“Dad, don’t be mad,” I say to him several weeks after my 30th birthday.
He shakes his head, “What’d you do now?”
Turning slowly and lifting the back of my shirt, I show him the tattoo. Silence.
“Well? What do you think?” I ask, afraid.
“I never will understand why people do that to their bodies, but it’s your body, you do what you want with it I guess,” he speaks
with a purposed lack of emotion.
What he doesn’t know now, is that the large black bird inked on my back will forever more be the trigger we both use to remind him
of why he and I are who we are.
I was the new girl, again. Our nomadic life presented me with grand illusions of magical transformation, and each two years we moved I imagined who I would become this time. I embellished the idea that starting over could mean I could take all of the things I learned to be true about all of the popular girls from before and re-invent myself to their likeness.
Within months, I was just me again. No matter what I did to be someone other than myself, it seemed I couldn’t figure out just quite how to completely get rid of me. I’d become good enough at my gypsy nomad state of being to get onto the cheerleading team, befriend the most popular girl in school, and score a position on the basketball team; but the thing about keeping up with a false sense of self is that eventually you get tired.
I’d figured out how to sit on the edge of belonging, even the new home we’d purchased was the old Aldrich place, a renowned historic and quite wealthy family in town. Yet, as my father made my younger sister and I carry chopped wood from the shed down to the closet in the basement as winter hit that season I only heard the whispers of new friends, “The Aldrich’s house looked way better when they lived in it.”
After the hour it took to bring all the wood in, and the battle I’d forged in my head had beaten me down, I escaped finally into my room. Here, alone, I could finally breathe. Fresh, crisp empty white pages and a new pencil were old friends who would go with me inside of my head. Writing, in the insanity, was my Sanctuary.
My father’s loud voice flung wide the doors of my safe-keeping later that evening, “Courtney!” I grow still. Wondering what it is I’ve done wrong this time, and praying there is no more wood to bring inside, I don’t move to his call.
He is at my door, “Courtney, come out here.”
He is squatted in front of our old black cast iron stove in the basement living room, just beyond my bedroom door, crumpling pieces of old news and settling it to a pile. “Get me three logs, would you?” I move to the closet beneath the stairs and stack three into my arms. Three of the same fifty I’d just hours before stacked there.
I watch him then, in our quietness. My father tasked to create fire, and my imagining I can become invisible. It’s as if I’m watching him from the outside of things, and the only parts of me that are really there, in the room, is my longing to feel connected to it at all.
A deep orange fills the thick glass as he shuts the small door, presses down the latch, stands and wipes his hands on his dark jeans. “Grab one of those t.v pillows,” he says as he picks up the other one and moves it to the wall opposite the old stove. I follow suit.
As he sits on the floor and leans back onto the over-stuffed pillow, he taps the space next to him and wordlessly offers me the seat. The fire pops as I begin to settle in beside him.
From beside him, he lifts to his lap an old, dusty book. I know that it is old because the bindings are real thread and the casing is leather, and there is no title or picture on the front. His large hands smooth themselves out over the cover, like a handshake. I look up to his face, he is smiling. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those times Mom told him to discipline me for something, but he can’t bring himself to do it so he pretends to lay me over the bed, but then he hits the mattress with the belt and winks at me.
The book then is in his grasp and he brings it up close to us, leans in just a bit, and slowly cracks it gently open. His fingers shift the pages like curtains in the wind, and I hear him open his lungs and breathe it all in. I taste the smell before my nose, and it suddenly overwhelms me. I forget my father for just a moment and take it in, and it’s like remembering something good.
The book settles down onto his lap, his hand lying between pages like a strong bookmark, “Courtney, I’m going to read you something.”
The way my father paused just then, as his eyes met those first written words, told me that I was about to be a part of something secret. His pause let loose, and I listened, “Once upon a midnight dreary …”
In those moments, Heaven opened wide its entrance and Hell bubbled up to meet it, in the great crashing of truths my father’s soul revealed. I watched and listened as Poe’s words that day reached into the deepest cavern’s of my father’s heart and gave permission to feel, out-loud. All of it. The rise of his voice to meet the fear, the bulging of his forehead vein and the spit flying from his tongue in the face of grief; I was, for the first time, meeting the man that was my father.
As the poem came to its end, that day, I knew its awakening to me marked the first grand moment of my determination to one day become a writer. I wanted to write words with the power to reach down into the guts of a man’s very soul so that he could find the courage to pull himself out. I loved my father more in that mysterious hour, as he presented himself to me, because he reminded me that I was not alone.
Like the devil himself had tried to take him in a fist-fight, my father fell back against the pillow and allowed the book its close with a heavy sigh of goodbye. Finally, he looked to me, “So, what do you think it means?”
I wanted to tell him that I knew the Raven, I had seen her countless times before. On the tip of my tongue was the desire to rage in my chamber, the familiar isolation with only madness. I believed The Raven was not at all about Lenore, but I did not tell him this. Instead, “It’s so powerful, it almost doesn’t want to be made sense of.”
He laughed then, letting loose of old chains and reached out for my hand, “That’s my girl.”
His advice was not with words that day, but in the revealing of himself. I would not be the same thirteen year old I was before he gave me his secret, and the advice would grow and morph into a thousand truths over all the years of my life.
I love my Hemingway Daddy