Documents of life
I could never forgive him for leaving us. There was nothing he could possibly say to change my mind.
Contains some swearing.
I don’t remember much about my dad, but what I do remember was that, no matter what, he always had some sort of work to do. He’d be on the phone or locked in his office or rushing out the door, papers under his arm and a kiss on the cheek for mum. Ruffled hair for me, when he remembered I existed. Sometimes I wonder if I had seen the signs, but of course kids are pretty oblivious to that sort of stuff. Not that being an adult helped me spot the signs of cancer etching their lines across my mum’s face and clawing at her insides. So who knows? Maybe I was just born oblivious.
It was harder than I expected, coming back. Of course, I’d been back since... well, just since. Since the first thing. But it seemed that, without my mum somewhere in the world propping it up, the house was just a flimsy cardboard facade. Thin, hiding nothingness. I half expected it to fall over when I touched the door handle, but it was cold and solid under my hand. Sucked all the warmth from me.
I couldn’t think of it as my house. It was always mum’s house, or our house. Never mine alone. Too big, too empty for one person, although I’d left mum alone to rattle around inside as her lungs rattled in her chest and her skin sagged on her bones. But she had always been bigger than life, huge and warm and encompassing everything and everyone. The beige carpet crunched a little under my feet as I stepped inside, and I still half expected mum to poke her head around the door to the living room. Or I might hear her voice from somewhere upstairs, or out in the garden. But of course, as big as mum had been, Death had been bigger still, and now it was my turn to rattle through the house.
I rattled slowly. Like a funeral march, or maybe a stunned housefly, I drifted from one room to another, barely seeing anything. Pictures on the mantle smiled at me, illuminated by watery sunlight through the windows, and I turned all the ones showing him face down. I hated how mum had kept them there, but I’d never tried to remove them. I guessed I could now. I could toss them in the bin, crack the glass with a hammer, throw them onto a fire and watch the memories of him spiral up into sky, black and acrid. Part of me wanted to. Part of me remembered how his hugs had felt, what his cologne smelled like. Pain from scraped knees and stupid boys at school, broken hearts and skinned elbows all tucked away by kisses and hugs and then stewed into bubbling anger when he left and took the bulwarks holding back the hurt with him.
Part of me remembered how mum looked at those photos, so I left them.
Memories dogged my footsteps, curling like unseen mist to creep into my mind. Everywhere had something. First cake I baked by myself in the kitchen - and the scorch mark it left on the table. Height markers scratched into the back door frame. Mum kneeling in the veggie patch smiling. She’d be lost in the wild tangle of greenery now. Mum shrieking with laughter as dad turned the hose on her, and a sudden spray of rainbow droplets in hot summer air looking just like happiness. Sliding down the stairs on a mattress at six. Tumbling down the stairs - less fun - at sixteen, pissed as a fart and bleary eyed.
Everything had a story. Everything had a place. It all reminded me of mum, or of us together or of my innocence, suddenly all gone in a way I couldn’t name. I wouldn’t have said I was still a child - heck, I had one of my own now - but there was a sudden yawning space inside my chest, something lost, and if I’d had to name it I would have called it my child-ness. The house dwarfed me, crushed me down until I was tiny and small and all alone. No longer a phone call away from my mum, or a car ride or a plane trip.
I had to tidy up everything, a life that had supported me and loved me, and I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream and yell and get someone else to do it for me. I wondered if they had bothered to tell him what had happened, and I hoped it had scooped his filthy, blackened heart out of his chest and left him gasping on the floor. But for all my mum had a misty-eyed view of him, I knew it wouldn’t have. Cheaters never prosper, and I hoped he’d fucking drowned.
For all that it was selfish and my mum would have been disappointed in me for it, the burning anger gave me a place to start. I remembered helping my mum pack away things into boxes, her face stony and her eyes staring somewhere distant. Where she had been cold I had been furious - tossing things in willy-nilly, and then leaving her to sort them out. He was gone, she had said, and that word had echoed in my head round and round and round until it was screaming like a cyclone and it was all I could think of.
It had echoed in every step up the ladder to the attic, burdened with boxes and memories and seething, wriggling hate and desperate yearning. Maybe she was wrong. Haha, all a big joke! But I knew, even then. I think I had always known. Even when he was here, he wasn’t, and that was just the final straw.
