I have exactly one good memory of my dad that hasn’t been tainted in time. Amazingly, I also have a photograph of that moment. Most people have never seen the picture, and those that have rarely ask what it is. Rochelle spotted it on our first date, sticking out from behind my license when I paid for our dinner and she’d pointed and asked, “What’s that?”
”My father,” I’d answered, pulling the faded, wallet-sized photograph out of my wallet and flicking it onto the table, “Before he fucked me up.”
She’d studied the picture carefully, her fingertips hesitant to touch the picture’s surface. “Is that you?” The tips of her fingernails laid gently on the knobby-kneed three year old beside the kneeling form of him, both back-to the photographer, throwing bread crumbs to waiting ducks.
“Yeah,” I’d said, as casually as possible, “This is the only happy memory I have of my old man.”
Rochelle’s eyes had met mine, and they’d teared up as I picked up the photo and shoved it away into the pocket behind my license again. She hadn’t said anything more. No statement to quench the paid she obviously knew lay behind the story I’d left untold, no words of reassurance, no typical well fuck him, who needs a father anyways statements. She’d just accepted… teared up… and was ready to move on.
It was pretty much that moment that I knew that I’d found the perfect woman.
Now, though, was a different story. Now, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my truck, peering up at the looming hospital building through the windshield, with Rochelle sitting there awkwardly beside me, also staring up at the hospital. She glanced at me. “You don’t have to do this, don’t forget,” she said, for what seemed like the millionth time.
“I do have to,” I answered, shaking my head. I took a deep breath and I climbed out of the truck. “One hour, right?” I asked.
Rochelle nodded solemnly. “It’s just a sonogram,” she said, her finger tips gently resting on her stomach.
“Right.” I nodded.
“I love you Monkee,” she said.
“Love you too Monkee,” I answered.
I stood on the curb and watched the truck pull out of the parking lot and disappear, making its way to the clear opposite side of the hospital campus. It seemed they kept death and life in remote corners of the universe here, as though they were so unrelated that they couldn’t bear to keep them together in a neat package.
Oncology. The sign hung over the hallway, painted far too cheerfully to reflect what its depths really held. I walked, feeling as empty as the bare halls inside, getting closer and closer to the looming receptionist’s desk that stood as a centaur before me. I passed a table demanding all live goods be abandoned and frowned at the pot of marigolds someone had left on the table. They, too, seemed too cheerful for this place...
“I’m here to see Bob McLean,” I said to the receptionist as I stood awkwardly before her, picking the skin at the edge of my fingernails. It was my worst bad habit.
“Relation?” she asked.
I hadn’t expected a pop quiz. Some spiteful part of me wanted to say results of sperm deposit, but I bit my tongue and shoved out the word I knew she wanted to hear: “Son.”
The word tasted like lead.
“Oh right this way,” she said. She grabbed a clipboard, “I was just about to do vitals in his room.” A toasty little grin and she grabbed the handle on an upright blood pressure machine and we were off. She trotted along down the hall, her funny nurses shoes shuffling more than clicking against the tile and my Converse sneakers squeaking along behind. “Here we are,” she sang cheerfully, “Wait here, I’ll make sure visitors are okay.” She hit a Germ-X dispenser and wiped her hands together as she walked into the room and ducked around a puke-green curtain.
I stood by the dispenser, staring at the label. Kills 99.99% of Germs, it boasted. I wondered if it could reach inside a person and kill off germs that didn’t threaten physical health, but the germs that infested the heart and soul of a man… that threatened to break down the walls of emotions.
The nurse tucked her head around the curtain, “Come on in,” she called cheerfully.
I hovered just the same for a long moment, fidgeting with the Germ-X dispenser, pretending I wasn’t certain how to use it. After a moment, the nurse came over and grabbed my palm and shoved it into the dispenser. “Just hold your hand under it, it’ll automatically give you the stuff,” she explained in an exasperated sort of tone. I nodded and followed her back around the curtain.
As I stepped around it, my stomach dropped out from under me like a wonky elevator Nick and I had taken in Montreal once many moons before. There he was, very similar to how I remembered him, but paler, smaller, and more wrinkly… laying in a sea of white fabric, a clear tube around his face to breathe through.
He stared at me.
“Can I get you anything else?” the nurse asked.
