In the pocket of my father’s navy windbreaker, there is a handkerchief. It is, possibly, one of the last things he touched before he died. His nose was perpetually running. Most times he didn’t notice it. Often, neither did we. Or, if we did, we chose to ignore it, the way we ignored his intermittent deafness, selective memory or, what one caregiver called his depression-induced Alzheimer’s.
Perhaps we’d grown accustomed to ignoring him altogether, is what he might have said, had any of us been listening, or present long enough, or taking a breather from barking commands or beating up on him verbally. Perhaps we’d never grown accustomed to him in the first place. I know, nearly half a century is a long time to have the company of a father – lifetimes, by some standards, and well long enough to get used to the idea of his presence.
Maybe we all inherited the feeling he’d disappear the way his father did, or the way our mother’s father was made to disappear, no thanks to the Catholic church in Jamaica, after our grandmother had had enough near concussions, enough disappearing acts of her own to put an end to the violence in the only way she knew how.
Years before she died, I interviewed her, formally. I was, at the time, a journalist after all. It wasn’t that I knew her time was short, though she did in fact die within two years of the interview, for even in her 90s Gaga could still cut a rug. I interviewed her because I felt my time was. I would be leaving New York, for good, this time, and I wanted to take as much of her with me as I could. Though we have matching birthmarks on our right hips and calves, it was not enough. I recorded her voice while I took notes though where the tapes might be now I know not. But some stories you don’t forget. The day she got on the train was one of them.
Somewhere between the first daughter and the fifth birth, Grandpa had made use of her as an occasional punching bag. Some time after having sewing scissors impaled in her shoulder for having the temerity to attempt to defend herself with them against our grandfather, in his tailor shop, she, with three daughters living, our mother the youngest – then four – Gaga packed a small suitcase, kissed her two eldest goodbye, hoisted our mother, Ms. Chick, on her hip and walked the distance to the train station.
As the train pulled into the station, Grandpa did too having been tipped off by a neighbor that his wife was on the platform. Walking calmly up to her, he picked up the suitcase where she’d rested it on the ground, and slipped our mother out of her arms. With a steel she did not until that moment know she possessed, she walked the few steps to the waiting car and put her foot on the first step. Apparently, Grandpa was so confident that she was trailing behind him, he didn’t bother to turn around. Neither did she. Over time, she stole each of her girls back. Over time, he grew old, alone.
He died the week before I flew to Jamaica to meet him, the week before Father’s Day. When Gaga died, she left me her hair net. I already had a collection of her handkerchiefs by then. Somehow, I’ve managed to acquire one or more handkerchiefs from each member of that generation. Now, we use tissues. They’re anonymous, but sanitary. The one in my father’s windbreaker will stay there as long as I can’t bear to remove it and move on, if only to the laundry room with it. When I push my hand into the pocket on the right side, I am somehow always pleasantly surprised. I am always imagining it’s something one day, I’ll be able to return to him, as if I were only away on vacation; as if he were just a few states away, sitting by the phone waiting for me to call to tell him when I’ll be coming home.
Even toward the end, when he’d complain of the draft by the phone in the assisted living or later, when he couldn’t make out much of what I was saying on the cell phone our sister had bought him, I’d still call, and suffer through our shared discomfort as long has he would. He’d wanted to say something to me the last time we’d eaten dinner together. I’d had a plane to catch.
He held on two years after Mom died. Two years and one month, and fifteen days, and three hours, give or take. Their two houses are gone; their strangling debt, her books, his electronics, their music, and various ailments. Two of their children had children. One has such stories, a husband, a hairnet, two dogs, and a handkerchief.