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The Man I Never Knew
He laid with his hands folded neatly over his chest, his torso angled to face away. His eyes pointed downward; his neck was sinking into his protruding collarbone. His face contained small wrinkles, and the corners of his lips edged closer to his chin. His skin was cracked, as if the bitter frost had seeped into him over and over and over again. His chest was unmoving on soft white bed. His head was smooth and contained not a single hair, for the monster in his brain had pushed it all off, and it was from this cancer that he had died.
I barely knew my father. I knew he was a huge workaholic, and thrived off of his job as a banker. I knew he was practically indestructible, and one of the few Vietnam War veterans that didn’t come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. I knew that, on the few occasions that he was home for dinner, he was too worn out to congratulate me on that test I aced or my great goal in my soccer game. When I proudly announced to him that I had gotten accepted to Harvard College, his only response was a stern “Solid.”
I wasn’t sure if I had ever even hugged him.
Alice wrapped her arm around me in sympathy. “It’s okay, Karen.”
I wondered what his life had been like as a child- was he worked endlessly? Did the shovel he dug with all day chip away pieces of his soul or harden the stern look in his face? Did he hate me for not being a boy? Could I ever have satisfied his silent demands for the perfect child?
He just laid there, his body still. And for all I knew, it always had been. Maybe he was always a statue, who had no inner thoughts or feelings or hopes. I wasn’t even sure what to feel. Part of me felt like sinking into the ground, or staring blankly at whatever was in front of me. Part of me was dizzy. Part of me wanted to crash and burn in a well of tears, sob at the fatherly guidance I never had, the love I never had to lose.
Part of me wanted to walk away.
“Karen, I think we’d better go. He wouldn’t want you to be like this.”
I took slow, deep breaths, in and out again. My eyes held no emotion. No tears. I remembered once, about fifteen years ago, we took a family trip to the beach one hot July day. Me, my mother, my brother Mark, and my father. Mark was off in the ocean as soon as we arrived, but I preferred to build a big sandcastle, for all to see and admire, although I’m not sure why. It took an hour and a half, but finally I perfected my masterpiece, complete with seashells and a surrounding pool of water from the ocean. The other kids stared in awe, exchanging whispers that I knew had to be of astonishment.
“Dad, look what I made!”
My father peeked up from his New York Times and tipped his tinted sunglasses. “You make that?”
“Yup! All by myself!”
“Good for you. Go play with Mark in the ocean. I need to rest my eyes.”
To me, that was a compliment. The first one I’d ever received from my father. And for a moment, I stood there, as I stand here now, not quite sure how to feel. I didn’t know whether to leap through the warm air, spin in circles amidst the vast grains of sand wedged between my toes… or just move on. Wasn’t it supposed to be like this? A normal part of a happy family? Why is this something so special?
Maybe there was something there. Maybe it was invisible, maybe it was cracked at its foundation, maybe it was barely hanging on, but maybe it was there.
A string of attachment, pulling us together like a magnet, however far apart.
Something caught the corner of my eye before I could answer Alice. The buttoned pocket in the left upper corner of his white collared shirt did not lay as still and flat as the rest of him. There seemed to be something inside.
I brought my shaking fingers closer to the button before placing them on it. Was I going to open it? Could I? I pulled back before I could work up the courage.
“Something in there?”
Alice didn’t’ wait for an answer. She fearlessly pulled open the button, and reached inside. Her brows furrowed in confusion.
“It’s just a piece of paper. You want it?”
I shrugged, and she placed it in my unwilling palm.
“Aren’t you going to look at it?”
By now, sweat was dripping from my forehead and my arms couldn’t remain still. I spread out the folded paper and closed my eyes, terrified of what to expect.
“What are you so afraid of, Karen?”
For no other reason than to make Alice think I wasn’t crazy, I forced my eyes open- and I had no choice but to gasp at the faded image that seeped into my mind.
Inside his pocket was a picture of my castle.