The day after I turned thirty-three, I was standing at the kitchen counter chopping onions for a spinach quiche and listening to the Weepies album I got for my birthday when the phone rang. The song Antarctica was playing and I was crying from the onions but also because I was remembering the trip to Antarctica my father and I took together when I was nineteen. He’d posed next to an iceberg, braced against it as if he were pushing it up the mountain, then hopped on top of it, stuck his finger up his nose, and grinned at me as I snapped his picture.
Now he lay in a hospital thousands of miles away. The ICU nurse hung up on me when I’d called that day asking for information on his condition. No one would tell me anything and I’d been advised not to fly back home and try to see him. Antarctica, my only living relative, Antarctica, I can’t wait anymore. I put down my knife and squeezed my eyes shut tight.
In the instant before the phone rang, I thought my father was standing behind me. “Hey babe,” I heard him whisper. The shrill jolt of the phone sent a shot of dread racing through me, black and heavy. It lodged in my chest and froze. I couldn’t breathe. I heard my husband murmuring into the phone in the other room, heard him say, “when did it happen?” and then I found breath to scream.
The first year I cried everywhere. I cried on the subway, the kind of loud, uncontrollable sobs that shake your whole body as rivers of snot and tears stream down your face and neck. I took my daughter ice skating at Prospect Park and stood by the edge of the lake sobbing while kids guzzled hot chocolate and other parents pretended not to notice me. Every Sunday at church I shuffled up the aisle to light a candle for my father, then made my way back to my pew, put my head down, and wept through the rest of the service. I don’t know what the minister must have thought of me, showing up alone week after week and crying my heart out no matter the subject of his sermon.
The second year is a blur. Dried up tears, flashes of hot rage, a dull ache edged with numbness. Finding words and losing them again, dropping things and bumping into walls.
The third year I decided my father wasn’t really dead. He began to visit me in my dreams almost every night, dreams so vivid I woke up panting, heart racing. I heard him whispering to me, looked for him around corners. I picked up my phone to call him, not understanding why his name was no longer in my contact list. I confided in friends that he wasn’t really dead, that I was going to find him, that I felt close to a breakthrough, and their faces told me how crazy I sounded. I didn’t care. I knew my father was alive somewhere. I wouldn’t believe he was dead until I saw his body, though I knew he had been cremated. I wanted to sift his ashes through my fingers and lick them clean.
I went to see my friend, the Reiki practitioner, who put her hands over my heart in her sage-smudged kitchen. “Your father is here,” she told me. Warmth radiated through me and I cried again, cried like I cried that first year, only I was flooded with joy. Finally, I thought. Finally.
The fourth year my daughter asked me to tell her a story and I told her about a mother who loved her child so much, she turned her into a jellybean and tucked her into her pocket so that nothing could ever happen to her. One day though, the mother got hungry and popped the daughter into her mouth without thinking. She was consumed with grief until she heard her daughter’s voice calling out from deep inside her, and then she was happy, knowing that her child would be part of her forever.
My daughter’s eyes widened with horror and then she laughed, delighted, and begged me to tell her another story.
My father adored e.e. cummings, but I always thought his poetry was pretentious and overwrought. I was embarrassed by my father’s sentimentality. (Gross, Dad.) But this is the truth about my father and me:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go
Dad had a favorite cookie recipe that my mother used to make for him, and she wrote it down for me when I was first learning to bake – can it really be twenty-five years ago? That means I must have made these a hundred times, maybe even more. Now you can make them, too.
Dad’s Favorite Ginger Cookies
- ¾ c. shortening (Dad called for Crisco but I use half Crisco, half butter)
- 1 c. sugar
- ¼ c. molasses (Green Label: Brer Rabbit)
- 1 egg
Cream together until fluffy. Sift together 2 c. all-purpose flour, 2 tsp. baking soda, ¼ tsp. salt, and 1 tsp. each ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. Stir sifted dry ingredients into molasses mixture. Form into small balls, roll in granulated sugar, and place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees 12 minutes or less. (I take them out after 8 minutes and let them sit on the cookie sheet for a few minutes to settle into their crinkly tops but Dad’s recipe doesn’t say to do that.)
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Elizabeth Laura Nelson lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional roaches, and the specter of a long-promised dog. She runs a 9-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to get up and sing at a karaoke bar. Check out her other MsBehaved posts here and here and follow her on Twitter @AnotherAnnie.