“It’s good to have you back.”
My dad looks up from his delicate masterpiece. Butter gently smeared on a pile of pancakes like paint to a canvas. He reaches for the syrup but it drops.
“I’m glad to be back.” Moving four thousand miles away for college was definitely a change of pace. Don’t get me wrong, communal living and cheap beer had been enjoyable, but I missed this. The minutiae. The small stuff; like conversations with my dad at the diner. I take a sip of the coffee. Cream and sugar have covered a multitude of sins. The syrup bottle rolls my way.
“Wow! Look at you!” I snicker as my dad cuts his pancakes, pushing half to the side. He’s skinnier than usual. His neck is a bit thinner and his face a bit slimmer.
“A diet, huh?!”
My dad, partner in crime, and adventure buddy. His hair is blonde, with hints of white. It’s from Sun-In. Yes, my dad uses Sun-In. His icey yet gentle blue eyes stare at me as a smile forms across his face. He never smiles with teeth, but they always manage to poke out from below his mustache, almost as if to say “hey there!” Without thinking, I can feel the smile forming on my face. We may not look alike, but we sure do act alike. I notice a small dribble of drool at the corner of his mouth. I giggle.
He was always such…a dad. Drooling, farting, snoring. Loud sneezes that give elephant mating calls a run for their money. He sometimes drools, but not very often. Maybe it’s one of those things that happens when you get old, like credit card scams or reading glasses. He’s old. Not too old, like mom-married-man-nearing-death-for-money-old, but old enough where kids were constantly asking me if he was my grandpa. He may have been approaching the big sixty seven, but God, with his sense of humor, I could swear the man was still twelve.
“Listen Sydney,” he pauses and reaches for a napkin to wipe the drool away. “There’s something I have to—”
“Remember,” my hands gesture down to the plate in front of us, “when we came here when I was little?” He nods patiently, awaiting whatever shenanigans I have up my sleeve this time.
“I’d always stack the creamers while we waited for our food.”
I reach down and grab a handful of little hazelnut creamers. Gingerly I stack them up, and before you know it, an architectural masterpiece, here, in this very diner, stands before us. The creamers sit for a minute, as if to say, “Look I did it!” before toppling over onto the table. We would always laugh together at their inevitable downfall. It was silly, but so were we. I look up to find my laughs unreciprocated.
He forces a smile onto his face. That’s weird…why didn’t he laugh?
“Sydney, I wanted to tell you. But, we couldn’t.”
I can feel the gunshot as my thoughts kick off in a race with no finish line. A tightly wound knot forms in my stomach. Like when you were little, the kind you can’t get out of your shoelaces, and before you know it, you’re stuck on the hardwood floor crying in a jumbled mess of failed hopes and bunny ear loops. My lip trembles as I brace for the worst.
“It happened in September.”
Did a family member I vaguely know die?! Were my parents getting a divorce?!
“You were four thousand miles away. We didn’t want you to freak out.”
“I had a stroke.”
The words tumble out, straight into my coffee cup.
“I collapsed in the basement and was paralyzed on one side,” his train of thought dwindles for a brief moment, “But…but, now, I’m fine. I was in the hospital for a few days. I couldn’t walk or talk, but I’ve been doing therapy. I’m okay now.”
Reaching to unzip his hoodie, he shows me a scar nestled in some adhesive on his chest.
“They put this thing in my heart to monitor it, so now, if anything happens or there’s some sort of weird rhythm, the doctor gets notified.” He points to his hand, the one that dropped the syrup. “I still can’t feel some things, but it’s getting better.”
His face slouches as he scans my own, searching for some sort of reaction. I’m frozen. A singular tear drips down my cheek, planting itself on the crappy paper napkin lying below. It’s a joke, right? It has to be. He’s joking, right?
