Backspaces

He was a good man.

It happened first early on Father’s Day. Around midnight, after everyone had gone to sleep, I filed through his study in search of inspiration for a homemade gift––a book he might have half-read, a 90’s-sound-in-contemporary-packaging band he had discovered, anything that could offer a clue about a recent interest he had developed while I had been at college. I found the condoms first, then the drawings of her naked edges. The timing was outstanding. 

He was a good man when he was my father.

It happened rather quickly the second time. Or, quite slowly, when you consider the broader timeline. At 1:09 a.m. on January 10th, we arrived at the hospital. By 1:24 a.m., his colleague in a yellow sheet and face shield told us he had died. I’m not sure whether it was the first or second time that the loss of my father felt more real. It all seemed overwhelmingly arbitrary.

He was my father.

Standing in the mirror this morning, I wished that I could duplicate myself. If I could exit my body, maybe I could scrutinize myself from more viewpoints than a mirror’s reflective plane. One of me could stay seated in this folded chair, squarely centred in my empty new apartment. The other me could circle my body, finally concoct some sort of judgment. Maybe then I would know what I looked like––the true sharpness of my stare, the shape of my thighs. More importantly, I could watch myself navigate today, and figure out what I feel, besides very little. Maybe I’d know what to write––we had waited two years to hold an in-person service, and I hardly felt any different from when he passed. My hands smelled like my pencil’s soft wood. Whenever I brought my hands to my face, their odor prodded me for my lack of progress. The paper was still vacant.

He devoted himself to his children and to his patients.

Bullshit. The words felt neither honest nor like what the audience wanted to hear. I shoved the sheet of paper into my pocket. Sophie was waiting downstairs, so I left and folded into her Honda hatchback that always smelled like minty dirt. Her gaze lingered on me as I stared at the morning traffic, deciding from my composure whether our destination should be a topic of discussion.

“So, are we picking up Michelle?” She had chosen evasion.

“Seems like she’s not coming.” I rolled the window down and watched a frayed dog drink from a small puddle of Gatorade outside the post office. The sun patched angular shapes of sunlight onto the upper halves of the apartment buildings lining the street. It was going to be a nice summer day, for most. 

“She told you?”

“Yeah. And, you know, you don’t have to stay actually, if you don’t want to.” A warm breeze slanted through the window. The air smelled first of dew, then hot smoke from the deli. 

“Oh, okay.”

“Thanks.”

“Does your mum have a ride with anyone?”

“She has a car,” I hoped. “She’ll be fine. Thanks.” 

Maybe she would be fine. She would acquire grief, and organize it into a loving narrative that conflated his lack of responsibility for his death with that of his decisions. I slumped into courtesy and texted her “You need a ride?” and she replied a minute later “No thanks. All good sweetie. See you soon xo.” She was always “all good sweetie.” Something about her propensity for the unsaid, for shielding her distress, reminded me to buckle my seatbelt right then.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

I had been assigned that overdone piece of scripture by my mother. My sister was to read accompanying psalms. I had read it at my grandparents’ funerals; this time, I was told to integrate it with a eulogy because apparently I was an adult. At my grandfather’s funeral service at the age of twelve, I had felt both weightless and overbearing as I had tried to deliver the words with both maximal politeness and an air of understanding what it means to grieve. Today, in Sophie’s car, my knees bristled with the lob of turns and lane changes––but back then, they had vibrated like two same-pole magnets as I had spoken in front of so many old people and family members. Afterwards, I ate too much carrot cake. Michelle told me that my dad had cried during the recitation because he loved the passage. I later decided it’s because he wished he did. He was never religious for the right reasons, which I thought made him not religious.

It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Or perhaps it was because he knew he had been drifting away from representing this interpretation of love.

After an hour, we arrived, so I gave Sophie a hug. She held my elbows and took a sentimental breath as I pulled away, which ruined it for me. I resented my coldness to Sophie as I plodded across the soft grass leading up to my father’s house. Her awareness of my family bothered me, even though she was one of my only college friends, and my only college friend who had moved to the same city as me after graduation. And especially because she was one of the only ones who I had found the vulnerability to confide in about my father before he contracted the coronavirus. 

