I know my father’s last meal was steak and potatoes. I know this because we cleaned out his fridge two days after the fact, my sister and my mother and me. We found the plastic-wrapped plate and scraped his leftovers into the trash. Beside his beat-up brown recliner—one of few items he took in the divorce—a half-eaten bag of lemon drops had to be tossed, too.
I know my father died on his bathroom floor. I know this because his landlady said that’s where she found him. She left a note, asking for him to call when he woke up. It wasn’t much of a surprise, because he spent a lot of time alone in the bathroom at home. I can only guess that, under the effects of the drugs, he stared long into the mirror and picked at his face. He probably lost track of time.
I know his death was caused by an overdose of methadone.
I know because the autopsy guy told my mother, who told my sister, who told me.
I don’t know why the landlady didn’t call an ambulance when she found him. I guess I do know why, but it hurts, so sometimes I feign like I can’t understand it.
I don’t know where he got the drugs. What’s strange is how many people pushed for details on his substance use after he died: Did he use heroin? Did he go to a clinic? Was he trying to get clean? As if, in our stunted five-or-so visits per year, my father’s drug habits were a topic of conversation. As if, as a teenager, I wasn’t dying to get away, back to the safety of my boyfriend’s bedroom to watch theSimpsonsand talk about tearing down the system.
“I don’t know,” I said to these people, “I really don’t know.”
At home I sat cross-legged before a mirror and tried to recognize my own face. How much of me was him? My heart performed a trick I learned before I knew what learning was: A valve closed over the ache.
I floated away and studied myself, preparing to tell loved ones, “I am fine.”
I know he drove to Montana at least once to get drugs. I know this because the medical bills showed up at our house a few months later. When the collectors started calling, me and my sister said we hadn’t heard of him. This strategy works, we learned: No one can legally make you pay for a relative you won’t admit existed.
Not long before the funeral, my sister explained that despite his debts, he had been trying. Daylight streamed through the blinds and into her watery eyes. The valve closed tighter.
I don’t know how his addiction began. Someone told me he was caught sniffing glue in his garage at age 5 or 6. His mother—my grandmother—thought that’s when the “addiction switch” was flipped.
I picture him then, so young: A vicious hunger stirred, and then it was over. Could it be that simple? A button clicks and our demons take hold? I wondered when this would happen to me.
I know my father liked orange sherbet, brown labradors, mallard ducks, and Tolkien. I know this because I have to know it. It’s essential that, from my memories of him, I can conjure up more than sickness.
When I was 10, my sister and father and I stood on the deck and gazed at the night sky using his surveyor’s equipment. I’d just learned the word gaseous in school. “That’s what Jupiter is,” I said, “a gaseous planet.” There was a pause, and with his gravelly voice—the frog in his throat, he used to call it—he told me I was a smart kid.
Deep Space Nine, telescopes, camping: I associate him with stars and trees and wildness. I allow the sickness to be overridden by pure, mysterious things, and in a way, I make it true.
I don’t know what he thought about God or what dreams he had for his life as a boy. There are so many things I still don’t know, and sometimes it feels important that I find out. Sometimes it doesn’t matter at all.
Revisiting the mirror, I still see his lips on my face, his jaw strong above my throat. I find myself, I go to my heart, and ask the valve, gently, to open.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/LeAnn