I excuse myself quickly to the bathroom. Colorfully sickening tile greets me at the door. A taunt almost. Your dad may have brain damage but look at our popcorn ceilings! Stare into the abyss of poorly waxed linoleum, you heathen! I scramble and haphazardly lock the door, rushing to the sink bowl. The cold faucet water stings my hands as it splashes onto my face. I need something, anything to get me out of this nightmare. My dad had a stroke. My dad collapsed. He couldn’t walk or talk—and he sat in the hospital—and he was paralyzed—and I. Had. No. Idea. Nuances of: “How are you?” or “How was school?” or “Get good grades?” were now grimly replaced with future talk of thickened water and stale vocabulary flash cards in his physical therapy classes.
I think there was some kind of miscommunication in my brain because the sink faucet below me resorts to a sad singular drip, yet my eyes have no problem causing a downpour. The handle has been turned and there’s no stopping. I look into the mirror, decorated with someone else’s smudged fingerprints, and the girl looking back at me is sick to her stomach. The girl looking back at me is not the girl I was five minutes ago. She’s not the girl sipping diner coffee and casually chatting with her father. I run into the stall, slam the door, and lean over the toilet. Sadly, it’s a bit harder to yack up internal turmoil.
I couldn’t bear to think of my dad—the man who spent his whole life protecting and loving me—learning how to walk and talk again. Learning how to hold goddamn spoons again. Slurring his words. I realize that in some sort of cruel joke played by the universe, our roles had reversed. The one man who took care of me now needed to be taken care of. Except when he needed me most, I was gone. I was off in school, and I know they say ignorance is bliss, but God, I wish it wasn’t. I wish ignorance was pain, and I wish I knew. I wish I helped, and I just wish I was little again and it was just me and my dad against the world.
The stall encloses me in a vice grip I just can’t seem to break from. The faint hum of air conditioning sings along with my pity cries. I pray this bathroom was recently sanitized.
Every weekend, when I was little, my dad would take me to the zoo. He called us zoo buddies. I sat eagerly in the backseat as he drove, excitedly eyeballing the animal plastered signs that warned we were getting closer. We would walk around and see all the animals. Maybe if a tiger or bear was too far up, I’d be lucky enough to get a boost from him, my sparkly gym shoes dangling against the railing, his arms tucked around me. Tram rides. Kids meals with vaguely animal shaped nuggets. Looking at maps. And of course, before we left: the dolphin show. I’d pout in protest as we drudged up to the high bleacher row at the top. He’d never let us sit in the splash zone, because he didn’t want his “sun kissed” hair getting wet. I wanted to be drenched! Nevertheless, my pouts were always forgotten when we’d come home with another rainbow dolphin souvenir; keychains or earrings or stickers galore. Rinse and repeat the next weekend. Zoo buddies we were.
My dad made my lunches. When I first proudly gave the family my proclamation of vegetarianism in middle school, he’d pack a cheese, lettuce, and mustard sandwich for me. A poorly drawn heart on the plastic bag. Every. Single. Day.
My dad drove me to work over the summer. Like ritual, we’d leave early each day because he had irrational fears of arriving late and like ritual, at eight, we’d listen to 93.1 FM—Lin’s Bin, to be precise. Every. Single. Day.
Freshman year, when I started taking photography classes on Sundays, he’d take me down to the city. I’d take pictures of buildings and sculptures, all while he narrated with anecdotes and trivia, thanks to over twenty years of working downtown each day. We’d end our photo escapades with pancakes and coffee. It was holy. It was a ritual. It was much more divine than any sabbath day sermon or mass I’d attended. I remember one time, we took a detour to the northern outskirts of the city, where he had grown up. The sun had peeked her way through a blanket of clouds and warmth engulfed the whispers of winter breeze into something much more tolerable. A perfect day in early spring. We drove around, singing to whatever rock song was on the radio, until he brought me to the lighthouse. We got out and I snapped some quick photos, but then we made our way towards something much more mesmerizing. The quiet beach tucked below.
