tishman Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Elegy for the Body (Slash Pine Press 2017), and GIRLFIRE (dancing girl press 2018), and is editor and co-founder of literary journal The Hunger. She lives and teaches writing in Nashville.