This is an essay I’ve submitted for publication. I thought I would offer up to you, Gentle Reader, as an example of my creative nonfiction. It is a true story I wrote several years ago.
There are many ways I could begin this story. I could start with my grandmother’s musing about how she always felt that my father loved me so much that I was actually the reason he decided to marry a twenty-two year-old college dropout with a young daughter. “He would come over and take you to the park and play with you while your mother was at work. It was a wonderful thing for a man to do with a child that wasn’t even his.”
I could also begin with his gift of a beautiful blank book that awaited my eleven year-old creative mind. I was a writer and, convinced I would one day be famous, was aching to record my words in one of the attractive, lined books I longingly gazed at in the bookstore. When my father gave me my first book, I imagined that he too believed my words were powerful.
But none of those beginnings would be the truth. If my grandmother ever said those words, it was likely to placate a teary-eyed child who was desperately trying to figure out what she had done wrong for her father to have rejected her. Again. And when I actually climbed into the attic and located the books that set me on my writing path, I discovered that they had, in fact, come from my mother. Instead, I shall begin this story with as much truth as possible, with an answering machine message that I didn’t quite understand and almost deleted, thinking it was a wrong number.
“It’s terrible. I don’t know what to do,” cries a sleepy, garbled voice. There is a disconnect between the words and voice. My finger rests on the delete button, requiring only the slightest confirmation to respond.
“It’s bad, I don’t know if I’ll see him again.” A teenager, I think, weeping over a boyfriend and misdialing her best friend’s number. My hand twitches as my finger, ignoring my brain, hits the rewind button.
“It’s terrible. I don’t know what to do. It’s bad. I don’t know if I’ll see him again.” No, that wasn’t right—I try to place the languid tone, “it’s Dad. I don’t know if I’ll see him again.” Shit. I pause, not entirely rejecting the idea of hitting the delete button and going back to work.
There are some phone calls you know you will get one day. They sit in the back of your mind and at night, when sleep escapes your grasp, you pull them out and role-play the conversations in your head. I had always assumed the call would come from a highway patrol officer or the head nurse in an ER. I never imagined my sister would make the call—simply because she wouldn’t think of me and probably wouldn’t have my phone number. I’m guessing the number was probably in my father’s Caller ID. Every few weeks I called and left a message on his answering machine. He rarely called back. When I told him I left messages, he claimed that since I didn’t identify myself, he never realized who was calling. As far as I know, my sister and I are his only children—and she, at thirty-seven, still lives with him. I had erroneously assumed that, “Hey Dad, it’s me” was enough of an identifier. Apparently more people were calling him Dad than I suspected. Even though it felt weird, I started leaving my name, “Hey Dad, it’s your daughter, Rebecca. Just wondering how you were doing.” He still rarely called back.
Sighing, I dial while the acid in my stomach grows angry. I hadn’t eaten anything this morning and realize I probably won’t get to anytime soon. My sister’s tone is flat and slow when she answers the phone.
“It’s me.” I say before realizing she is as unlikely as my father to recognize my voice, “Rebecca. What happened to Dad?”
“They airlifted him to Gainesville.” There is emptiness to her voice. She cannot function without his direction. “He had a heart attack or something. They called it an ‘aortic dissection.’”
I simultaneously google “Gainesville, FL” and “aortic dissection”—discovering that Gainesville is three hours north of where my sister and father live and is “one of the most attractive cities in Florida.” I wonder how the other Florida cities feel about this. The results for ‘aortic dissection’ are less flattering, with phrases like, “potentially life-threatening condition” and “fatal complications.” My sister gives me the number of the Gainesville hospital and a doctor’s name. I tell her I will call back with more information.
Privacy regulations only let me discover that “a person with that name” had been admitted to the Greater Gainesville Hospital, but only his wife or “personal representative” could receive additional information.
“If you come to the hospital, the doctor might speak to you,” the nurse suggests. I explain my father isn’t married and I am calling from 900 miles away. “Let me see if I can get the doctor to call you back,” she offers.
