by Carrie Lange
I lean across the table, kneeling on my chair so I can feel tall like him. Dad’s eyes crinkle at the dinosaurs gathered around dark, leafy trees and crystal blue waters. All stubby fingers and bitten nails, I pick out a piece from the pile. When it doesn’t fit, I try to force it out of sheer stubbornness. Dad’s laugh reminds me of Santa Claus at the mall’s Christmas float.
The airplane figurine is smooth and heavy in my hand, wings cold to the touch, nose blunt. With a pang of pride, I tell my classmates that Dad was the manager of a Lockheed branch in China and Mom was his translator. I tell them about their boss/assistant affair. How Dad pursued her for two years, attracted by her dark complexion and regal face, like the Empresses of old. Grandma didn’t want Mom to marry an American, but she did anyway.
Beaming, I tell them how, as soon as Mom got pregnant, Dad went from a pack of cigarettes a day to nothing, just like that.
The wail of the smoke alarm pierces the air. Dad bolts upright, nearly sending me tumbling off the couch.
I watch him open the oven and smoke billows out. I cough and duck away, eyes watering. Dad reemerges from the plumb, a bright blue oven mitt on his hand. The heavy glass pyrex dish thumps against the marble counter.
I creep back toward him, like my dog does when she confronts something new, and poke gingerly at the charred top of the macaroni.
“You burnt it.”
My finger breaks past the blackened crust and into melted cheese. I yelp in pain.
He laughs and picks me up. “Don’t tell Mom.”
I mime zipping my lips shut like I see in the movies.
“C’mon Carebear.” Dad’s blue eyes dance. “Want to go do a puzzle?”
“This place is a prison!”
My fingers slip on the piano keys.
“Then leave!” Mom shrieks.
I hesitate over the notes.
Dad laughs with no humor. “This is my house, my money. You should leave, not me.”
My hands drop.
Mom goes to her room and begins packing a suitcase, threatening to take me and never come back. Dad follows her, desperately apologizing.
Still, I lay awake, straining for any sign of the front door closing behind her.
One night I hear Dad coming before the door even opens. I drop my book and duck under Mom’s covers, flattening myself to the white sheets. Mom’s hand rests on the small of my back. I count the tiny ridges in the fabric, the wrinkles under my weight, the imperfections my presence causes. I try to soften my breathing.
“Where is she?” He spits. I can picture him: red face, bloodshot eyes, teeth yellow from years of chain-smoking.
“Where’s who?” Mom’s heart pounds against me, steadily, like a drum.
“GOD DAMMIT!” He roars, so loud his voice breaks. “You know damn well who! She’s a thief!” His voice is quick and desperate, like lightning surging through the clouds in search of the tallest tree. “Why won’t you listen to me? Where is she? It’s all her fault!”
I squeeze my eyes shut.
The next day, Mom sits me down and tells me that it’s not his fault. “Dad doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s not him, the disease takes his mind back to when he was a kid. He’s jealous of you. He thinks you’re taking my love away from him.”
I take the phrases with me, oaken shields to hide behind when I’m losing.
When they take his driver’s license.
He doesn’t have control.
When Dad accuses me of something.
He was just hallucinating.
When a plate shatters against the kitchen floor.
It’s the disease.
When he rages at my existence.
That’s not him.
It feels like him.
“Hurry up!” I snap at Dad, trailing me across the grass with my birthday balloons. His hand lowers and one pops. My teeth grit. “What are you doing?”
He frowns down at the empty string.
Sharp frustration rakes across my skin.
My friends will be here in a few hours, friends who still have pieces that fit into a frame, pieces that aren’t worn and cracked.
They can’t know.
I stalk up to him in all my ten-year-old glory, clamp his wrist in my strongest grip and yank it upward. “Hold it up.”
His face twists into anger. “Don’t touch me!”
“Then hold the balloons off the ground!”
He spits out a response, but it’s swallowed by the blood pounding in my ears.
“It’s not that hard!”
Dad drops the balloons. They drift to the ground, dozens of colors disappearing against the prickly green grass with consecutive bangs.
“Mom!” The sliding door slams behind me. I seethe. “Dad popped my balloons!”
“Dan!” Mom starts, and doesn’t really stop.
A vindictive pleasure blooms in the center of my chest. I tuck my head into her shoulder, eyes full of crocodile tears.
Dad walks around the house at night, raging at the walls. His face is branded into my mind: chips of ice for eyes, saliva dripping from bared teeth. I see his ruddy cheeks, his gaping mouth, tears forcing their way down old laugh lines more out of frustration than sadness.
He rants until his face is red, until Ginger hides under the kitchen barstools, until the clock ticks past midnight, to one, to two, until my ears ring and the walls of the house no longer know quiet.
“He hasn’t had an episode since you left- say hi, Dan!” Mom says it in a voice you’d use on a baby.
