My father is awake at 5 am. He makes coffee in a brass pot in the kitchen, pours it into a porcelain mug, and drinks it black. He walks slowly to the garage in his socks, lights up a Pall Mall menthol, and looks at his tool bench. He goes to work for ten hours under a sweltering sun trimming hedges, mowing lawns, and building patios. His hands are calloused from years of hard work. He uses them to pull a Rolling Rock bottle from his lunch pail while sitting under the shade of a sycamore towering over a manmade pond. He pours the cold beer down his throat. A sigh from deep inside comes out; he smiles briefly, eyes squinting against afternoon sun.
My sister is on a small wooden stool in dead of night. She feels a burning behind her eyes. She hears voices, all whispering inside her head. Clasping a chair, she slowly rocks herself; a self-soothing technique to quell the numbness in her bones. Red curtains ruffle on single window as a breeze rolls in and eddies off her back. She is sitting in silence, the only noise a fly in the top left corner of the room, smashing its tiny body into glass over and over. She is tired, depressed, delusional, and alone. She is 15 years old and her whole world has slid sideways. Schizoaffective disorder. That was the name a bald man with small horn rimmed glasses, who always looked dressed for brunch, gave for all of her symptoms. My diagnosis was more along the lines of: Fucking shattered.
My father stood in front of a small television in the kitchen with his arms folded. His lime green work shirt was covered in dirt. He stared blankly at the TV set, his head slightly bowed and eyes glossed over. His body was catatonic, seemingly lost in thought and longing for another place or time. The sound of my voice from across the linoleum startled him – “Hey, Dad?” – he turned to me. His brow was furrowed, mouth agape, and he appeared to be catching his breath. He glanced past me at first, and then met my eyes. I could see him forming words behind his teeth but he controlled his silence. We stood there for a few seconds just looking at one another while the wind rustled a small oak sapling next to the window and there was a faint tapping that sounded like a light rain. Finally, he sighed, took a slow sip of his beer and said “Hey kiddo, go get Boomer.” A small smile pulled on the corners of his mouth for just an instant. And it’s gone. I look over his left shoulder into the TV screen. I see a silver plane. I see two buildings. I see fire. My mother told me about an hour later about the World Trade Center attacks. I was outside with my father the whole time throwing a stick for the dog. He didn’t say a word.
My sister’s illness grew as I entered my freshman year of high school- and with it the complexity of our family. The silent spaces in our lives begin to overlap. We talk a whole lot about absolutely nothing. My mother spends every day splitting infinity in half. She brings me to school, picks me up, cleans the house, goes to work, prepares dinner, brings my sister to therapy, pays bills, goes to the store, wipes my nose, cleans the house again, and collapses on the couch late at night.
My father comes home from work. He drinks a 12 pack of beer, he barely speaks. He clunks up the stairs, pulls off his dirty clothes, leaves them in a pile next to the bed, and closes his eyes tight.
I was chopping wood in dusk of October, the sun just above a thin cut of cloud on yellow horizon. I lifted an axe high above my head, the rough wooden handle sliding through my palms as I brought it down on an oak log. A knot in the wood stops my axe head cold. I remembered what my father told me about knots-
“Gotta’ go with the grain” he would say.
He gave practical advice. He could tell you how to fix anything. I guess machines made sense to him. He knew how to fix things, not people.
I stacked the logs in four neat rows and wiped the dirt from my pants. I look to my left and see empty Natural Ice cans. Black ants were sucking sugar from the aluminum opening. I studied the ants closely. Then resting on propped up axe, my arm buckled. I lost focus in the corners of my vision, felt the blood rush from my fingers, my chest squeezed tight, loss of breath, dull ringing in my ears. I looked up at silver limbs of maple tree in twilight lathering in cool mountain wind. I dropped the axe in dried brown leaves, and sat down on a wheel barrow. It was serene, like watching a firework shoot off into starry night, quiet light trailing before the boom. A sudden feeling of rage welled in my chest. I exhaled sharply, my nostrils flared, the taste of nickels in my mouth from a bit tongue. I took a few deep breaths and felt the blood in my head drip back down to my toes. On autopilot, I picked up the axe and swung it with all I had into a live tree. It stuck in place about five feet up. I pounded my fist into my own hand till it was pink. I cleared my throat. I wiped my nose. I walked inside.
I am riding in the back seat of a Jeep Cherokee. My father is at the wheel and my sister next to him. He turns down the radio, and wicks the sweat from the top of his forehead. He looks at both of us and I’m met with a glimmer I have never seen in the corner of his eye. He clears his throat. With his eyes back on the road and two hands clutching the wheel he says “I know I’ve been distant from you guys these past few years…” -He pauses to sniffle-“And I was drinking too much. I wasn’t there for you guys and I’m sorry. To be honest, I think I was trying to ignore it, all of it, I… I’m sorry, I’m not gonna’ ignore it anymore.” I looked up and caught my father’s eyes in the mirror. A tear dripped down his cheek.
My father and I sat in a small wooden hut built from scrap wood. The hut rests in between two felled trees covered in green moss. He was sitting on a small fold-out beach chair. Binoculars were on his lap and a thick black string around his neck. It is seven thirty in the morning. Boomer is at my feet, fur rising from his stomach and a pink wet tongue hanging from his mouth. The air is still, no rustle of leaves on overhanging trees. My father looks over at me in a soft but excited way. His eyes then meaty finger point out of the hut. I hear in my head an excited whisper from my father’s lips – “See that one over there, on the pine branch?” I peer through a small slit in the wall designed for hunting. On a far Birchwood there is a red chested bird turning its head from side to side, ruffling its feathers, a quick chirp from its brown beak. The branch dipping then snapping up as the bird flew away into thin pink dawn.
During these trips to the woods, my father’s silence took on a different form. It was not the silence of a man who couldn’t bring himself to speak. It was the silence of a man who did not need to speak. On those mornings in the woods of New England, my father put a certain face on. His lips would purse together in tranquil concentration. He would step carefully, the steel toed Timberland boots beneath his faded Carharrt jeans never so much as snapping a twig. He would listen to the forest with both ears and a smile on his sun soaked cheeks. It was one of the few times I saw he had the capacity for joy.