The glass bungalow looked more sterile than in the photo I had seen, more like a horizontal test tube than the gleaming construction my mother had told me about. You could see the rows of folded chairs in the cleared living room from the lawn. Michelle appeared next to me on my way inside and looped her arm in mine. 

“Jesus, you scared me.” She wore a grey suit, the sort of thing she wears to court every day. “You came. Thank God.”

“Yeah. Not a fat chance I’m saying what’s been prescribed, though.”

“You mean there is a fat chance?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Do you know how she’s doing?”

“We’ll see.”

I found myself breaking from her, then walking toward the folded chairs in the living room, a temporarily empty space for me to write while the guests waded into an adjacent room that hosted peppermint tea and baby crackers. For weeks, I had carried this odd sense of duty toward a speech for a man whom I had felt so little obligation towards for two years. Who was I doing it for? At the very least, I needed to accelerate a descent into grief.

There were six rows of chairs, separated in the middle by an aisle. Three of the walls in the room were wrapped in those floor-to-ceiling windows that give real estate agents adrenaline rushes. The mid-day light ran all around the room in gentle slabs. The urn sat at the front, a navy blue ceramic egg with a single brass stripe wrapping around its neck. I approached it, and succumbed to a sudden urge to lift its lid. It was too dark to see anything, except for a few sparkling specks that picked up the sunlight infiltrating the mourning space. I sat down at the seat labelled with my name. 

I knew I was supposed to tell a story. Use rhetoric to persuade people that my dad lived a complete, good life and that he could have lived a longer, equally complete and good life had he not died, that I am very sad and moved but grateful and joyful for the time we did share. 

I had a choice between two narratives. There’s the one about the father who would oblige my incessant requests to ventriloquize my one-eyed moose puppet every night before I went to sleep, who would stay up and play me The Beatles and give me an itchy blanket when I would wake up with get-naked-on-the-toilet stomach aches every night for a year, who volunteered to coach me and my sister’s house league soccer teams. Then there was the one who never tried to spend time alone with me despite my requesting it, the one who told me I “cancelled” him even though I gave him many chances and put exactly what I wanted from him in letters, in texts, in diplomatic conversation, the one who only talked to me to check if I was being praised for my talent or if I was reading an “authentic” book, the one who told me to research “Christian forgiveness” when I was upset that he was not making an effort. The second father was someone I didn’t know––or, more terrifyingly, someone who became who he had been waiting to become all this time.

He was a good man.

I could not help but think that my father would not mourn me at my own funeral. He would be bitter that I was not supremely empathetic to him after he cheated openly on my mother for three years, emotionally abused her, possibly physically abused her (she would never tell), always promised to leave the woman, always disappointed my mother, never thought that his kids could be disappointed, too. And worst of all, staying married. “The woman,” as we always called her, was an orthodontist. I had googled her once, located a photo. She looked like a German shepherd, her eyes at once endearing, at once like they’d meet a stranger’s eyes with a sharpness that one takes personally. She looked different from the woman my father worshipped in his drawings. I wondered if she would be here today. And then I decided I did not care.

Sometime between my writing and erasing four sentences, my great aunt Abriana, whom I had been named after, had wandered into the room. Well past the early phases of Alzheimer’s, she spoke in circles, always returning to her central point, which was that she loved me very much. Despite her condition, she was conscious of her life in a way that even those mid-life have not aged into. And I wondered what I’d think of my father when I grew old and grateful, a state that seemed unattainable to me even today. Especially today. 

Abriana was cupping a wine glass filled with water. Her grey-tan shoes with velcro straps shuffled slowly under the inefficiency of her hinged posture, inching toward the cheap collapsible chair next to mine. Once she sat down, she balanced the stem of her glass on her thigh. She spilled only a little onto her trousers.

“Did you see the flowers?” She was smiling as she spoke. She always smiled so much. It always made me sad. “Beautiful hydrangeas.” It was odd that my father had hydrangeas planted. They were always my mother’s favorite, so I thought that he would at least let her have the flowers.

“Not yet.”

“You should see them before the ceremony.”

“I will.”

“Still writing?”

“I’m nearly done.”