I stand in the shower, letting the hottest possible water hit my body. Goosebumps still pepper my arms and I nudge the cold-water handle down until it is almost off. I methodically plan out my itinerary, determining how I will negotiate the inevitable trip, when the phone rings. With three minutes to go on my five‑minute conditioner, I jump as though the cold water has been turned on full force.
“Is this Rebecca?” the voice asks. “We have your father here at the Gainesville Hospital and he gave us your number. She doesn’t seem to realize I had already spoken with a nurse. “The doctor wants to talk with you. Can you hold please?” Without waiting for a response, she puts me on hold. I turn off the shower and wonder if I can be electrocuted, standing in a cast iron tub, talking on a phone. The doctor begins a monologue that alternates between clinical descriptions and overly simplistic definitions. While I do know what the aorta is, I didn’t know that if the “dissection involves the pericardial space, cardiac tamponade may result.” He informs me they are getting ready to take him into surgery to repair the dissection.
“Should I come down?” I ask, knowing he cannot give me the answer I need to hear. I want to rephrasing the question to, “Do I have to come down?” even though my real question is, “Is he going to die?”
“You don’t understand.” I try, “We don’t really talk.” I’m cold, still standing in the tub, dripping.
“He did give us your number and ask us to call you. This is a very serious procedure. I would advise you to get to the airport as quickly and safely as you can.” I feel bad that he doesn’t make me feel bad. I thank him and hang up, forgetting about my five-minute conditioner.
Sitting in my husband’s bathrobe, I call my mother. She hasn’t been married to my father in over twenty years, and the years she’d spent with him were cruel and painful. “Do I have to go?” I ask nervously.
“No, no you don’t.” I knew I called her for a reason. “But you should.” Shit. I was hoping she would give me an out. She offers me a little one, “Why don’t you wait and see how the surgery goes.”
My husband agrees with my mother. This from a man whom I fell in love with over contests of who had the craziest family. I usually, but not always, won.
Four years ago, when I called his house on Christmas morning, my father announced he had just driven my sister to a mental institution. As a parent, I had quickly learned to never ask my children ‘why’ they had done something. Although I realized the same could be said for parents, I tried anyway.
“Because she’s crazy,” he said replied obviously. I heard him sipping his drink, the ice hitting the sides of the glass. My own children were dazed after opening their first round of Christmas presents—they hadn’t yet learned to pace themselves. It wasn’t yet ten in the morning but I knew his ice cubes weren’t floating in orange juice. Experience told me it wasn’t his first drink of the day—or his second. I smiled at my husband, who was trying to extricate himself from Lego and Barbie detritus, and mouthed, “I win.” Shaking his head, he pointed to the clock—his parents would be arriving soon. “It’s still early,” he replied.
I try to think of a reason to stay home, an excuse to not make the trip to Florida. While my children are young, they, and my husband, are fairly capable—no doubt a sign of excellent parenting. My job cannot constrain me as I’d been let go two weeks before Christmas. Shit.
I stop at the bank to deposit my father’s Christmas check. He sends one every year. They are always large enough to require us to continue our strange dance, yet too small to be of any real use. When my sister got married, he bought her a house. We get meat—a lot of meat. Every few months a shipment arrives in dry ice. I run to the freezer, replacing frozen bread with gourmet steaks and hot dogs. I don’t think we’ll be getting any more meat. But for holidays and birthdays, he sends his checks. I used to dream of being a bigger person and not accepting his checks. But he is slightly psychic and they always arrive at the convenient times—just after the ABS light comes on in the van, right before we leave for an impromptu ski vacation—right after I’ve lost my job. Every time I sign the checks, I hate myself for accepting them. I try to placate myself by saying it is his way of telling me he loves me.
When I was sixteen, I received a phone call telling me I’d won a poetry contest. Excited, I called my father, who was at our neighbor’s house, “Great. It’s probably the most money you’ll ever make from writing.” I heard ice clinking. Years later, I commented to the neighbor’s wife that my father was angry with me for changing my major to English. “He says I’ll never make it as a writer.”
