Placeholders for a Father [Found During His Mother’s Funeral]
How else to explain those hands? How he sat in the front pew & held
his fingers like lattice, just a little too neat, something so sudden and secret
about that arrangement of arms and legs, about a body that had pulled my body
forth from nothing, or maybe—assuming there is a god and religion
really does mean return—from wherever it is god hides us before
we enter the here of this place. He was noticeable in his stillness: imagine
the father’s arm lifted, the space of his hand a cradle supporting
our cordless phone—as it does every December when he calls
to tell me Rudolph is on PBS. Where do we say we are from
once our parents have died? I save their voicemails. Almost
out of storage, I delete photos and apps so I can keep saving
their sound waves—year after year on record, all the echo aging makes
stored on some unseen bit of plastic machinery like a personal
cyber-audio scrapbook. My father has always loved history books.
Sitting with him at the kitchen table after dinner, I learned
how to draw the letters that made my name—Historians—he said—
are the memory of the world. He pressed my fingers to the pencil,
made his hand a cast so mine would have a mold in which to fit—
told me—They are responsible for writing it all down. Before the service
we walked up to the body single file. We covered her hands
and kissed her forehead, but we moved no part of her—this woman—
the loss of whom I would never really feel. For a long time I could
have said—No one I’ve known has died, but then I watched as two boys
I’d grown up with became fatherless—both dads dead by the time
we took the SATs, both having gotten the cancer, and both having lived
a few months longer than expected. After, I used to stare at their profiles
in Biology, wait for echoes, shades. Then we grew up and went to school,
and Eli became a doctor while Paul went crazy—lost his mind in that way
where you don’t come back. These days, if I think of the human body as a house,
it is almost possible to understand how no one might be home, how everything
has to be held in place by something outside of itself. Other things happened
the year my brother and I drove into a tree (hydroplane—the sound begat
by water & tire). For months before she went to sleep and woke up
without breasts, my mother drove herself to the hospital and laid
shirtless on a metal table under an invisible curtain of radiation.
I don’t know how many times or for how long. They were trying
to kill that part of her that didn’t know it was killing itself. My father
was never there. When I was older, she showed me the skin where doctors
had marked these inside parts—left behind a series of small, black targets.
How to admit it? That the human body can be our greatest humiliation—
and knowing this, how, then, are we to allow someone else an entrance?
When I imagine being a parent, I think of skin grafts—my mother
ordering a surgeon to take from her whatever my legs needed. I think
of my father carrying me up the stairs when I was too sleepy to walk
and I know that I do not understand what grief or sadness feels like.
Samantha Deal is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Quarterly West, Hunger Mountain, Word Riot, The Journal, The Boiler, Sonora Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Rattle, Ninth Letter Online, Mississippi Review, and other publications. She is the recipient of the 2016 Writers at Work creative nonfiction fellowship, and her first manuscript has been a finalist for the Cider Press Review Editors’ Prize for Poetry, the Zone 3 First Book Award, the 2015 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, and the OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Prize, among others. Samantha received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and is a PhD candidate at Western Michigan University, where she teaches creative writing and serves as an editor for Third Coast. You can find out more, here: samanthaldeal.com.