Author’s Note: What follows is a love letter to my twenty-six-year-old brother Eric, written shortly after he overdosed on heroin. He survived.
You and I visit our father on Saturdays between the hours of one and two. We visit him alongside the other children and the other fathers. The building is low and concrete, and we visit outside. We visit him wearing blue jeans and wool sweaters and new sneakers. It is 1989. It is 1991. It is 1992, and then it is 1995. It is Livengrin Foundation for Addiction Recovery or it is The Caron Foundation or it is this rehab or that. It is by farmland and fences and old graveyards and small airports. Mothers like ours wait in the car, or else they sit beside the children and kiss their men on the mouth and stroke the children’s hair. Everyone sits at picnic tables on the lawn, and the fathers talk and smoke, and the children listen and are shy. Most of the men wear mustaches and tan work boots and flannel shirts. They look like they’ve only just put down their hammers for a quick lunch and a chat, while behind them some new house might be teetering dangerously, all stud-stripped and soft concrete. The men look interrupted, rather than finished, and maybe that’s what we find so surprising. Our father looks baffled, as I imagine that Mexican farmer looked when the Paricutin volcano appeared in his cornfield overnight. That was 1943. I’m reading about it in school. These things happen, they tell us. One day you wake up and find a giant stinking hole where your life used to be.
We visit him in the hospital at three in the morning and eat bags of chips from the vending machine. It is 1990. We wear our pajamas under our coats and play tic-tac-toe on the backs of our mother’s crumpled receipts. We are giddy to be up so late. We feel like explorers in a parallel universe, a place children seldom go, and we plan to report back. When he comes into the waiting room, he looks just like our father, only minus two teeth and with a nose we hadn’t imagined could get any crookeder. We give him hugs and potato chips. He smiles with his lips closed, then he starts to speak and we get scared and cry. His mouth is a deep red cave with shards of teeth dangling like stalactites, which I am also reading about in school.
We visit him in their room one morning and crawl under the blankets and he says, “What is this? What are these lumps in my bed?” and pats our wriggling heads and backs and bottoms, and we bounce around and laugh so hard we knock our heads together. It is 1989.
We visit him in jail and bring a deck of cards, your soccer trophy, and a carton of Camel Lights. The guards make us leave it all in a box at the desk and we forget to take your trophy on the way out. It is 1992. It is the Montgomery County Correctional Facility or it is the Bucks County Correctional Facility. It is drunk driving or petty theft or unpaid child support. You cry for hours over your trophy, hiccupping and drooling, until we turn on The Flintstones and you forget. When the show is over you look at me in surprise and start in again, but your heart’s not in it.
We visit him in another rehab and watch football on a small TV with no sound. He introduces us to his friends and he looks proud, and they smile politely and clap our shoulders. He offers us gifts—a keychain with a dangling pink peace sign, packs of Starburst candy, an old Highlights magazine with some doctor’s address on the white sticker, a rubber refrigerator magnet of Joe Camel in sunglasses shooting pool with the word “Smooth” emblazoned on his T-shirt—everything wrapped neatly in newspaper. He offers us coffee from a big silver pot and you say, “Okay, sure,” even though you’re only eight, and he pours some into a Styrofoam cup and hands it to you and you dump it out later when he goes to the bathroom. It is 1994.
We visit him at Grandma’s big house and we take her car and go out for spaghetti and meatballs and ice cream. It is 1996. He asks us about school and later we wonder why grownups only want to talk about school. When we get back he pulls too far into the garage and we hit the wall with a gentle crunch and he backs up a little and parks and nobody says boo and we go inside.
We visit him at the halfway house and sit on his very own bed and meet more men with mustaches. You show him some of your magic tricks, and he is amazed every time you pick his card and every time you don’t. It is 1997.
We visit him at his brother’s house after the baby dies and you are a perfect gentleman, a little man, like grief is a language you have perfected at twelve, and Aunt Kim holds on to you like the dickens while Dad and Uncle David snort pills upstairs and quietly go mad. It is 1999.
We visit him in the city as teenagers and he greets us at the train station and we walk around for hours. It is 2000. He gives us cigarettes. We buy hoagies with the money Mom gave us and sit on a bench next to the Delaware River and watch the rowers pull black oars through black water. He tells us he spends most of his time at the public library and that he might have a job building big houses for rich people. I hold my breath every time we pass a bar because I do not yet understand that addiction has nothing to do with neon signs, which I imagine blinking on and off inside his chest like an electric heart.
