The Day in Question
I don’t know how your mind works, but inside mine is a courtroom. On the most difficult nights, when sleep fails, attorneys plead their arguments, present their evidence, and rarely, if ever, rest their case. Sometimes I worry that I’ve been too hard on my children and lawyers build cases for and against my reactions to their misdeeds. Sometimes they debate a long-over argument I’ve had with my husband. But mostly, when sleep is elusive and the prosecution is feeling particularly accusatory, it’s because something during the day has reminded me of my father, and the courtroom drama plays out the scene of our last phone call on the fourth of July. When I was young enough to believe everything my parents told me, my dad said that the fireworks that lit up the sky were for me, to officially kick off my birthday celebration. My birthday wasn’t until the seventh, but with the first scream of a bottle rocket in the night’s sky, it was my party. History courses later taught me about the Revolutionary War and our independence from the British, but deep in my heart, right up until my thirty-third fireworks show, I believed it celebrated me. Literature courses taught me that this was called hubris. And hubris, I learned, was often the catalyst that brought down tragic heroes. The last time I saw my father was Father’s Day. I’d brought my kids to meet him at the Italian restaurant we frequented growing up. My youngest was two then and needed to be chased throughout the place, throwing pasta and crayons. She grabbed for the cutlery on the table from her highchair, and when I removed every sharp instrument from within her reach, she shrieked so loudly that every diner stared me down. I don’t remember what we talked about or if we were able to get a word in between the reprimands and our meal. I waved off dessert and gestured for the bill. Cut it short. It was Father’s Day for my husband too, after all. I gave my father a quick air kiss to his cheek as I wrestled kids into car seats in the unseasonably hot, humid air. I climbed into my driver’s seat, and he into his. And then I got out. I walked to his driver’s side door, pulled him out of the car, and hugged him for the last time. I let go too soon. I see that now. The Prosecution calls its first witness. It’s me. I can recount the Fourth of July, almost five years past, with surprising detail. How the weather was picture perfect in the morning, a slight breeze keeping off the sweat of humidity. And how surprised I was that my boy, four years old then, hadn’t woken up with a fever. When we put him to bed on the night of the third, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be sick and our holiday a bust. That was when I’d called my dad. He’d answered on the first ring, like he was waiting for me. “Hey Baby!” he said, happy. He was always happy to hear my voice on the other end of the line. You might think that would have prompted more calls from me, but it didn’t. I told him that since Jacob was sick, we’d be staying in for the Fourth. “Maybe we’ll grill up burgers in the backyard, watch the fireworks from the driveway.” He said yes before I even got the question out. “That would be lovely,” he said, a delicate word from such a solid, masculine man. I could still hear it: “Lovely.” And I felt good, self-satisfied really, to have offered the invitation; to have been the one of us three grown children to call. The invitations coming his way had been dwindling. Clinical depression had made him no pleasure to be around those days. He’d often come unwashed, complaining about aches and pains. He’d given up trying to find a job and had just gotten approved that spring for social security, even though he was only 62. At Easter Sunday at my sister’s that year, a family friend had said to him, “You’ll get more if you wait three years.” I rolled my eyes when he replied, “I won’t live that long.” Someone mimed a violin. I laughed. I wish I hadn’t. July 4, 2009 was a bright, sunny day, made more so by the fact that the illness that had plagued our son the night before had disappeared. Suddenly, the day held infinite possibilities. There was a pool party invitation, a barbecue. I needed to take care of a few technicalities, and then we’d be off. I left to run some errands, like food shopping for a dessert to bring. It was at the car wash that I made the call, killing two birds, so to speak. Dad picked right up again. He was happy again. “Jacob’s feeling better,” I told him. “That’s fantastic!” he said. His enthusiasm is a detail I wish I could forget. “We’re going to head over to our friend’s pool party instead,” I told him. A thought floated past me – invite him? – I chose to brush it off. His voice faltered a bit, but he rallied. “That’s okay,” he said, his voice higher than usual. “I’ll call somebody. I’ll figure something out.” We hung up, and I held my cell phone in my hand. I stared at it for a long time after we’d hung up, hesitating. I thought about calling him back, calling off the party at the pool, disappointing my friends and the kids. But the guy with the towel in his hand called to me in a Spanish accent. He nodded toward my minivan, indicating that it was ready. And though my father’s voice weighed heavily in the pit of my stomach, I drove away. And never heard that voice again. An hour into the party, the sky darkened and clouds rolled in. Rain washed out any fireworks for that night. Water poured down the windows, making designs in their currents. I held the phone in my hand again as I watched them. In my defense, I wanted to call him. But I felt too guilty. I have no defense. I am guilty. The phone call wouldn’t have mattered. I think he was already dead by then, but we knew for sure when we found him on the night of the sixth. My birthday marks the anniversary of the day we made arrangements and chose the spot where we buried him. These holidays are landmarks of my ending relationship with my father, how it all went down. As spring wound itself into summer this year, the fifth since he’s gone, I still carried the heavy burden of regret. On July 4th, we drove down to the ocean on the East End, both kids in tow, for a good old American day of warm beer and sandy chips. We were meeting friends down there, the old kind who knew my dad and understood. They appreciate what’s missing. They know. The air was thick over the parade of traffic heading slowly through the Hampton towns, the fog making it hard to see past just a few cars ahead of us. As we got closer to Montauk, we could hear the crash of the waves on the shore, but the fog obscured the water. The tape of that last conversation in the car wash played in my head on repeat, even as I tried to beat it back with the grooves of Bob Marley and the yells of arguing children. I wanted so badly to rewrite that script, to extend an invite, to change my words, to alter the course of events. But I can’t. Try as I might to conjure happy memories, and there are plenty, the time of celebration between Father’s Day and my birthday brings back that phone call and those feelings, always lingering under the surface, bubbling to the top with every glass of wine or doo-wop song on the radio. But as I drove through the fog that morning, it felt as if the sky was reaching down to greet me, lowering itself to my level just to plant a reassuring pat on the back. Or maybe I can let myself believe it was a hug. And maybe, if I’m really kind to myself, I can believe that the fog was Heaven itself, descending upon me with a verdict of neither innocence nor guilt. But forgiveness.