A Sunday after-brunch.
“I will not concede to that antiquated old fuck!” He was speaking about my uncle.
“He comes in with his wrinkly little nose in the air, barks a few high-pitched orders, and slumps down in that mother-fucking chair!” The words were practically spelled out in the slur of violence. M-o-t-h-e-r-f-u-c-k-i-n-g. My father kicked the chaise-lounge, tearing the leather skin beneath the armrest.
“Am I supposed to jump at that? Forget I have a family? Forget God? Somebody should tell the son of a bitch it’s Sunday!” And at this, having turned a conflicting red for his gleaming white, collared shirt, he walked over to the kitchen counter. Eyes on the pristine marble countertop, his fingers reached to stroke his beard. It was a way of degousing violence from where it festered. This, and the tickle distracted violence. Something like a child.
My mother breathed in for the first time since his storm erupted. She cooled the combustible air with a slow breath, reaching out to calm the disquieted living room. As she stood to join my father in the kitchen, she knelt down and smoothed the flapping leather hide of the abused furniture. Once abused by my uncle, twice by my father. Again a pause. Collected, she stood and walked with hands outstretched. They found their way to his shoulders, cramped and tough.
“Jeffrey, you know better than any of us that your brother has a penchant for richness. It’s…disgusting…but there’s nothing we can do to change it.”
“We can make it clear he’s no longer welcome in our house.” As he said this, his eyes glanced over to the wounded chair. Quickly, they returned to the varnished counter and his pre-occupation with its delicate stone pattern.
Mother gently rested her cheek on his shoulder. He was a hard man, my father. Not in spirit, but in sinew. Whatever the world had played on him, he had tried to shrug it off. But as a human does, after defeats that mount insurmountable, he caved to the temptations of fury. Never before a man of temper, he had recently adopted the habit of yelling – forceful yelling and a physical abuse of inanimate, indefensible objects. The world in these moments was under his command, and served as the well-deserved balance of helpless victimization.
He reached up, my father, and bounced my mother’s hair off his worn fingers. The hair was light, airy, and full of life; his fingers were contrary in every way. Burnt out carriers of many-year blisters, they wore the signs of experience. But whereas in the promise of youth he had been told experience was a gift, it now seemed a curse. The wearing down of time had been experience for him, and it was the only relentless companion he had. Friends came and went. Family failed him and succeeded him. But experience was the unliving, undead that doctors cannot understand; the bane of science and every conceivable logic.
“I should go out again. There’s too much I’m missing, staying here. Something out there is calling me. I don’t know what, but I feel it. Every night, when I try a prayer, it turns into complaining. Then, the pitiful apologies for being what I am not. And slowly, in the few minutes before I lose myself to sleep, I feel a greatness beating inside of me. It couples with my heartbeat, but moves faster. It’s weak, unsure of itself. But it is there. And if I could only feed it, it would grow. Then, I could forget about my heart, forget about sleeping. I would know nothing but this rhythm, the drum beat of greatness inside me. I need to spread it. I need to know what it is.”
She lifted her head and kissed the side of his ear. It tingled and he laughed as he rubbed away the lingering sensation on his shoulder. She smiled at him, running her hands down his crooked back, feeling the impropriety of age and uselessness. To let him go, that would be the best thing. But to let him go, would be the torture she forever ago foresaw. What to do? Exactly nothing. If the urges of his soul were so great they demanded all of him, she could not deny him satisfaction. As long — as long in the long life he had yet to live — that satisfaction rested on the love and happiness of others. Then, assured and devastated, she could let him go.
“Then go,” she whispered, head draped down, eyes wandering along the edge of the cream-white carpet. He took in a deep breath, but less peaceful than hers. He was a hard man. He did not know how to breathe gently. But he might learn.
“What about you? And Emily? She’ll wonder why— what—“ She quickly lifted her head, swirled her hair back over her shoulder, and touched the balding highways on his rounded head. He eased, fell back toward her, and waited. Waited for comfort.
“Emily will know someday. And in between a world of hate, a forever of pain, and inconceivable sadness, she’ll come to pride. When the day is right, she’ll love the father who chose to love more than many than stay by her side and love only two.”
“I hate to think the choice is two or many. I can love all, can’t I?”
She grimaced. Then laughed, underneath a latent breath. “You can love, but can’t be here to share it. Emily will hate you for it— so will I. But we’ll learn. When the head meets the heart, we’ll know. It just takes time. And this is more important than time.”
He was tired of his life. A life of wedlock, fatherhood, and career. It would have been sour if it weren’t for the sweetness of affection that my mother showed him. And in the man built for greater things, what could she do but send that affection with him? Why jeopardize the good things he would accomplish? What was vengeance for but temporary satisfaction and a purgatory of guilt? So she let him go.
And on that Sunday morning, as Emily danced between the backyard sprinklers, my father packed a single gray suit, a lonely tie, a Bible, and the pride of his family. Three pictures, nestled in between the fabric of the suit: mother, father, and daughter. They would never see, never know each other again except in memory. And where memory lives, love lives. So in grace, and rougher than stone, he knelt beside the bed. Crossing himself, soaking in the four walls of that bedroom, he prayed for fulfillment. My mother watched him from the doorway, leaning on the white doorframe, knuckled with golden hinges. She started to cry, but shaped a sudden loss into a wide smile. He rose from the bed, inhaled deeply, and kissed her on her wet lips. She shuttered, leaving all her weight to bear on the whiteness of the wall. He licked his lips, turned his head down. As he reached for the doorknob of the front door, without looking back, he whispered, “I love you.” And it filled the empty white of that old home.