In college, a boy with curly hair said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said as I slurped my breakfast yogurt. He was doing a study on paternal occupation and offspring height.
“What does your father do for a living?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“No really,” he said.
“No really,” I said. “He’s a homeless alcoholic veteran.”
“Oh,” he said and stared at me. Neither one of us could find a word. This was not the information he was seeking.
“I’m taller than he was if that helps your study,” I said almost whispering to his back.
My father was a ghost of childhood, like God or Santa Claus. He was a being I knew of but didn’t know – a main character in my life story but not my daily life.
He was the name printed in the “W” section of the obituaries which I used to search for, running my index finger over letters where I might find him but never did. He was an overcast day, a headache stirring in the temples, the nameless throb of a rarely used muscle.
He was the slope of my nose, angled and long, the steady bones of my cheeky face. He was the answer that never came. He was the itch too far down the back to scratch. He is the insect swallowed, wings flapping at the throat, intact and struggling for breath. He was the question I never got to ask.
Once you were a teenager, dog tagged and in uniform. Christ, you were a soldier. You were even brave. You were fresh and clean when writing letters from Vietnam where you lived, folded, scared and interesting. That was the only time you knew how to reach us. When you were serving we got to be on your receiving end. You asked about us in your letters to my Nana which I still have. Your ink, on that paper, is the only proof I have that you ever knew who I was to you.
How far did that letter travel more than four decades ago?
I used to dream him sober.
He was a deadbeat Dad with a tab he never settled with my mother. Some debts are never paid or forgiven.
“Oh Honey,” my Nana said, “He doesn’t have two dimes to rub together,” when I was college age and complaining about filling out financial aid forms. I was irritated that there was no room on one-inch lines to explain his contribution to my college education.
His absence is my inheritance. There is no way to soothe the phantom limb of grief. We have no relationship outside the science of biology that makes me a daughter belonging to a Daddy. He is the spray of my genetic graffiti.
I envisioned him at funerals where I would kneel beside his casket and keep him company. Even in my imagination silence is what we shared.
I was a girl on a dock once who didn’t know how to swim. I was shivering as it got dark. I peered into dark waters and had to decide if it was riskier to dive into the water or wait for rescue.
Now I am a woman of middle age. I’ve dreamed he is dead. If living, he is shredded, drifting, dirty newspaper humping curbs and corners of empty streets.
Dead or alive, he is grieved. Dead or alive is little matter to me. Either way, I pray the wind is kind and he is lifted, lifted.
I hope he had days when he was soothed, warm and fed.
I did. I do. I swim.
*This is a revised piece of poetry started years ago and turned to prose.