“Do you remember when you won that writing contest in high school?” she asked. “Your father was so excited. He showed everyone your poem.”
Now, almost two decades later, I wonder if that was a real conversation or one I just wished for so hard that I now imagine it’s true. This was the reason he’d sent the checks all these years. He was buying insurance that I would come when the phone call came. I had no choice—he’d paid for my attendance.
I pack, telling the children I’m going to visit my father, a man they’d never met. My daughter is despondent, “No, you can’t leave. Why do you have to go?”
“Grandpa is sick and I have to go see him,” I explain, putting my clothes in my suitcase. My son immediately takes them out and I let the game continue for a few minutes, “Wouldn’t you come see me if I were sick?” I ask. Then it dawns on me, they are the reason I am going. Like my father, I am buying my own insurance. I need to go so my children will see it is the right thing to do.
I hate flying almost as much as I hate driving to the airport. Security pulls me aside and inspects my suitcase. The plastic bag containing my toiletries is the wrong size. Apparently terrorists are now using the one-gallon size and homeland security only permits pint-sized bags in non-terrorist luggage. I try to assure them I’m not a terrorist, even with my gallon-sized bag, stuttering, “I don’t fly a lot.” Finally, they decide I am simply more stupid than evil.
There are many ways I could end this story. I could write about how I fly down and sit with my father, my presence comforting him. Or perhaps I could say we reconnect in the hospital, where he lets me know—with a look or a touch—how sorry he is. Or maybe, just maybe, I could end it with me looking at my father and realizing that my family, my life, my typing hands—are my own creation and that he can no longer hold sway over me.
But again, none of those endings would be the truth. Instead, the truth comes in the form of another phone call, again from my sister, informing me my father doesn’t want me to come. “I told him you were coming and he got really upset. They had to sedate him.”
An apologetic CICU nurse confirms her story, “I’m so sorry. I asked him several times. I told him you were about to board a plane. He shook his head—he doesn’t want you to come.”
The boarding area is crowded and I am convinced everyone hears the nurse.
“He doesn’t want her to come down.”
“What kind of daughter must she be?”
“What could she have done to make him not want to see her?”
My neck grows hot and red while I try to make the conversation appear innocuous. Maybe they will simply think an important meeting has been canceled at the last minute. Or that my husband is picking this moment to tell me about his affair. Maybe they will think I am getting fired—again. As long as they don’t think my father is rejecting me. I realize the nurse is still on the phone. “Call in a day or two, maybe he’ll feel different then,” he suggests. I shake my head. He won’t ever feel any different.
Driving back to my house, I call my mother and replay the conversation. “Give him time,” she offers, with more kindness than he deserves. “Maybe he’s really vulnerable right now and doesn’t want you to see him like that.” Yeah, we’ll go with that answer for a while. Like the conversations with my old neighbor and my grandmother, if I believe it hard enough, it might be true.
My husband and I walk to the school just as they release the kids. “I win,” I tell him, squeezing his hand.
“Yes, this time you do.”
A wave of children pours from the building and I look for the familiar blonde heads bouncing in the sea of bodies. They screech and chatter like gulls. My daughter comes into view, looking momentarily confused when she sees me. “Why aren’t you visiting Grandpa?” she asks, tossing me her backpack and coat but not waiting for an answer. In her mind, my presence is answer enough.
There are some phone calls you know you will get one day. I rehearse my lines, waiting for the call that will force me back on the plane. When that flight comes, there won’t be any tender moments, shared words, or happy endings. Only goodbyes. Tonight my daughter falls asleep on my lap, poking her many pointy parts into my many soft parts. She is too old to be doing this, but I am weak. Wasn’t it just yesterday when she fit in the crook of my arm, falling asleep with my milk slipping from her mouth? This family is different. When I am sick, my children will come. And I will let them.