“It doesn’t quite look that way.” The paper was still open on my lap. “Honey. Is everything okay?”

“Been better. But I’m okay, Abri.” She moved a hand away from her glass and placed it over mine, still gripping my pencil.

“This must be so hard.” She made an effort to twist her head to meet mine. This was a flailing sensitivity I was not accustomed to from my great aunt, but that I was from Sophie. She offered me some of her water, holding it out with two hands. I told her no thanks. 

I guided the glass back toward her knee. “You know. Don’t you?” Our eye contact was overwhelmingly direct. I began darting my gaze intermittently to her forehead to soften the intensity of our seeing.

“Why, yes,” she said. “Dear.” 

“Jesus. Okay.” I knew my grandparents had known my father’s secret. But the woman with dementia I saw only twice a year? The prospect of speaking well of my father in front of a crowd of family and friends who were aware of his abandon of his family rapidly nauseated me.

“I love you very much, Abriana.”

After my mum’s speech, flattened with words like “intelligent” and “well-known” and “nice” and everything that means nothing, she had her singing friend come in with her guitar. The woman wore a purple dress and played a version of “In My Life” at the ceremony that failed to rupture from the song’s clichéd status. 

Most of my memories of the song were from dainty listening sessions with my father in his study when I was a child. He used to expose this strange hole of fragility in himself when he listened, and all I had wanted was to climb in and explore. I had thought it beautiful, rare, and exclusive, revealed just for me. Most of these memories were rendered defective because of the times when I got high in college and played the song softly from my cell phone after getting home at 3 a.m. when Sophie was asleep. These sessions smeared my happy memories with the knowledge that I would only ever understand positive associations of the song in the context of loss. Yet today, despite too-much-ness of the emotion laced into her voice, the middle-aged woman’s singing reminded me of when I used to unskillfully emote while singing the same song. Sitting cross-legged on the sticky rug in his study, I would think myself an artist, and then he would tell me I could be one.

“And now we’ll hear a few words from Thomas’s second daughter, Abriana.” Apparently Michelle had chosen not to speak. She put her hand on my forearm and squeezed it gently, as if to both encourage me and let me know that she was not sorry about her refusal.

I rose slowly, feeling the dual heaviness and surrealism of a dark dream come over me. My father was a good man. He devoted himself to his children and his patients. I wiped the moisture on my palms onto the sides of my cotton pants. He loved the song “In My Life,” and because of him I loved it too. Actually, one time, we even 

I looked up on the walk toward the podium, and I saw that my great-aunt had also risen to the call of our name from the other side of the aisle. No one had informed her that she was not supposed to speak in the time that she had walked from the third row to the front. We approached each other just in front of the podium, where the urn was placed on a narrow black stand. For a moment, I realized how I might look from the outside, where Abriana walked: wobbly, fogged, and surrendered. In a loud whisper, I said “Abri, I think it’s my turn.” 

Love is patient, love is kind.

But she kept walking toward me as I spoke, trying to hear me a little better. As she shuffled, she turned her ear to face mine. Her shoulder brisked the stand, and she walked right through it. The urn wobbled for a moment, and then it slowly fell into my hands that had jolted into a position to save it. I caught the urn.           

Then, I let it fall. 

Love is not proud.

Jagged slices of the urn radiated from the ground. The ashes poured out, bloomed upwards and out over the heads of everyone in the little room, and then floated downwards. The air became a suspension of his body, so much so that it quickly became difficult to see the windows on the other side. Larger flecks fell faster onto surfaces, onto guests’ hair, and inside purses. Clarity could be found if you were near the edge of the room, where you could look out the nearest window. It was awful.

It was maybe a little funny. Or at least ironic, that the carrier of the virus that killed him now contained all of him. As if he could now infect us.

Sometime after calming my mother with hot tea and a sit out on the lawn, burying the urn in the garden patch with the blue hydrangeas, I left. Sophie was waiting in her car.

Inevitably, she noticed the windows caked with remains. I explained. She paused before responding until the gravel driveway disappeared and skinny trees replaced the glass house.

“Who’s going to clean it?” she asked.

“Not sure. Someone lucky.”

—Nicole Dirks is a first-year in Branford College and a Copy Editor.

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