Some mornings, a few minutes after 6, I’d hear his first footfall on the stairs. He’d go up them two at a time: a metatarsal thud, a hardwood creak and then the faintest snick as the balls of his bare feet unstuck from each step and rose toward the next. He’d reach the carpeted landing, and the creak would repeat, not from wood but from bone. His runner’s ankles would click and pop, like radio static, all the way down the hallway until he’d pause in my doorway, a father in frame.
The world was big those mornings, and my feet reached only halfway down my twin bed. The wall was far away, the ceiling even farther, and my father filled the doorway, in a T-shirt and running shorts, and offered a softly sung good morning. A sixth up and a third down. And then he kept walking, kept clicking and popping, on to my brother’s room.
The walls of the hallway were smooth and soft brown — chocolate milk.
I lost him in the morning. Two and a half years ago, my mother got out of bed and used the bathroom. She washed her hands, walked back into the bedroom and noticed that his back looked different: white on top and purple on the bottom. He was on his side, facing the window, knees bent, hands clasped gently at his chin. He was 51. I was 19. It was Monday, Aug. 10, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
He died in his sleep. He died in my sleep. In my mother’s sleep. Sometimes I wonder if he knew — if he let out a small grunt, if he gave a faint twitch, if he noticed his dream uncurl — or if it all just slipped away, all at once, everything, nothing.
My mother took me by the hand that morning and pulled me into their room, where an hour ago she’d wrapped him in the blanket and dragged him off the bed — slowly, gingerly, careful to keep his head from hitting the floor — so she could attempt chest compressions. He had let her practice on him when they were in medical school; he told her how uncomfortable it was to have someone else’s air blown into him. But that morning she pushed and pushed on his chest, then tried to pull his jaw open to blow the air back into him.
Now the police officer and medical examiner hovered outside the door while I sat cross-legged next to his head, peering down at his face — big, still, inverted. He seemed to be a toppled statue, and yet I could see the blond fuzz on his cheeks, the dotted pores on the bridge of his nose, the eyebrows above it all, like cirrus. His right eye hovered partly open, revealing a glimmer of blue beneath, and I went to pinch it shut, brushing his cheek, cool and rough with stubble. He looked so heavy, stretched out there across the hardwood, my leaden father, and I knew it was no use to look at him, not anymore, not now. But the moment dragged on, a little lifetime of sitting by him, his head near my hands and his feet far, far away.
I stepped out onto the back porch to call my brother. I was in my underwear, a pair of black boxer briefs, and I sat in a rocking chair, the lukewarm wood pressed against my skinny thighs. As I tapped Matthew’s name I noticed my finger tremble next to the screen.
When I told him, I heard the air rush from his lungs, an elongated no. He was hundreds of miles away, in Chapel Hill, and I offered nothing tangible: We’re still figuring things out, still piecing it all together, still guessing at the cause of death. I’ll call you back soon. Then I hung up. Matthew’s no caught in the breeze, floated somewhere between us, and I cried until the porch seemed to shake.
The next morning I woke up three times. I’d slept in my parents’ bed so that my mother wouldn’t have to be alone, and I awoke in it the first time to the sound of her crying. She did it softly, delicately, but her irregular breaths woke me up all the same. I lay there, listening to her gasp and sniff, her muted sobs shaking the bed. Afraid of consoling her, afraid of embarrassing her, I let myself shrink into the sheets.
I awoke the second time, and she was shaking me. I turned over, blinking through the morning light. Her face was pale, her eyes red.
“I thought you might be dead,” she said gently.
The third time I was alone. The sun shone in, irreverently bright, and I stared out the window at the narrow pine trees and the marsh grass, the sky-blue sky and the tea-brown water. This was the first morning I’d get the feeling: the feeling that he was dying again, that we’d just lost him, that everything was brand new, raw and pale. The feeling would last for months, would stretch through the fall and into the winter, would stream in with the sunlight, red before I even opened my eyelids.
And now it’s gone. The sense of urgency, the feeling that we just lost him. Every morning I start to fear that I’ve forgotten something else, forgotten even what “grief” means to me. I’m here, sifting through pictures of him, a whowwle folder called, simply, “Dad,” hoping to find that feeling again: of fear, of longing, of outright denial, just anything to bring him closer. I pick a photograph and try: I try to think about him, about his face, about it moving, and I try to build him up, feet first, then ankles, then skinny legs, looking down at my own for reference. The image slips away, feels stupid. I go to the next photograph and try again, and again, until there are no pictures left. Just my own feet. My own ankles. My own skinny legs, a foot away, and him, nowhere, in an urn in my mother’s room. Every morning I know I’m a day further, a day closer to three years, 10 years, a lifetime without my father.
After he’d sing his soft good morning to Matthew, he’d walk back down the hallway, creaking and popping, and down the steps, two at a time. He’d set out bowls for breakfast, then napkins, then spoons; he’d pour everyone’s cereal, slice a peach or an apple or a banana, and place a sliver on each napkin. Then the door would open, a fuff of air through the house, a beep-beep from the alarm — and he would be gone.