[For Ginny Wray]
“You be my boyfriend, Daddy,” you say cheerfully, “and we'll get married.” You are four years old. I nod solemnly and join you.
“My name is Sasha and your name is James. Here are the bride presents that you bring me. Sit here on the couch.” You hand me a small red ball, a red dog doll and a red plastic bracelet.
“Everything’s red, Lydia.”
“Yes. Red’s my favorite color. And I’m not Lydia, I’m Sasha. I’m a mermaid, you know.”
“Get out! You are not.”
“I am, too. Get your feet out of the zombie lava.”
“The what?” I look around in concern.
“The boat is surrounded by zombie lava. If you fall in, you melt and turn into a zombie. Okay, let’s get married, James. Give me my presents.”
Pulling my feet up on the couch, I unceremoniously hand you the red dog.
“No, no, no.” You shake your head impatiently. “Say, Sasha, here is your red diamond for your wedding.”
“Oh.” I repeat the words carefully after you and hand you the red ball, guessing correctly that is the diamond.
“Thank you, Can I keep it for an ever and an ever?”
You give me a hug and a kiss and sit in my lap. You sigh dramatically and say “I love you for an ever and an ever, James.” Then you jump up and run out of the room.
“Lydia!” I call after you, “Where are you going?”
“To the bathroom!” A door slams. Then, barely heard,
It is pouring rain out and there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We can play Sasha the bride for hours. I get up gimpily and hobble into the kitchen to fetch your cheesestick. My ankles hurt from basketball this morning. I am 45 but too stubborn to quit playing a boy’s game. I am getting old; I can't stand my job; I feel like I will never achieve anything memorable. As I walk by the bathroom you are humming to yourself. “My Country “Tis of Thee.”
When I last saw my friend Jeanie two weeks ago I was shocked by her appearance. She did not look alive, her yellowish skin pulled back over her skull, her eyes sunken back in her head, her breath barely scraping into her lungs. After each breath I waited for her to simply stop breathing. I leaned over her and spoke quietly into her ear, “Hi, Jeanie, it’s Michael.” I thought I saw a flicker but I probably imagined it.
Jeanie was going to die. In a few hours or days, certainly not more
than that. Did she know that? Was she conscious somehow behind that wall
of pain? What do you do when you know you are going to die?
“You have been a good friend,” Peter said to me.
“I haven’t done anything.”
“Yes, you have, she valued your friendship and here you are.”
“Well, us aspiring writers have to stick together,” I looked at her and added, helplessly, “55 is way too short a life.”
“Will you read at the service?”
“I want her to be remembered.”
“She will be.” I say confidently.
But that’s not so easy. Sometimes I do not want to remember the parts of my life that are gone.
You are still singing in the bathroom. Thinking of Jeanie’s service reminds me of funerals I’ve been to. Funerals remind me of weddings. I wonder about your wedding.
Someday you will have a real wedding day. I think about that. You’ll be, say, 29. Which will make me 70. Ouch! A very old father of the bride, who will be walking on artificial limbs by then if he doesn’t take up a different sport. You will be very similar to who you are now, I think. A young woman who knows her mind, who is sentimental and not afraid to show it. Smart, tough but vulnerable. Wildly imaginative. And there will be hundreds of people there who you have charmed along the way. And I will watch, carefully, and remember every moment that I can, every little event in your life. I won’t be the center of your life then. I’ll be loved, I hope, but peripheral. I’ll watch adoringly from a distance as you walk down an aisle or float underwater or wherever you decide to get married, with some anxious young man waiting at the end of the aisle. He better be anxious. Or you may not decide to get married. Or you may marry a woman or who the hell knows what might happen or what you might decide to do. But I can picture you on a special day when you’ve grown. You will be stunning and happy and so will everyone else who has gathered around you.
And it will be a goodbye of sorts, a departure by you from our life into one of your own. We will be left on our own, as it should be. And I will miss you with a piercing longing every moment of every day after that, as I have already begun to miss you each day as we grow older, because you won’t be my Sasha anymore.
Jeanie died two days later and I read nervously at her service and now she is gone. Just like that. I do not like the idea that someone can be there one month and gone the next. I think about her a lot. Before she got sick, one night as I was leaving our writing group meeting she and I got to talking. It was a stifling summer evening and we sat on her front step. She lived on a dead end, so the street was quiet. Crickets chattered, an occasional car wooshed by on the avenue down the street, lights went out one by one in the houses across the way.
Jeanie had written a story about child sexual abuse, a story about a young girl and her abusive father. It was, I assumed, a true story about her. It was stunningly raw and almost unreadably painful. It brought images to mind that I could hardly bear to think about.
“It was too much, wasn’t it?” she said quietly.
