This is a short story I wrote about 18 years ago, the only one I’ve ever written, that is really nonfiction in disguise. My dad had moved on in his second marriage some 20 years earlier, and I had no beefs with that, we were all grown, but twinsie and I had been very close to him, so this sudden break just made us believe that he’d not only divorced our mom, but had also divorced us. And without having a true conversation with him about it, this brought a sense of pain and abandonment, like he’d forgotten about his former life, and all of us.
At the same time I wrote this, my best friend’s dad was dying from colon cancer and was only in his mid 50s. She had moved to Phoenix, and he and her mom had followed. We had long phone calls about her father’s suffering, but mostly about the tears that wouldn’t stop after he’d had chemo, and how she daubed them for her dad. I sorrowed so deeply for my friend. I went and visited her with twinsie, and I could see his dying in her eyes. It broke my heart for her.
Soon after he passed away and she asked me to write his eulogy, this story came to me, intertwining the stories, and releasing much of the pain I had for my friend, and the loss I felt for my father.
Ironically, since I’m no fiction writer true, at the urging of my writing friends, I submitted this and won second prize in a Hemingway competition celebrating the writer’s would-be 100th birthday. And that is stranger than fiction.
So, I give you, then:
The sun felt warm on this spring day on the Jersey Shore. The gulls swooped and cried echoing the sounds of the woman’s heart. Her father’s eyes were pale blue, watered down by infirmity. He couldn’t see. Not the way he used to, for nothing was familiar. They sat in silence, breathing in and out, their shoulders touching in the salty breeze.
Annie glanced at the old man at her side. The ravages of illness had long since robbed him of his dreams and memories. There was only a wise, pleasant man in an old body with milky eyes that stared into the distance as if he searched for the person he once was.
She held his hand and gently pulled on the thin skin mottled with dots from age and sun until it formed a peak. She traced her fingers over the soft, well cared for hands, the nails hard and oval shaped. She carefully lifted each finger and watched them fall back into place.
A woman dressed in a flowered tunic lumbered by, her belly round and swollen, a young boy skipping at her side. “Look, Dad,” Annie said, pointing to the woman. “She looks ready to give birth at any moment!”
The old man squinted, “My wife is expecting too,” he said, a wistful, dreamy look washing across his face.
Annie smiled, sadly. “You’ll make a wonderful father.”
The old man sighed as he watched the mother and son pass by. Then his eyes silently searched the place where the ocean meets the sky. The waves swept rhythmically onto shore washing away the sand like so many yesterdays. Memories and those things familiar were lost in a vast ocean deep and dark. They’d surface occasionally; bobbing and winking like the glint of the sun as they rode the waves back to obscurity.
Annie watched a man in a gray business suit as he shuffled his feet along in the sand, his briefcase dangling from one hand, his shoes, and socks from the other. His trousers were rolled up to show smooth, youthful calves.
She let go her father’s hand and leaned her elbows on her knees. Sadness welled inside her so deep it filled her, pushing everything good aside. She wanted to cry, finally. But was afraid that if she started she’d never stop. Like Lizzie’s tears.
Lizzie. Her best friend. The cancer was bad enough, but the chemo caused her long, auburn hair to fall out leaving a smooth, shiny cap of skin. She got so sick she wondered which was worse, the cancer or the treatment? Her eyes watered constantly. Lizzie didn’t mind the baldness so much, the nausea and vomiting ceased after a time, but the tears were too much for her. It was as if her body wept at its inability to protect her from the beast that raged within. Even when Lizzie smiled her body wept in defeat.
When Lizzie became too weak to daub her eyes, Annie did it for her. Finally, the tears ceased at the moment Lizzie’s breath slipped away in a sigh.
“Daddy,” Annie whispered into the wind. “Do you remember Lizzie? She died last week. She just closed her eyes and fell asleep.”
“Look!” her father said, startling her and pointing to a little girl with dark hair making a castle in the sand. “That’s my daughter Annie.”
Annie watched the child as she dug into the sand with a yellow, plastic shovel. The wind fingered the child’s hair, while the sun bathed it in golden light.
“She’s like sunshine in the winter,” her father murmured, his eyes glistening with vitality. “In my dreams I’ve walked her down the aisle, lifted her veil and kissed her goodbye. I’ve held her babies in my arms and smoked cigars with her husband. I’ve heard her laugh a thousand times in my dreams. Just to know her is reason enough for living.”
He chuckled softly, shaking his head. Annie felt her sadness well in her eyes and slip silently from her soul. They sat there quietly, daughter and father, one in the present, the other in the past.
She glanced up and sighed as the orderly approached, “Hey, Harry,” he said. “It’s time for your therapy.”
Annie’s father slowly stood. He took her hand in his and said, “Thanks for keeping an old man company.”
“My pleasure,” Annie replied, reaching up and kissing her father’s smooth cheek. She watched as he took the orderly’s arm and began to walk away. She noticed his shoulders listed to the right just a bit, and his legs didn’t quite straighten all the way, but he was still in fine shape.
Suddenly, he turned to her, his eyes engaging her own for the first time that day. “That friend of yours who died. Would your life have been better if you hadn’t known her at all, sparing you all this sadness?”
Annie shook her head slowly. “No,” she replied, and they gazed at one another for a moment. Annie smiled and said, “You know, that’s exactly the type of question my own father would have asked.”
“Ah,” he said, chuckling softly. “Then he was not only a lucky man, but a wise one at that.” And with a wave and a wink he turned and walked away.