It’s not real. It’s a dream, and I’ll wake up soon. The autumn winds are hurling up the leaves that flood around me, some getting caught in my long brown hair. Deep golds and reds — the kind that last for only a fleeting instant before the trees bare naked and empty branches. The colors that mean the change is coming. I stand in the driveway. It smells like rain. I feel the wind pummel into me as if it could somehow take my breath, and maybe even me away. It was unseasonably warm for October. One of those days where your biggest regret would be not stepping outside to catch the warmth of sunshine before the harsh chill of winter inevitably freezes the ground. Minutes, maybe hours pass, as I stand paralyzed in the yard. If I don’t move, if I don’t think, then surely somehow time will freeze and we won’t have to say goodbye just yet.
Two words never shook me as those ones did on a day much like that one in October. It was a few weeks before, when l felt really sure of things. I was in that place, you know the one, where you feel like just maybe you’re figuring it all out, and the universe is finally cutting you a break from its cruel jokes. The place where you feel like your shit’s coming together, and there’s a purpose for you in this crazy world. I felt that. Until those two words disobeyed every fiber of my being. Every part of me rejected that phrase. He said it casually in the hope that maybe I didn’t hear it, and maybe it didn’t have to be true, or perhaps so we could just glaze over it and move on to what was for dinner. “I’m sick,” he said. We sat together quietly at the table outside as the autumn wind whistled through the trees. That damn table. Where all of our talks happened. The big ones, the small ones, and everything in between. As if it possessed some magical power to allow us to come clean about our deepest and truest thoughts. Like the time I wrecked the car, or stayed out past curfew, or when I thanked him for never giving up on me – and the time where he said the same.
His door was cracked with the flicker of television light pouring through the small opening. He was lying in bed on his side, knees pulled up to his stomach much like I slept as a kid. The hardest part of it all was seeing the face of the man who could do anything, slowly turn pale and yellow, weak and tired. “Keep your eye on the ball. Get that bat back. Just line up the sights. That’s it. Now steady, pull the trigger. Put it in reverse. Now slowly press the gas. Easy does it. Good. Hands on the wheel. That’s it.” The sun was setting. As he stirred, I walked around the bedside, kicked off my shoes, and climbed in the warm beside him. His eyes were heavy, and the fight to keep them open as he stared motionless at the screen.
I used to make fun of him endlessly for the times I would catch him nodding off during his favorite shows. “Dad, if you don’t wake up, I’m turning John Wayne off because we’ve seen this one at least 100 times.” But I didn’t hate it. Not one bit. Deep down, there was a part of me that loved the fact that we would spend our Sunday mornings wrapped up in an old movie of gun slinging and cowboys, never needing to talk too much, because the quiet understanding we had was something that didn’t need to be explained. I picked up the remote by the pillow, shutting down the sound, as we lay silent in the room.
“Would you take a nap with me?” he said. In all the years I had known him, he never asked me that. He didn’t ask me to do many things for him. Now I was the one tucking him in and turning out the lights. Though this nap I knew was different. Not the Saturday afternoon kind where you try and talk yourself out of it by saying you have too much to do.
“Sure, Dad,” I said. I rolled over and closed my eyes, lying in the dark room, trying to shut my brain down, much like his body was. After a few seconds, I feel his arm reach out and pull me in close to his chest. He holds me tightly as I face the blank wall.
“Are you scared?” I whispered, choking on my words as they slipped out.
“No”, he said. “I have no reason to be.” I drifted into sleep in the refuge of my father’s arms like a small child, as if he is keeping me safe from the boogey man after a bad dream. I wonder if this time, I am the one there to chase the monsters away from under the bed, or the ones in his mind. He stirred and whispered softly, “You’re still here. I thought you had left.”
“I’m right here,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I drove faster than my mind could blankly race, and I took to the winding roads like Andretti on the last lap. You know that part in the movies when the phone rings, and you know before the character does what the message is coming through on the other end? Because you just know. That feeling. You just know. The 7-minute drive feels like I am running through quicksand. I open the front door and walk next to his bedside. I place my hand on his arm, and without a second thought, I crawl into his bed. The stark white linen sheet is scratchy against my skin and smells like a hospital. His face is cold against my fingertips and I wrap my arms around his body to warm him like he did for me that time I stayed out in the snow too long. I lie with my head on his chest. The same spot I fit perfectly into on that summer day of 1987 when Doug Drabek was pitching a no hitter. The same spot I thrust with my hands into when I was sixteen and hated him for not letting me do something that in hindsight, was incredibly stupid. The same spot I rested my head for a picture, with my cap and gown, and matching smiles. His shirt is soft, and I’m sure it’s one I’ve worn to bed a million times. I wrap my fingers tightly around the white v neck, and tears slowly trickle down my cheeks.
I hear the thunder begin to rumble over the horizon and the wind whip through the trees. It’s time for him to go, and I quickly contemplate whether or not he’ll just waltz through the door tomorrow with that silly half smirk, half smile that drove me nuts and all the women crazy. I take a deep breath in, and lift my head off of his noiseless heart for what I know is the last time. As I rise from the bed, I know a part of me will stay with him, and the rest of me will be searching to complete the puzzle of my existence for many years to come. Like on my wedding day, when I will ache to be twirled around on the dance floor, with the first man I ever loved, as he’d squeeze my hands and tell me I looked as beautiful as the day I was born. Or when I hold my child for the first time, and I see his eyes in a new life, and carry him on through his last name. Will he be there? Will he know? Will he still be proud of his little girl as she turns into the best thing she could ever hope to be? Her father’s daughter.
I turn the knob to open the front door and step out onto the porch. One drop of rain pings off of my forehead, and hundreds soon follow. Within seconds I am drenched as lightening quietly streaks across the sky. The large white van descends down the hill and pulls into the driveway as my eyes flood with tiny droplets of rain. I stand in the yard motionless as the downpour soaks through my clothes. As he is carried outside, still draped in the stiff white sheet, I turn to face the breeze and the sting of the rain against my face, thinking back to that day at the table. “The only way you could ever, ever disappoint me is by giving up on your dreams. The world is yours, kid.” As I watch the taillights of the van glimmer in the haze of the fall showers, I pray for the autumn winds to whisk me away.