When I was a child, I dreamed of killing my father—silencing his manic rages and saving the paintings on the wall from his large and defeating hands—the same hands that taught themselves to play piano by ear—playing me “Linus and Lucy” and Scott Joplin on request. Now he can barely sit in a chair more than a few hours a day—confusing events and names, people and place. His anger surfaces only occasionally—like a fish to the skin of water, only enough to taste, to reclaim, a small moment of power.
On Tuesday, I call my best friend to apologize for forgetting her dead father’s birthday three days ago. I called her—knowing she would be five hours behind me at her cubicle in Washington, DC, but hoping she would answer anyway; instead, I hear a Spanish voice seemingly more confused than I—the beautiful rolled Rs momentarily lulling me. He hands the phone to a British friend, and the man laughs: “Who is Elisabeth? You’ve just phoned Spain. We were trying to phone the UK.” His consonants are tinted with beer and I feel defeated. She and I share most things: obsessive-compulsive shopping habits, a love of whole foods, our dead and dying fathers. Though I called to memorialize her father once more, I would have spoken of mine—days from his own death. After the British voice laughs and we are disconnected as he is mid-sentence, I don’t try phoning Elisabeth again.
I find the triangular misconnection a coincidence until today when I phone my mother and she keeps repeating, “Hello?” The Os rising like waves as her daughter’s voice is faint in the heart of the receiver. I try again and she tells me that I was registered Michigan, a 517 call. I do not try to understand, but I am again feeling lost, as if I’ve just been dropped in the Atlantic.
I begin to wonder what someone else would do if by accident they reached my mother and she told them too: “Your father wants to die. He is ready to go.” He asked her today the date—July 15th—and he said, “Good, two more weeks till our anniversary. I can make it to that.” She could not coax the words from her mouth, could not tell him that their anniversary is at the end of August. And then I feel dropped again—maybe even so far as the Pacific this time, but instead I fall into my role of problem-solver, dutiful daughter, only child: “Maybe you should pick a different day and celebrate then instead.” I have just given my father one more reason to live a few days fewer.
My mother says to me that when my grandparents visit, my father becomes most disconsolate. When his confusion strikes (the mites of brain cancer,) he wants to hide—like a child—and that is because he is one; he is their child. For my father, my grandfather is still the brilliant man who only had patience for his grandchildren and even then, not much. I tell my mom to tell them this—my red-headed grandmother who too remains a child—petulant and insistent—and my grandfather, slowly learning compassion and its vocabulary at eighty-two—to tell them to play along with my father’s imagined realities, allow him to be right. I say this knowing that my father would be horrified, and in fitter days, this would send him raging.
Each day this week, I’ve passed a dead baby fox on the side of the road—its heavy and smooth belly slowly deflating. I’ve cried over this fox three times—more over it than my father this week, this month. I wonder what you would say, Imaginary Caller, if you reached me and I told you this…and then if I told you that my father cultivated my love of animals, how we would stop on busy highways and remove slow-moving turtles, how we would place them in the trunk and remove the forest turtles to the forests and the lake turtles to the lakes. I could tell you of the time we tried to save an infant robin and how poor timing meant the bird came with us on vacation—only to die a few days later. I could also tell you how he made me decide the fate of baby mice—how the mice found nesting in our shed were to either be drowned or try to survive blind in the fields. An optimistic seven-year-old, I chose the fields but never forgave him. Three years later, at ten, he built a box for my dead hamster—buried it under the winds of Lake Michigan and placed a Petoskey stone over the top.
I could tell you these things, Imaginary Caller, and they would be much like our phone call—confused, a series of missed connections, misunderstandings, rolled Rs and rolling waves over the Atlantic carrying words like feathers, stones of our fathers.
© Julie Bolitho. “Imaginary Caller,” Nonfiction essay. Punchnel’s. Punchnel’s press: 2013, online edition, found at: http://www.punchnels.com/first-person/imaginary-caller/