Dad squints at me through the Facetime frame, glasses forgotten again, bald head shiny under the glare of the sun filtering through the living room windows.
“Hi! How are you doing?” His eyes are cloudy like a frozen pond, the flecks of light in his irises like the locked away flickers of silver fish.
Hope climbs to the surface. “Hey Dad! Good, and you?”
“What’s your name?”
The camera shakes, like Mom had just nudged him. “That’s your daughter.”
“Oh!” He grins dopily. “Hello! How are you?”
“I HATE YOU!”
He hurls it at me over Mom’s shoulder, tears carving gouges through his paper thin skin, veins pulsing in his forehead.
“I HATE YOU!”
“I HATE YOU”
“I HATE YOU!”
A deafening crack has me on my feet, computer forgotten on the couch. The wooden bowl is on the kitchen floor; iridescent marbles and uncapped pens spill across stone tiles.
Dad’s swearing bellows over Mom’s calm assurances.
I place myself between them and reach for his wrist. My hand’s shaking.
“Don’t touch me!”
His foul breath washes over my face.
I’m too slow to duck his palm.
Heat blooms across my cheek.
I stagger backwards and raise my hand to my face.
Blood rushes to the offended spot, then a pulsing pain.
It’s the disease.
Dad would never lay a hand on you.
Blue and red lights lash against the white beams of the atrium. My head whips to Mom. She looks at the ground.
Three officers stalk through the sliding glass door. Mom’s eyes ping between me and their glinting badges. Her dark irises are records spinning songs of guilt.
When the policemen approach me, I straighten, my ballet instructor’s voice playing in my head; shoulders back, core strong, like you’re balancing the world on your head and you can’t let it fall.
“Is what your mom told us true?”
One of the cops pats my shoulder; his eyes are blue like Dad’s, except his are filled with warmth and affection. He tells me I’m the strongest kid he’s ever met.
Then why’d I get hit?
Dad is led out the door in handcuffs. As he’s pushed into the police car, I get a glimpse of his face.
I’ve never seen him afraid before.
The first time I visit Dad is on a Saturday.
We walk into the reception room. The second door is one you’d find under a blinking emergency exit sign in a hotel, frosted glass cross-hatched by thin black lines like a sideways game of tic tac toe that no one dares to play. On the wall is a keypad.
Mom punches in the code. “This care-home specializes in people with Alzheimers.”
I can tell by the expectation in her voice that she wants me to say something, but as we walk through the door my throat flexes against the stench of sanitizer and bleach and I can’t find the words.
The hallways are lined by twenty-by-twenty foot rooms, each with bed, a lamp, and a dresser pushed against a tired beige wall. The bathrooms are shared, set between rooms; white walls, white tiles, and a tiny, dirty sink.
This place is a prison.
Mom wants me to read to Dad. When I start, I think of when he used to read to me. How I gave him every grain of my attention, refusing to sink into sleep so I wouldn’t miss the cadence of his voice rising and falling over the words.
But he looks to Mom and speaks over me like I don’t exist.
Anger rises in me, pressing against my vocal chords with the sordid inevitability of a wolf pack closing in on an injured stag.
My foot flashes out, quick as a lance, and lands a blow on my father’s shin.
Dad roars. Mom tells me to leave.
I slink away with my phone and earbuds, hot relief settling like coals in my gut.
I do the same thing the next day.
Cheap tinsel, plastic snowmen and snowflakes stick to the windows and walls. Patients stumble in and out of rooms in garish Christmas sweaters with food stains down the front. One offers me a soggy peanut and tells me to go buy myself something nice for my birthday. I take it, teeth baring in a smile, and tell her I will.
Round, plastic tables dot the playroom, empty for now. A dusty piano sits in the corner, paint chipping, keys yellowed and aged. I wonder if anyone even plays.
The cabinets are stocked with donated games; Monopoly without the money, Scrabble with half the letters. Children’s stories squeeze into a tiny bookshelf; Legends of the Wild West, Curious George, The Magic Treehouse. A foam sword slumps, broken in half, on top.
I take out a puzzle of the United States. On the pieces, a skier looks up at me from a snowy mountain in Colorado, a lobster big enough to cover Maine spills into the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge looms in California.
This time he’s the one trying to force the ones that don’t fit.
I’m wearing a victorious grin and a gray PE shirt, plastered to my back with sweat.
Someone calls my name. I turn to see my coach nodding, “You’re wanted at the office.”
I taste blood, a thousand rusted needles pricking at the back of my throat.
The woman behind the desk tells me to sit down, that my uncle will be here soon. I search her face for a hint of what might be happening, but she avoids my gaze.
I text my mom but don’t get a reply. I swipe to Pinterest, then check my messages again, then up to the time, and finally dive into a game that requires only half my attention.
We’re pulling out of the parking lot when my Uncle says, “We think Dan’s dying.”
