fleetingmadness: (john motherfucking watson)
[personal profile] fleetingmadness
title: And This Bird You Cannot Change
warnings: death and grief.
summary: this is a memoir piece i wrote for a class last semester. since today is today, i thought i would post this hopefully for some catharsis.



Any time I tell someone that my dad was my best friend, they scoff. They think I’m looking back with rose colored glasses. You’re romanticizing your memory of him, Loren, don’t you know?

That’s real interesting, friend, considering my journal entries from middle school and up say over and over again, “My dad is my best friend; is that sad?”

That usually makes them shut up for five seconds before again insisting that fifteen-year-old-me was a liar. Your dad dies and suddenly everyone’s a psychiatrist.

They don’t know or care that my close relationship with my dad drove a thick wedge between my mom and me. That it made my knees buckle when I heard the news before the rest of my body could catch up. That I’m now so lonely, so without that essential feeling of being understood completely by someone, that I’m talking more than I ever have because I need more words to make people get what I’m trying to say.

You know how when you were a teenager, you kind of hated everyone even when you loved them and you just wanted to be alone and you thought to yourself, ‘If I could just go somewhere and be alone forever, that would be just great’ because you were the best person you knew and you didn’t need anyone else, nope, not at all?

Yeah, well. You were wrong. You were very, very wrong.

Being alone sucks.

***

“Okay, class. Today I want to demonstrate how you have been unconsciously conditioned to have a certain emotional response to familiar things. I’m going to use music as the stimulus.”

My psychology professor walked over to the CD player we had all been staring at curiously and pressed play.

It’s two years ago and my sister is squeezing my hand so hard it hurts. My best friend reaches forward to scrabble at my other hand, but the distance prevents her from latching on. My knees feel weak. I can hear my mother begin to sob. I grind my teeth and refuse to look at her. My sister’s nails are digging into my skin and for a moment I want them to draw blood. I want to drip red all over the prickly grass and sign my name – “ignore the headstone; here might as well lie Loren.” I could smear it on the box in front of me. It’s an ugly thing, so ornate and so not my dad. I wish I could stop everything and go get a different one that doesn’t clash with the flag my dad’s friends – my friends – are folding over it. They finish as the music draws to a close and I fall into my seat.

“So, what did that make you feel?”

“It made me feel sad,” says one girl.

“Patriotic,” says another. My professor nods.

“Can anyone tell me what song that was?”

“Taps,” I choke.

“Very good. Now, this next song…”

***

The thing about it is this: I never saw it coming. I spent years tensing at the sound of a car pulling into our driveway, praying to deities I had stopped believing in that it wasn’t two soldiers I didn’t recognize coming to break my heart. My dad, god bless him, had finally been able to retire from the army in February 2010. He then, god damn him, became a personal contractor. Although it is essentially the same job, he told us he would be safe. He was overseas, but not fighting. Staying in the base at all times. He lied to all of us because he knew we would not let him do what he thought he was put on this earth to do if we knew the truth. ‘What’s the point of retiring if you’re just going right back out into the fray?’ we’d say. He wouldn’t have an answer.

In the last week of July in the same year, we were at my mom’s parents’ house. I was asleep in the extra bedroom when my grandfather came in and gently told me that my mom needed to talk to me. My first thought was: Oh no. Aunt Sissy. Oh, no, this is awful. But… good. She’s been suffering for so long, and her memory is just not there… I’m almost happy for her. But don’t let Memaw see that, it would break her heart. All right, Loren, steel yourself. Get ready to be strong.

I went into my mom’s old bedroom where she and my sister are sitting up, bed sheets draped around their shoulders. Robbie looked confused, but the little smile she gave me made me think that she was on the same page that I was. My mom looked completely normal, eerily so. Her eyes were blank and unfocused. My grandma, standing to the side of the bed, did not look normal. I mean, of course not. Her big sister was gone. I resisted the urge to comfort her, feigning ignorance while secretly scanning the room for a box of tissues that would probably be needed soon.

“Girls,” my mom began, the waver in her voice immediately catching my attention. I focused back in on her and she suddenly looked lost. Dread slowly crept up the back of my neck. “I –” she falters, losing her composure. “I just got a call. Your dad – he’s dead.” She burst into tears and my grandfather wrapped an arm around my torso, holding me up. I vaguely realized that my knees had given out, that I was slumped against him. The world was quiet, for a moment. I met Robbie’s wide eyes and it hit me. I started to scream.

Did I mention he was supposed to come home in two weeks?

I never saw it coming. (Aunt Sissy, meanwhile, is still alive and fucking kicking.)

***

When the shot tore through his chest, for him, it was July 29th. For us, on the other side of the world, it was July 30th. I never expected that, either. What do you put on the forms? On the headstone? On our memorial bracelets?

My mom stubbornly signed each form for the 30th. The headstone, because Arlington National Cemetery is actually a pile of shit, had the wrong birth and death dates for months before finally saying the 30th. The bracelets, though, they were made by the guys: my dad’s friends, comrades, protégés, and – well, my friends. They say the 29th.

That’s something they never tell you about in the movies, maybe because it seems insignificant, but it means so very much to me. Another thing they do that makes me laugh (read: cry) is when there’s all of a day between the death and burial. Think about vampire movies; the person gets bit, dies, and wakes up that night a monster and claws their way out of the grave. I guess their family didn’t have a wake or were filthy rich so they didn’t need more than an hour to get all the burial plans together. I guess they didn’t have to go to an army base and watch them unload the body and welcome it back into the country. I guess they didn’t have grandparents that demanded that there be a wake in their hometown because “It’s what he would have wanted” even though he joined the army specifically to get the fuck out of there. I guess they didn’t have to wait for a month before Arlington could accommodate them because although it wasn’t in his will – he wasn’t expecting it either – he told you once that he wanted to be buried there among all of his heroes and you never forgot that, not ever.

