Finding Pieces of You

April 10th, 2018

My father died 20 years ago. My sister (and fellow journalist) Andrea Alonso wrote a piece about the ways we hold onto him in our memories. Together we crafted her written work into a radio essay.

Death is just the scapegoat.

Time is the real killer.

The day after my dad died, I could still hear his laugh, his funny Cuban accent. I could still see the way he moved his hands when he was thinking.

But 5 years, 10, 20 years later… it’s not as easy. Time finishes off what death couldn’t. We try to hold onto it, but the harder we squeeze the more it slips through our fingers.

These memories can feel as ephemeral as water cupped in your hand.

Psychologists say when you lose your arm it takes just 60 days for your body to realize it doesn’t have that arm anymore– what they call the phantom limb syndrome. The body processes and disregards. Pretty much the opposite of what you want to happen when someone close dies. Just 60 days… what happens when decades pass?

Today is the 20 year anniversary of my father’s death– a car accident. We had breakfast on Saturday morning, by that afternoon he was gone. 

I can picture my dad sitting, one ankle resting solidly on the opposite knee, his left hand bringing a thick cigar to and from his lips rhythmically. His favorite songs play on the stereo behind him.

As the years pass he never seems to be as concrete anymore. Sometimes I picture him at our old kitchen table or on our back porch, the creaking chair moving back and forth, high-pitch, low-pitch, high-pitch, low-pitch. The best is when he sits in our living room, the apricot-tinged leather chair molding to fit his body as he taps a cigar on the thick glass ashtray nearby—the ashtray that never moved, even long after he was gone and it no longer served a practical purpose anymore.

He’s there. Sometimes it’s a faint. And sometimes it’s just a blind feeling.

I hold onto these snapshot memories, some faded, others sharpened through invented projections. Twenty years later I struggle to find pieces of my father in the lines and the notes of each day. But when I do they are reminders of his existence, an existence that defies the absence brought upon by death.

I’m four. It’s 8 PM and we are sitting down for dinner. My mom insists we wait for dad to come home before we eat each night. This time he stops for Chinese food on the way home. I can’t read yet so when he opens my fortune cookie he tells me it says “Andrea es la niña más bella del mundo,” … “Andrea is the most beautiful girl in the world.” I know he’s pretending, but I pretend to believe him.

In the next memory it’s late at night, well past my bedtime. I’m five. My dad is lying face up on the floor, his feet lift me up into the air transforming me into a miniature airplane. My mom shakes her head, smiling.

“You need to go to bed,” she says.

“But I’m flying!” I yell back.

It’s two days later, February 7, 1998. I’m still five. And my mom brings me to the doorway of his hospital room. I look at him, motionless, underneath impeccably white sheets, shrouded with machinery. Mom tells me to speak to him, to give him a kiss goodbye.

But an oxygen mask has turned him into a robot. A stranger. I don’t speak. I give an emotionless kiss on the cheek. His skin is cold and rough and foreign. I hate how quiet it is, I hate how dark the room is, I hate that my mom is watching, I hate being here, but mostly, I hate that I understand what is happening, yet I can’t understand how to act. This is the last time I see my dad. And I say nothing.   

If he would have waited three weeks, he would have seen me turn six.

When you’re that young, there’s not a lot of memories to fall back on. So you look for glimpses in the present day.

And once you have a glimpse, it becomes almost impossible to stop searching for more. The problem is cleaving reverie from reality, days spent attaching meaning to the ordinary, wanting the extraordinary.

Six months after the accident, we visited the grave to celebrate his 40th birthday. His name is etched into a granite flat tombstone; my mom says an upright headstone one would have scared us. We write letters and tie them to balloons to let them go into the big blue sky. Mine is red, and I write my dad a letter, eager to show him my newly perfected handwriting. We let the balloons go at the same time, while my mom sings Happy Birthday in Spanish, her voice low and fragile, each note risking a break.

“Send back a picture of heaven,” the letter on my balloon reads.

For the next year, the same dream visits me each night. I stand at the top of a staircase that’s suspended in air. The whole scene is blindingly white, like an overexposed photo. But the dream can best be described by the feeling it provokes, pure weightless ecstasy.

I’m flying again.

My balloon had made it.

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