by Tamuira Reid
I lost my father in August 2017. My son lost his a year later. I’ve always hated summer. Maybe because I was born on a cold January morning and I’ve got winter running through my blood. Maybe because the warm days always felt suffocating to me, in their endlessness. Maybe because it’s when everyone dies.
My father’s death was not a quick one off but a slow easy spread, permeating every organ, every passageway, every out he had left. Death teased him. Came at him hard then relented just long enough to make its presence known. To him. To us. To everyone at home who had their health still, dotting the hills of the small valley town around us. It pushed and pulled until every last hope for a dignified ending was filibustered. Until the man who had somehow managed to avoid hospitals for the better part of his life knew, very clearly, it would be the last place he’d see. One wall, three curtains, and a gurney. The daughters and the wife. The younger by not much brother who had already seen how this would play out because after all, cancer is no stranger in the branches of the Reid family tree.
The surgeon was wheeled into my father’s room – his concerned, televised face, skyping from a nearby trauma unit – to break the news. All systems a fail. Nothing more to be done.
I couldn’t help but think that if he were younger, they’d do more. Try harder. Not give up.
I told the nurses that the man in the bed bared no resemblance to our real father. Our real father still hiked and lifted weights and hauled timber without getting winded. Our real father could annihilate The Times Sunday crossword in under thirty minutes. Our real father read Huck Finn at eight years-old and Steinbeck at ten. Our real father could do anything they could, except save his own life.
But in the end, cancer is cruel. It’s ugly and thoughtless. And it couldn’t give two shits about who you might’ve been before it got there.
You wake up in a 6×8 cement square and blink. Your back hurts from three years of sleeping on a stone bed, and moving to a sitting position requires some effort. Feet finally meet floor. Shoulders slump and curl in, like an injured bird nursing a dysfunctional wing. It’s cold, you think. Must be October or November. Months feel different in here; heavier, flatter.
Breakfast is a bologna sandwich. Same as lunch. Same as dinner, if it’s a dinner day (not all days are). After eating, you’ll wait for one of the guards to escort you to the rec room, where you will spend your one hour per day of out-of-cell time watching television. If the warden is feeling particularly generous, maybe you’ll go outside to the yard instead. Sometimes you can smell damp earth nearby, when the Santa Ana winds pick up. The smell of things growing.
You’re in Protective Custody, or as you’ve come to realize, Solitary Confinement. What happens to the mind when it only hears itself? They say you are “safer” by yourself, that the nature of your crimes – the ones you have not yet been convicted of – put a target on your back. You are “safer” in the box where you have paced for three years and counting. Where you’ve read dozens of self-help books that don’t help. Where you do push-ups, sit-ups, and downward dog at sunrise and sunset. Your beard is starting to come in gray at the roots.
“He’s at the store, Ollie.”
My son’s father has been “at the store” for the better part of a decade. It’s a really big store, I’ve assured him. But, now, at the ripe age of eleven, he’s asking me for some clarification, a new and improved way to answer the Where is your dad, Ollie? question. Because fifth graders want to know. Because fifth graders ain’t no dummies.
“Where is my dad?”
“Working on himself. In California. It’s easier there.”
“What kinda work?”
“Hard work. Good work.”
He wants to believe what I’m saying. So do I.
His evening ritual, Some Quality Time With Dad, involves listening to Shite Talk in bed, an Irish history podcast that he says helps to connect him with their celtic roots. Some Quality Time With Dad might also include drawing pictures of said dad, a no-nonsense superhero figure who’s always as tall as the tress that surround him.
“Dad’s like a giant sequoia”, he tells me. “Strong. Think of all the storms and fires and earthquakes those trees have survived. So. Strong.”
Some Quality Time With Dad has most recently expanded to celebrate the once uncelebrated.
“It’s Father’s Day today?”
“Let’s call my dad!”
“We – can’t.”
“His phone broke. It’s all broken.”
I now have two reasons to hate Father’s Day. Loss compounded. Loss shared. A notable, unspoken bond between the fatherless and the un-fathered.
One gone and one in the hole.
Grieving people lose time. Big chunks of it.
Stress. Sleep deprivation. Mania. I learned quickly to tune out both my exterior and interior worlds in favor of the “free zone”, a place where time floats and nothing therefore can be lost.
My bed became a life raft drifting in no particular direction.
And when the careful scaffolding around my pain began to buckle, my mattress, in turn, became its own type of cancer.
Loss appreciates with time, going up in value. It grows stronger with each passing day. With each Christmas Eve. With each birthday that comes without a card in the mail.
Loss, apparently, also ages very well.
I watched you lose your mind from across our living room, but I couldn’t do anything to stop it. The thread coming unspooled like a sheet of fire between us.
Later, when I no longer made unconditional love an option, you’d sleep on beaches and in cars and in psychiatric wards with hard, small beds. In drug treatment centers, sober houses, and in houses that were not so sober. And finally you’d sleep beside a woman who also knew how it felt to unspool. A woman who would come to accuse you of unthinkable things. Things that put you behind bars, for now. The sort of things that will weigh on your son’s heart, forever.
Two mentally ill people. One further down the road than the other. A road full of potholes (craters, really), the kind that pop both threadbare tires and threadbare minds. A collision course of faulty chemistry and faulty infrastructure. Foundations slowly eroded by time and neglect.
You at once know and don’t know the limits of your own mind. Sanity coming and going, a fleeting lucidity, the fractured reckonings and half-truths that feel fuller than they should. It’s hard to stop slipping when the floor is always wet.
My next-door neighbor worked as a Rikers guard before a series of strokes led to an early retirement. “Jails are the new asylums,” he tells me, one cloudy night, over a shared cigarette on the stoop of our building. “If you weren’t crazy to begin with, you will be by the time you get out.”
I nod my head, but don’t say anything, exhaling smoke instead. What is done, is done. The moon continues to rise overhead, threatening to shine.