Gingerbread Wind Chimes
When we walked into the unfamiliar building I was confused. I was told we were going to see Mom but I didn’t understand why she was in this unfamiliar place when she could be in her bed at home. My stomach grumbled. I wished Mom was making fried chicken for dinner. Instead, we are in this dreary building going to visit her. It doesn’t help that it’s Christmas Eve. All these cheery decorations don’t belong here. There’s an odd stench that fills the halls. It smells like stinky feet and sadness. We turn the corner and I see her in a bed across the hall. The covers outline the silhouettes of her bony arms. She lies there perfectly still. The only sign of life is her bloated stomach moving up and down.
I want her to wake up. I brought her a Christmas present. The least she could do was wake up and acknowledge that I’m standing here. I gently touch her arm. All I feel is hard bone covered by a thin layer of translucent skin. Her eyelids flutter and she wakes up.
“Hi, honey. I’m so glad you came to visit me. What do you have there?”
“I bought you a Christmas present, Mom. I wrapped it myself.”
“That’s so sweet of you. Thank you.”
Her fingers trace the outline of wrappings and begin to pull the edges apart. Then she falls back asleep. I stare at my dad who just taps her arm again. I see her eyelids move.
“Hi, honey. I’m so glad you came to visit me. What is this?” She motions towards my gift.
“That’s the Christmas present I bought you.”
“That’s so sweet of you. Thank you.”
She manages to tear a piece of wrapping paper off before she falls back asleep. I don’t understand why she’s acting this way. I just want her to open my present. My dad gives her a few minutes before he wakes her up again. No one tells me what’s going on. I guess they think that it’s better this way. That if I don’t know what really happening then I don’t have to feel the pain.
“Hi, honey. I’m so glad you came to visit me. What is this?”
“Mom, I already told you, I bought you that as a Christmas gift and wrapped it myself.”
“Oh, dear. Well, thanks honey.”
We repeat this conversation three more times before she finally gets my present unwrapped. I bought her a gingerbread wind chime from the local convenience store. There wasn’t much to choose from. I try to jump on her bed and chat with her like we used to do but she immediately fell back asleep and my dad ushered me out of her room.
I turn to my brother, Scott, and look him straight in the face.
“I never want to come visit her again.”
That would be the last time I ever saw her alive. Almost lifeless in a hospital bed, all of her strength sucked out of her like a vacuum picking up useless specks of dust. I have never regretted anything more than those eight words.
Summer days in 1973 were hot and sticky. My paper thin t-shirt melted into my skin as I sat in front of a box fan trying to stop sweating. The large windows in our old farmhouse gave the sun an all-access pass to allow the heat inside. I sat in the middle on my living room floor with all 23 of my Matchbox cars lined up in a giant S formation.
The line started with a faded red fire engine carefully placed on the top of the couch. Two inches behind it was an emerald pickup truck. The placing of each individual car took my mind off my nagging brothers. I relished this time alone. Living in small house with four other siblings didn’t allow for much privacy.
Once I got them all lined up and placed meticulously throughout the living room, I began moving them all forward two inches at a time. I would carefully pick up each and every motor vehicle and inspect it before I placed it back down. I would continue this routine for hours on end until my dad yelled at me to pick them up because he accidentally stepped on one. Matchbox cars represented a simpler time.
Precious, The Dead Dog
I didn’t feel much after my mom died. I mean, I was only 10, so the memories I do have of her are often faded by time. I remember that even though she was very ill I always saw her as nothing less than beautiful. I remember that she told me I made the best iced tea that she had ever tasted. I remember the thick scent of fried chicken that wafted through the house whenever she cooked “special meals.” I also remember when my dad died three short years later.
My childhood dog had died a week earlier so I was picking out pictures for her funeral when Uncle Bob came barreling into the house.
“Dad’s not home, he went to see Janice in Nebraska City.”
“Have you not heard?”
Immediately I knew that the news wasn’t going to be positive.
“No, what happened?”
“Your dad is dead.”
It’s odd how by themselves all four of those words mean something completely different, yet when strung together like that they have the ability to alter your entire world. I didn’t cry in front of Uncle Bob. I held it all in until I was alone. I didn’t talk to anyone about him. I thought that if I didn’t talk about him then the memories that we shared wouldn’t be contaminated. The worst part was the loneliness. I felt completely and utterly alone. It was like I was standing alone in the desert and dry sand dunes were my only comfort.
It felt like I had been stripped of my last security net and then shoved into the real world. Soon after my dad died, my life resembled the plot of Cinderella, only a fairy godmother never showed up to turn me into a prince. Instead, I became an orphan stuck with most of the household grunt work. Considering that I was the youngest, my eldest brother, Leonard, saw this arrangement as a fair compromise. Since he was older, he felt it was only fair to take over as the head of the household, which in turn allowed him to tell me exactly what do without any consequences. Instead of coming together and growing from dad’s death, the seed of resentment began to blossom instead. It spurted and grew with every waking second of living under “his” roof. The seed burrowed its way into my heart and hatred grew where love was supposed to be found. I resented him. I resented the other kids at my school who had parents. My feelings were trying to claw their way out. I refused to let them.
I’m 52 years old now. I live in a quaint house on the south side of Lincoln, Nebraska. I’m a father. I’ve raised two beautiful, independent children who I’m immensely proud of. I was fortunate enough to marry the love of my life who has shown me that my past doesn’t dictate me future. I would never wish my childhood upon anyone, but the events that I’ve lived through shaped the father and the husband that I am today. Based on that fact alone, I wouldn’t change my previous experiences for the world.
I shuffled through the storage closet looking for my journals I kept when I was 13 years old. When I pulled them out the dusty cardboard box a wave of nostalgia rushed over me. I opened the first page. It was dated the day after my dad died. The passages were short and my handwriting was difficult to read. Almost every entry started with the same line. “I miss him.” Good to see some things never change.