We visit him at his friend’s apartment where he is sleeping on the couch and we eat bags of wet popcorn and watch movies until late at night. We listen to him on the phone in the kitchen telling someone about our neighbor, my friend’s mom, who tried to seduce him in a hotel room with bottles of vodka and Klonopin, and he doesn’t even whisper and we always remember that he didn’t even whisper. It is 2001. When she kills herself a few years later, nobody’s whispering anymore.
Less often, he visits us.
He visits us at home sometimes, when Mom is there to supervise. It is 1998. I spend a long time preparing my outfit: a long skirt and a hot-pink blouse. I wait for him on the corner of our street and when he drives by, in the passenger seat of a friend’s rusted-out truck, he doesn’t recognize me—that’s how long it’s been—and he whistles out the window, woohoo, wind whipping back his blond hair, his big fingers in his mouth, and I can’t help it: I feel grown up and too proud.
He visits us on the day I am not accepted to travel to Japan with the smart kids at school, and I am crying so loudly and he hugs me to his chest. It is 1997. “My poor Lumps,” he says, because that’s what he calls me after the whole crawling-under-the-blanket thing, which happened not just once but all the time. You are “Pumpkin” because your head was shaped like a pumpkin, and I used to want to crack your pumpkin head open with my fist, Pumpkin, and mostly I still do.
He visits us at soccer and baseball and softball practices when Mom isn’t there and she yells at him later. One time, he signs up to be my softball coach. It is 1996. I am blue daisies, but then he doesn’t make it to the first game and the assistant coach takes over and nobody talks about what happened to our dad and I am embarrassed, like the time he stole all the cookie money from my Girl Scout troop and let Mom take all the blame.
He visits us in our dreams, and sometimes he has a mustache and sometimes he doesn’t. We talk about it together and say, “Remember this?” and “Remember that?” It is 2002, and it will never end. We say, “Remember the time he shaved his mustache and came down to breakfast and nobody noticed for a while and then you noticed and cried out, ‘Dad doesn’t have a top lip!’” which was true enough, and then he grew it back and never shaved it off again.
He visits us when we are so stoned and driving through the neighborhood in reverse and listening to his favorite songs and talking about the time when I was nine and you were seven and we went door-to-door selling off his tape collection for a dollar apiece. It is 2000. That was 1990. But of course we got caught and had to go back to each house and return the sweaty, balled-up dollar bills from our pockets, which we held out in our trembling palms like peace offerings.
We are supposed to visit him one day, again at Grandma’s, and we head over there in my first car—the little Nissan, remember? But then we decide to run home first and grab something, who knows what, and Mom’s there and she’s a mess and we find out he died and you lock yourself in your room for three days. When you come out you are high as the sky, and you haven’t come down yet. It is April 4, 2002.
Now, he visits us first thing in the morning when we are drinking our coffee in our separate apartments in our separate cities in our separate states.
He visits us when we are happy and when we are sad.
He visits us every time you land in the same jail, your twin mug shots forever floating in the same county database, each one more fucked up than the last.
He visits us when we are broke down and blacked out and beaten up. When we are bringing more dead bodies to the same cemetery. When we are eating pizza with pepperoni. When we are playing cards or fishing or on a boat, anywhere at any time. When Grandma died this past winter and you were newly sober and held my hand the whole time like the big man you were becoming. When we are on the street and it is crowded and there are blond men with mustaches ducking into corner stores to buy cigarettes. When we are chewing spearmint gum or at a shoe store or a Jiffy Lube. When we see men in orange vests picking up trash on the side of a highway. When we are walking through woods or down alleyways. When I hear your voice for the first time in a long time and startle at how much you sound like him. Whenever the Indigo Girls come on the radio. Or Led Zeppelin. Or Genesis. When we pet a black lab and when we eat chicken pot pie. When we see a pickup truck. When I read Steinbeck. When you watch MASH.
So here’s to that big-bellied man in flannel with huge clumsy hands of stillborn blue.
Here’s to this night in Vermont and the snow burying the birdseed and the silver pickerel frozen in the lake, tiny half-moons of perfect comedy and perfect tragedy.
Here’s to love, flickering in and out of focus, like ashes from long extinguished volcanoes that somehow make it across time and oceans to land in our cereal.
And here’s to you, Pumpkin, wherever you are.
This piece appears as the prologue from If Only You People Could Follow Directions by Jessica Hendry Nelson, Counterpoint Press, forthcoming in January 2014.
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Original Rumpus art by Taylor Gianotas.