It was the first time I wished my life was like a vampire movie. That unnaturally speedy process is worth undead monsters killing everyone around me, I think. (read: There was over a month between him getting shot and him being buried and I don’t even think ten years of therapy could undo the things that did to me. After a certain amount of time, they wouldn’t let there be an open casket anymore. I had to stand near that box and know that he was starting to rot.)

***

november fourteenth, twenty-eleven

dear diary,

i can’t remember what his voice sounded like.

***

The wake at home was attended by 200+ soldiers, all in uniform and grim-faced. The funeral home was filled to the brim and I thought my dark blue dress stood out miserably against all the sandy green. I tried to hide but each and every soldier found me and softly told me that my dad had been a friend, an inspiration, or the inspiration of a friend of a friend. Grown men who had never even met him, had just heard stories, choked back tears and told me he was a hero. I met boys my age with lines around their eyes that were there that day, were saved by him that day. Sometimes their eyes were a familiar pale blue and I thought that maybe I was supposed to marry one of them someday and have a son and name him Robert. Sometimes they didn’t have legs and I tried not to be jealous, I really did, because it’s actually completely fair of the universe to merely wound the young and kill the old but god, when did forty-two start meaning old?

My mom made us listen to the entirety of “Freebird” because of course that was his favorite song and of course the most requested song of all time has to be the one I can never listen to ever again. I hear that first note and something inside me frays at the edges and tangles itself in my lungs and chokes me. (If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?)

The wake in Greenwood, Mississippi was attended by 200+ people who had never met or cared about my dad but knew my grandparents and felt obligated to attend. They did not talk to me. They did not talk to my sister, my mom, or her Illinois-foreign parents or brother. They did not call him a hero. My grandmother’s boss stared at my chest while he waited in line, only stopping when my dad’s friend – my friend – threatened to put him in a box next. When they were about to close the casket for the last time (he’s starting to rot), my friend tried to get me to say goodbye again. He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and told me that I would regret not seeing the body one last time. I looked over his shoulder, at my not-dad lying there with that stupid goatee he started growing a week before he left, his skin pale and covered in makeup, his mouth Copenhagen-less and his gray head missing a baseball cap, and I said, “No. I won’t.”

I wasn’t wrong.

The funeral in D. C. was attended by 50+ people. Only about half of them meant anything to my dad at that point in time. I don’t think he would have been thrilled about his high school girlfriend showing up drunk and telling me that he was the one that got away while her husband stood awkwardly to the side holding their child. I don’t think he would have liked the ornate box he was put in at his parents’ insistence despite it being far more than my mother – my now single, unemployed mother – could afford. I think he would have thought it hilarious that the headstone got all the details wrong, though. I didn’t think it was hilarious.

***

Just after September 11th, when we knew that our lives were going to change and dad was going to be gone a lot more for a lot longer, my mother bought him a necklace. It was a plain silver chain with the metal of the Immaculate Conception dangling from the end. The pendant was a small oval; on the front, the Virgin Mary stood, arms spread. She was framed by the words “O MARY CONCEIVED WITHOUT SIN PRAY FOR US WHO HAVE RECOURSE TO THEE.” On the back, the letter M was surmounted by a bar and a cross; beneath this there were two hearts, meant to be the hearts of Jesus and Mary. One was crowned in thorns and the other pierced with a sword. It hung around his neck every second of every day afterwards, protecting him from harm. He slept in it, showered in it, fought in it. It was always sitting there against his chest and when it was sent back to us along with his other possessions a sticky note read “Necklace was steam cleaned.”

My mother had their wedding rings, my sister one of his handkerchiefs, and I imprinted on this necklace like I didn’t know that ‘it was steam cleaned’ meant ‘it had blood on it.’ I held it in my hands, looped around my fingers and tried to imagine my dad without it. During the weeks of two wakes, I never wore it. It rested in my pocket, waiting for me to make up my mind. I had to decide whether I was going to keep it or bury it with him.

At the first wake, I stared at the ugly box for thirty minutes before finding the courage to walk over. I crept over to it but didn’t look inside. I closed my eyes and tried to remember my dad, young and happy and full of life, grilling steaks and dancing with my mother and laughing. I saw him mowing the lawn, bopping his head to the heavy metal playing on his iPod. I saw him wrestling with Robbie on the trampoline, pinning her easily. I saw him.

I looked down and the body lying there was a stranger’s. It didn’t look real. It didn’t look like him, except it did, so much, because it was him and I thought I might scream. My hand was drawn tight around that godforsaken necklace and I wanted to put it around his neck. I wanted to make him my father again but the necklace felt so heavy and he looked so frail, like it would break his ribcage and collapse into him. I thought I might vomit.

I tried to open my fist, to wrap the necklace around his neck or settle it into his hand but I can’t. My hand won’t open. It won’t let it go. I can’t let it go.

It’s hanging around my neck right now like an anchor. This stupid necklace is wearing me down.

***

february twenty-second, twenty-twelve

i had a dream last night about my dad and i could remember his voice. i know in my gut that the voice in my dream was the correct one, even though i couldn’t remember it when i woke up. i haven’t lost it forever. it’s in me, somewhere in my subconscious. a part of me still remembers, and that’s enough for now.
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