I stare at the tuft of grass spilling over the curb.
My uncle tells me that Dad had an accident; he fell out of his bed while he was sleeping and broke his left wrist. He’s bedridden now.
I don’t let myself picture it.
There are more beats of silence; silence I would normally fill with conversation or sarcastic quips, but I don’t, and the resulting quiet is so jarring that my uncle asks how school has been lately.
I want to laugh, but instead I shrug and force a grin. My one dimple carves into my cheek.
Seeing Dad is like touching a live wire. He’s in a grey hospital bed, covered in a blue gown and thin white sheets, left wrist wrapped in a pristine white cast that will never leave the room.
Watching Mom is worse than watching him. The hospice nurses say that food and water will harm him because his body’s shutting down. Still, she sits by him and feeds him, waters him, insisting that it’s not. When he eats she says, “See? He’s hungry!” and ignores the coughing. When he drinks she says, “See? He’s thirsty!” and ignores the liquid in his lungs.
I want to tell her to stop, something close to resentment bubbling up inside of me, but I don’t. Instead, I avert my eyes back to my computer screen.
She stops giving him food on the second day, water on the third. She leaves the room with my half-sisters, pamphlets clutched in their hands;
Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery.
I turn my music up, looping through artists I’ve never heard of before. Anything to drown out Dad’s labored breathing.
On the fifth day, Mom calls me to his hospital bed. She tells me to talk to him, and I hate how stupid I feel when I do. At first I can’t bear to look at his closed eyes, his gaping mouth, the way his breaths rattle around in his lungs like so many loose marbles. But then I do, in almost sick fascination.
They say death is peaceful, that it’s beautiful. I can’t understand why. His skin is pale, leached of color, hanging off his face in folds. I can count the seconds between his breaths —ten, twenty— sure that each one is his last.
I take his hand and almost expect a response. His fingers are cold. I can see the veins through translucent skin, the blood that failed him, the muscles that let him fall, the heart that was so much bigger than mine.
For a moment I can see him, laughing as we wrestle on the couch, teaching me to swim, traveling because that’s what he’s done all his life; living in Greece, in Saudi Arabia, in China, in America. I can see him when his eyes were vibrant in life.
So I sing. I sing of the Blueridge Mountains, of the taste of moonshine.
The first tear drips down my cheek and sinks into the white sheets of the bed.
I sing as bitter sorrow grips my throat, like all the emotions I haven’t felt for the past years are strangling me now. I sing as my heart pounds and his slows, as my mom’s head bows, as my half-sisters post around his legs like sentries, as my uncle drinks in his little brother’s face with red eyes.
When I run out of lyrics, I start again.
I use my voice to tell him I’m sorry. Sorry that I wasn’t there. Sorry that he’s here, in a place that isn’t home. I’ll be better. A better friend, a better daughter, a better person.
On September 25th at 6:30 PM, halfway through the second chorus, he dies. The biggest moon of the year hangs overhead like the world’s biggest middle finger.
After his body’s taken away, I lean on the wall of the hallway staring at my phone, his last rasping breath still echoing in my head. My half-sister places a warm hand on my shoulder. Her painted nails are chipping away.
“Singing was the best thing you could have done for him.”
I try to twist my expression into a question, but my face is stiff from drying tears.
“I—” She hesitates. Her eyes are a faraway brown, so much like mine. “It’s like you were telling him that it’s okay for him to go. That he doesn’t have to worry because we’ll be okay.”
But two days later, my friends bolt toward me, chorusing my name, enveloping me in a giant hug. I laugh and enclose everyone I can reach, murmuring, “It’s okay, I’m okay.”
What am I telling him now?
Standing on the podium beside the ornate box carrying the ashes of my father, guilt pours over me in freezing waves. I wrote the eulogy like I write my stories, pulling strings into a tapestry the crowd can follow.
I spread family albums around me, stared at photographs like I was peeking into someone else’s life: A four-year-old girl with a dimpled smile and dark brown hair on her father’s back, looking at the camera with shining eyes. The same girl a couple years later, clinging to his hand as they leap foam flecked waves.
The girl sitting up on her knees, leaning over a dark oak dining table with puzzle pieces dumped out in front of her, concentration in the downward turn of her pink mouth, her father smiling at her with adoration in his blue eyes.
They don’t feel like mine.
The carefree memories.
But it doesn’t really matter. He’s still the man who loved me enough to make the hundred mile commute to HongKong from GuangZhou for that special brand of baby milk. He’s still the man who carried me on his shoulders when I was young. He’s still the man who always had a smile on his face when he looked at me, until he couldn’t anymore.
It’s not his fault.
He’s still my father. He’s still my story to tell.
I talk, a piece of the dinosaur puzzle digging into the palm of my hand, and for the first time since I watched him die, I cry.
Those feel like mine.