This is an excerpt from the first chapter of my 2017 NaNoWriMo novel. It’s a fictional memoir, but nothing in this excerpt is fiction. And this is a rough draft. 🙂
I remember waking slowly, my hips digging uncomfortably into the hard floor. My forehead felt sweaty from the warmth of the room and the waves of heat rolling over me from inside the slippery, polyester sleeping bag twisted around my body. Why was I awake? I breathed in deeply, my eyes opening a little more. Dust and the smell of synthetic carpet fibers filled my nose and that’s when I heard it – the sound of wailing – a miserable low keening that sent chills down my spine. It was the like the mournful cry of an injured animal, but that “animal” was my mother. She half shrieked, half sobbed again. I rolled over and saw she was hunched over, holding the telephone receiver up to her ear with one hand, and grabbing her bawling, shaking body with the other, as if that could hold her together.
My father was dead.
My heart knew the truth of it long before the words ever reached my ears. He had been on the road from California and planning to meet us in Arizona for the weekend. He should have arrived long before we went to bed that night, but we settled in anyway, knowing any number of things could have delayed his arrival. It was 1989, decades before the constant connection of the cell phone. We’d had no way to reach him, so we just waited. Now I knew why he was late. No, not late; he wouldn’t be strolling in later with apologies and explanations. He was gone, forever, and just like that my world shattered into a million pieces. He was my foundation, the parent I was close to, the one who held me on his lap and “mooched my ears off” with kisses and a scratchy five-o-clock shadow. My mind was spinning, but all I could hear was my mother’s continued sobbing, ringing mournfully in my ears.
Eventually she called my little brother and me into my older sister’s bedroom. We were staying at my sister’s apartment – visiting with her family and looking for housing of our own for a future move – a move that now seemed very uncertain, even to my immature 10-year-old sensibility. She closed the door gently behind her, slowly turned toward us, and struggled to compose her face into something pleasant. The effect, however, of her puffy, red-rimmed eyes and tear streaked face, combined with her immense grief, contorted her features into something grotesque; a flesh mask of horror and pain with an overlay of spurious happiness. I shuddered involuntarily, willing myself to stay rooted to my tiny spot on the bed, waiting to hear the words I knew were coming. She didn’t know that I already knew, or maybe she suspected I had heard, but it wouldn’t be true until she said the words. My brain kept throwing out frantic scenarios that might mean my father was still alive. Maybe it was just a bad accident. Maybe it was another heart attack. Maybe this was just a nightmare. I pinched my arm. I wasn’t sure if that was even a thing I should do. Can’t you pinch yourself in a dream, I wondered? Beside me, my younger brother who was only 7 years old, yawned and looked confused. I wanted to shielf him from what was coming. I moved protectively closer to him on the bed and put my arm around him.
My mom sat down next to my brother. She looked at us with pleading eyes. “Your father has gone home to be with Jesus,” she said, tears choking out the words of this simple, but life-changing sentence. She clutched at us wildly, pulling us into a fierce, panicked hug. She began sobbing again, and this time, our cries mingled with hers. A pack of wounded animals now, howling our pain and grief long into the night.
The next morning was my niece’s fifth birthday. The planned festivities for the day included a party at Chuck E. Cheese and coming to grips with the fact that I was unmoored; a little girl lost. The feeling I had of spiraling out-of-control was partially due to the frantic running I was doing – from game to game and ride to ride – and partially from the constant repeated reminders of my father’s death. It was surreal. I would laugh and play and forget, for minutes at a time, that my life had suddenly blown up. Then I would catch my sister whisper to a party guest in hushed, solemn tones that our father had died last night. Or I would catch a glimpse of my face in a mirror, and see my own mask of stretched, false happiness, exactly like the image in the funhouse mirrors of my nightmares. My child brain couldn’t hold onto my grief in the midst of this noisy, jubilant birthday party. My sadness kept slipping through my fingers, like an ephemeral substance. Every time I found myself experiencing a moment of happiness, I felt wracked with guilt because it was a relief to think about something else, to be a care-free child even for just a few hours. Yet those moments of grief-amnesia felt like a betrayal. Why couldn’t I stay properly sad? What was wrong with me? MY FATHER WAS DEAD… but there was also pizza and cake, and children’s brains are surprisingly good at compartmentalizing. It would be just a matter of time when the reality of his death would be something I couldn’t escape, no matter how much I tried. It would eventually brand me, etching my soul permanently as a fatherless girl, a fatherless woman.