“No, no, it wasn’t,” I said quickly.
“For you it must have been,” she said softly, “with a young daughter. A beautiful little girl.”
“It is an important story. You can’t pull any punches with us, Jeanie, you have to assume that we can handle whatever you want to tell us. It must have been hard to write it.”
“Oh, no,” she said, “not really. It only took me forty-five years to do it.”
“Did you just hate him?”
“Yes, most of the time. But some of the time not, because he was my father. It is like hating yourself. He used to ask me not to tell our secret, without saying out loud what it was. He’d say if you love me you won’t tell anyone about what you imagined. What you imagined, he said. Like I would think maybe it hadn’t happened, like I might not remember. And sometimes he suggested it was my fault, like I wanted it to happen and he couldn’t help it.”
“I would have killed him.”
“But you kill yourself if you do that, you die yourself.”
“I don’t understand why things happen okay for some people and all wrong for others,” I said, “I mean, I know that sounds stupid, but why should that have happened to you?”
“Who knows why anything happens? Maybe it’s all meant to even out, maybe I’m going to be a famous writer someday. Or maybe I just get to live in this house with Peter and write a little and see my friends from time to time.”
She sighed and patted me on the shoulder. “Which is fine, which is just fine. This life is all I want. It took me fifty-five years to figure that out. But that’s okay. You know?”
I nodded. “I guess. I am wrestling with what I want. I want big, big things. I know what I’ve got is more than anyone has any right to hope for and I still daydream about being rich and famous and, whatever. It’s stupid.”
“No, it’s not. It’s normal. And you do appreciate what you have. You can’t relish every single moment of your life. Unless you know you’re going to die, then maybe you can. Or maybe then you’re just frightened.”
“I think a lot about being frightened. I am afraid to die, definitely. Sometimes I think I’m afraid to live, too, afraid of what the day will bring. Just afraid to walk out the door in the morning.”
“I think we read too much literature,” Jeanie said, “depresses the hell out of us. We should read some children’s books. Dr. Suess!”
“You know, some of that stuff is pretty scary, too, if you look for it.”
“Then stop looking for it! C’mon! Be happy!” She laughed. “Snap out of it!”
I looked at the ground for a moment, resisting being happy, as I do sometimes, embracing my gloominess and fear.
She looked at me seriously for a moment, then she smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. “Oh, don’t be such a scaredy-cat,” she said softly, “what’s the worst that can happen?”
What’s the worst that can happen? You can get cancer and die, that’s what. Jesus. I am sitting at the kitchen counter with my head in my hands.
The toilet flushes. You emerge, with a loud “Tada!!!” You are beaming, enormously proud of yourself. Toilet paper is wrapped around your head and flowing from your neck, like a flamboyant Russian ballerina. “How do you like my scarfs!”
“You look, lovely, Sasha.”
“Are you mad at me Daddy, for taking the paper? You look sad.”
“I am not mad and I am not sad.” I say, reaching towards you and hugging you. “I am glad, glad, glad.”
You point a finger in the air and intone, “I am not sad and I am glad, thank you, thank you, Dad I am!” You smile broadly, very pleased. Then you look around in mock concern.
“Did the zombies come in here?”
“No monsters in here, honey.”
You poke me in the leg. “What if you’re a secret monster? Hmmm?”
I take your hand and say, too earnestly, “Daddy’s not a monster, honey.”
“But can you stop monsters?”
“Promise? Do you, Daddy?”
You scrunch your face up the way you do when you’re not sure about something, watching me. Then you shrug.
I pull you towards me gently and hold your chin gently in one hand. “Lyd, listen. You know there are no monsters or anyone else who’s going to hurt you. Ever. You know that, right?”
“For an ever and an ever?”
“You’re never going to leave, right?”
“Daddy, is your friend Jeanie dead now?”
“She can never come back?”
“Well, you know, it depends on what you believe. Some people believe that you can come back after you die, to watch over people that you love”
“Like a ghost?”
“Sort of. Yes.”
“But a good ghost.”
“Is Jeanie looking at us now?” You look around the room nervously.
“Oh, I don’t know, sweetie, she might be visiting other people. She had a daughter, too, you know.”
You start to cry, a little.
“I don't want you to die, Daddy.”
“Sweetie, It’ll be a long time before I die.” The look of shock on your face makes me stop.
“I won't. Don’t worry, I won't. I'll always be here.”
“Okay,” you say firmly, “Okay. Good. Hey, where’s my cheesestick? Let’s get married, James.” You walk away into the living room, humming and swinging your arms, now utterly carefree.
I walk after you slowly, swallowing my lies, trying to remember you, trying to remember the dead.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/dunn.html]
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