I had shoved the part of me that wanted him back far away, buried it deep. Burned it away, as best I could. And now I could do the same to those last pathetic remnants he had left to burden our lives.
The boxes were smaller than I remembered, and there were less of them. Just a couple of battered old cardboard cartons, covered in dust and falling apart at the seams. All that was left, of a man who had sung me to sleep and missed all my school recitals and taught me to ride a bike and left my mother heartbroken after our last supposed ‘family vacation’. Maybe he’d been with another family, because he sure hadn’t been with us.
I kicked at one of the boxes, watched it split along the creases and spill its guts onto the floor. I wanted to do the same, a nervous, tight feeling in my stomach like the goddamn flu or food poisoning. As if the broken box had contained toxins rather than papers and photos, and they were working themselves into my veins.
My father had always been clutching papers, typing at the computer. ‘Work’. Too important for little kids. Ha!
I grabbed a sheet of paper, shook it towards the dusty window. Now I’d see what sort of work had been so important he’d missed my tenth birthday party.
That date was burned into my mind. Summer sun suddenly hot enough to burn when mum turned on the car, swung us out of the driveway and towards the edge of town. I remembered asking where dad was - were we going to pick him up? We were having a family vacation, going camping - camping! - and it was going to be the three of us for the first time in forever. He had promised.
It felt like the noise of the engine ate my words.
Mum’s face had turned down at the edges, smile lines creasing deeper into familiar folds and I had known. And full of teenage petulance, I had thrown a fit. Slouched around the campsite, refused to help put up the tent. I’d eaten the marshmallows, because I had priorities, but even sickly sweet half-burned sugar hadn’t erased the bitter taste in my mouth. It should have been a glorious two weeks - instead, it was hell.
I scrambled through the papers on the attic floor. Why hadn’t mum mentioned this? Who had been the recipient? Why hadn’t he fought the decision - why had he sacrificed our special time for this?
Dad hadn’t ever gotten angry. They both joked that they had no idea where I’d gotten my temper from, and then like clockwork he would lean forwards, wink, and stage-whisper that I got it from my mum’s mum. Then mum hit him in the face with a broccoli floret and we’d dissolved into laughter.
But I could almost hear his sad, resigned voice in the stupid transcript. And suddenly, decades of anger seemed as stupid as being smacked in the face with a flying vegetable. It was as if something had shifted, leaving not one, but two gaping holes in my life. One for my mum, sitting in my chest where my heart used to be. And one, covered up by a scab of anger and resentment and years of denied longing for approval, now laid bare once more to sit heavy in my stomach.
And it still didn’t make sense. Nothing did. This... it wasn’t work. I hadn’t been a child, they could have told me why he wasn’t coming.
Maybe mum hadn’t known. Dad had always kept himself quiet, pulled in on himself. Never troubled anyone - of course, it looked so suspicious when he just up and left. Just another lying, secretive arsehole tearing a family apart.
But... I stared at the papers. She must have known, at least at some point. She had these papers, it was all here. And why had he left us? It was a goddamn kidney donation, not heart removal, and for all that ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ was a bestseller, people don’t just meet the love of their lives in day surgery. They sure don’t leave their family for them.
Even after all this time, a bit of me still wanted to believe that.
I poked through the slew of papers until I found some more. Two sheets, paper-clipped together. I thought it was a separate hospital admission, but the date caught my eye.
My breath caught in my throat. The paper crinkled as my hands shook, my mind left reeling. Time and distance and the antiquated font made it soft and surreal, something that had happened to someone else. And of course, it had happened to someone else, and just rippled into my life. Gone. I could hear the word again, thundering in my heartbeat. Gone, gone, gone. Everything I thought I knew, that I had deduced with unwavering teenage certainty and cemented with years of carefully cultivated anger.
I couldn’t bear to read the final tattered document. Fingers and time had worn away the edges, left them soft in contrast to the sharp, hard lines of the words blazoned across the paper in dark ink. Death Certificate.
Old words bled and stained my fingers as I cried tears that should have been shed decades ago.
Note: Any and all names of places and people are entirely fictional. The excellent typewriter front was the CarbonType Font available for free commercial use on 1001Fonts.