Something about the way the sand and the water collided in a gentle embrace. Something about the way the seagulls croaked in harmony with the turmoil of the waves. Something about the way the wind whipped herself around in beautiful chaos. My dad walked a few steps ahead of me on the soft sand. I went to take his picture. Of course, in true dad fashion, he held up his finger and pointed to something in the distance. It was too late. My photography assignment for that week may or may not have featured his pointer finger as the main event, outshining even the smallest sliver of such an idyllic landscape.
My dad taught me how to drive in his car.
My dad turned me onto Bowie and Zeppelin.
My dad took me to my first baseball game ever.
Our Sunday traditions weren’t always tomfoolery of the camera. Back when I was younger, probably eight or nine, Sundays were reserved for grocery shopping. Like clockwork, we’d maneuver a squeaky cart through aisles on a hunt. The sale papers were our treasure map, and every journey culminated with a stop at the deli; our prized chest full of goods (or in this case, cheese). Half a pound of colby jack, thinly sliced, please. The deli worker would always cut a slice first and hand it to my dad to check before he finished the rest. We had to make sure the thickness was up to standards, of course. My dad would always split the slice. Half for him and half for me. Oh, what I would give to be little again. Legs dangling over the edge of the cart. Sharing my favorite cheese with my favorite person.
But…here I am in the bathroom. No matter how hard I try, I can’t go back in time. Inhale, I take a deep breath, and bite my lip. Too many tears. Not enough shitty one-ply toilet paper to ease the pain. Finally, after some brief pacing, the vice grip has given into my pleas, and I’m able to make my way to the door. I walk back quickly to our booth and plop myself down into a sinkhole of pleather. He’s nursing a half empty cup of coffee. I want to say something, anything, but nothing comes out.
There comes a day when we all come to the halting realization that our parents aren’t invincible. Mortality lurks around the corner. She’s always watching: no matter how young or old, healthy or sick. I had known he was older than most dads. I had spent nights thinking and worrying. I’ll admit, I’d done the math. How old he’d be for my twenty-first or thirtieth birthday. How old I needed to have kids or get married to guarantee he’d be there.
It didn’t bother me. Age was just a number, and with the way he’d jump in my bed to wake me up in the morning, his ice cold feet trying to tickle mine, his middle school sense of humor, or the way he’d chase around our dog without breaking a single sweat, it was no biggie. He was young at heart. Sure, he took vitamins and some blood pressure medication, but who didn’t? He always seemed invincible. Until now. Until mortality came and knocked on the door. So what do I say to that? How do I comfort the man who’s spent my whole life comforting me? How do I tell my zoo buddy? My taxi driver? My cheese splitter? My photography assistant? My driving instructor? God, how do I tell my dad just how much he means to me? The words occupying my brain are merely a semblance of everything I want to say.
He seems to pick up on the fact that silence has become our second course of the day. My dad was never a sappy man himself, so I’m sure he’s probably secretly relieved with this choice of meal. He lifts his hand up and for a second hesitates. Is he about to pour his heart out? Oh God. Did the brain damage make my father a softy?
He gingerly reaches in the middle of our table, amidst a chaos of breakfast remains, and grabs the plate full of creamers towards him. Shakily, he stacks them one by one, until a hazelnut skyscraper has placed herself
smack-dab on the center of the table.
“Remember that?” He grins. The teeth peek again.
“Yeah,” I can’t seem to help the smile forming on my face, “I do.”
The creamers slightly jiggle in place, and for a second I have hope that maybe, just maybe, this time they’ll stand still. A lull. One…two…three. An orchestra of thuds against our plates lets me know I’ve been sadly mistaken.
We laugh in synchrony. I hand him a lone creamer that falls into my lap. He hands me one hidden behind the ketchup.
Our hazelnut cups meet in the middle. “It’s good to have you back.”
Brigid O’Brien is a professional houseplant slash ghost whisperer, cowboy boot connoisseur, and single mom to Charles David, a twenty-seven-year-old cat. Not fact-checked.