“No,” he said, his voice low and raspy, “Thank you.” His eyes never left my face, though I turned and watched her leave the room. Part of me wanted to make shit up to keep her there. Anything, just don’t leave, I begged in my mind. Please.
But she’d already swept from the room, leaving behind only a ghostly scent of her perfume. I stood at the edge of the curtain, staring out to the hall the way she’d gone. I could feel his eyes on me, but I didn’t dare to turn to look at him.
“Alex,” he breathed.
Because I knew I had no real choice, I slowly turned to face him, feeling like my feet were cemented to the ground. My eyes landed on him again and I swallowed. He looked so different than the photo that was tucked away in my wallet… I almost couldn’t connect the two images together in my mind as being the same man.
Yet he also didn’t look a thing like the last time I’d seen him face-to-face, either.
“How are you?” he asked quietly.
I wanted to say I’m here, I’m shitty, obviously but I felt like I’d swallowed my tongue. Nick used that phrase once and I’d made fun of him – I mean, how does one swallow one’s tongue exactly? Had he done it to know what it feels like? – but now I could understand what he’d meant. It was a funny, swollen feeling somewhere in the back of the throat where the tongue attaches to the rest of your mouth. I shrugged instead of answering because words wouldn’t have been able to crawl out of my mouth at that point anyways. Even nice ones.
“You look good,” he said in response to my shrug. “You look happy,” he added.
I nodded vaguely. I felt violated that he’d noticed I was happy.
He pointed at my hand, “You got married.”
I looked down at the shining, heavy golden ring on my left hand where Rochelle had pushed it at our wedding. I’d taken it off exactly twice since then – once because my hand was swollen on a plane to Japan and once because I’d stupidly offered to help mix a meatloaf and I didn’t want to get dead cow stuck to it. The ring had been my reminder that I didn’t always have shitty luck, that someone loved me and that I had a reason to go on everyday.
“Is she pretty?” he asked.
I looked up at my father again and nodded.
“Have a seat,” he said, motioning to a white plastic chair by his side.
I shook my head, “Ro’s gonna be back for me soon,” I said.
“Oh,” he answered. I could see in his eyes he didn’t like the thought of me leaving so soon. Well fuck you, I thought bitterly, Maybe I didn’t like the thought of you leaving when I was four fucking years old, ever think of that, old bastard?
“Sorry,” I added, as though I thought he could read my mind.
He shook his head, “I understand.” His eyes traveled to mine, “Do I get to meet – Ro, you said?”
“Rochelle,” I clarified, “And no.”
He looked away. “Alex,” he said slowly, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my lifetime…”
“Don’t start,” I groaned. I turned around, giving him my back, and stared out the window of his room, down to the parking lot. “I’m not here for a fucking confessional, I’m not a priest if you didn’t notice.” I silently willed Rochelle to pull into the lot below. “You made mistakes, blah-blah, I get it. Your biggest fucking mistake is standing here in the room with you, I know.”
“My biggest mistake was leaving you,” he argued.
My heart ached. I wanted to believe that he really thought that was true for reasons beyond what he could have had if he’d just waited until I got famous. “Yeah I guess it was,” I said, “You could’ve been rich, could’ve had nice house with mum and seen the world and gotten lots of attention. You love attention, don’t you Bob?”
“I could’ve had a son,” he said quietly.
“A famous son,” I snapped.
“Just a son,” he replied.
I clutched the window sill. “Whatever,” I whispered, my voice shaking.
“I’m dying,” he said quietly, “I just wanted the time to see you… to- to maybe get to know you a little bit.” I heard him shift in his bed behind me, but I didn’t tear my eyes away from the lot below for even a moment. “Alex, I don’t want or need your fame and fortune now. It’s too late for that. All I want is- is to-“ he paused and coughed loudly. I braced myself against the window to keep from turning around. “All I want is to maybe right some of those wrongs…”
I saw my truck pull into the lot. I turned and started toward the door, “Well you’re forgiven if that’s what you were looking for,” I said.
His eyes glistened, “Don’t leave, Alex…”
“How does it feel?” I asked quietly, “To be the one staring at the door saying don’t leave?”
I saw a tear roll down his cheek as I stepped into the hallway. “I’m sorry,” he called, his voice cracking, “Dammit Alex, I’m so sorry.”
But I didn’t turn back.