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  • I turned 8 years old two months ago. I am fair skinned with light brown hair that falls across my forehead when I sleep. I have blankets criss-crossed on top of me as I lay on a floral patterned couch. It’s mid-march and the air is still frigid in the mornings. It looks genuinely cold outside and I hear the radio spilling something into the air, forging 1989 and all of its sounds and memories tightly to my brain like a stapler. It is a U2 song followed by a blurb about what was to come in the Middle East.

    The couch is not mine nor is this house. This house belongs to Joan, my temporary mother. She made a bed for me on the couch and tucked me in while my real mother braves the halls of the hospital fighting against the cancer that is ravaging my father’s body and mind. The room is very still. The sun is not out but it’s no longer dark. It is a middle area in between night and day, but now I see it as the definitive line in my life that would become the before and the after. I see particles streaming through the air when I look at the window across the room. The room remains so very still, almost translucent.

    My eyes blink and my mother is suddenly beside me. She’s sitting on the couch. She is destroyed. Her face carries the weight of the news she never hoped to deliver. She left me on this couch sometime during the night and has now returned from the hospital. ”Stephen.” (she pauses) ”Honey.” (abruptly cutting herself off) ”Your father…” She pauses again. Her cheeks are white and she looks so determined to tell me something, to give me this truth that is burning a hole in her tongue as she tries to hold it from me, tries to keep it from burning my ears and twisting my fate. ”Your father is dead.”

    She collapses into my arms. Her coat is still on. Her face like cold steel against my red cheeks. She is huddled around me. She is my mighty mother, with a pained look and a sliced heart. She is my protection. Instantly without room for anything else, I know that she is the only bridge keeping me from being orphaned. She is my protection from everything I am too young to understand or know. She is my survival. And she is cradled in my tiny 8 year old arms. I do not cry. I do not ask questions. I have gone from being fathered to being fatherless. Yesterday and tomorrow will always be different because of today. I will turn 13 and 16 and 21 without him. In another eight years, he will not teach me how to drive. In twenty years, he will not see me graduate. I will fall in love, I will succeed, I will faulter, I will stumble, and he will never utter a word. Whether he was capable of it or not, I will never hear my father tell me that he loves me ever again.

    She tells me later that I start to cry on the way home. But I do not remember. The 7 block car ride back to our house is not a blur. In my mind, it simply does not exist. What I know is that our car crawls into the long driveway. My mom keeps her hands on the steering wheel (white knuckles) and she inches our car all the way to the back of the drive. For the first time, we return home widowed and fatherless.

    “It’s over Stephen.” My 29 year old self cradles my 8 year old self and whispers in my ear. “Every little inch of madness, it’s so very over… and all the madness you didn’t know existed, it now awaits you.” I had no concept, no prepartion for what would lie ahead for me. My mother was always taking care of someone and now that my dad has been dead for mere hours, she starts to cradle me with her eyes. Her hands stay by her side but her eyes hurt for me. I think she knows what this means. I think she knows the books she will have to read and the questions she will have to find answers to if I’m ever going to turn into a man. But I am 8 years old.

    I climb out of our car and look up, across the back of the car, to her face. “Can I go see Kyle?” My best friend lives two houses down. She tells me I can because there’s no guidelines for what to do in these situations. Every action and want and desire is fair game. I walk down the driveway and disappear around the corner, my mom still standing between the car and the door to the house.

    My 29 year old self wants to know what happens to her in those moments. Does she fall apart? Does she find a way to slide the key in the door without shaking too much only to collapse on the kitchen floor in a pool of her own tears? Does she rush to the phone to call someone? Did I desert her in the moment she needed me most? But my 8 year old self is oblivious and unaware of the post-death formality of how I should be acting. My actions at the time are based purely on misguided innocence. I wanted to see my best friend. I wanted to tell him that my dad was dead, that my house was different, that my mom was different, that my family was different; that everything I had ever known… was now different. I wanted to tell him, in the only way that an 8 year old can, that the cancer had won. It ate him up and now he had dissappeared. But he doesn’t believe me. He’s standing in front of the mirror, freckled with blonde hair, and he is straightening his catholic tie.

    His parents are down the hall getting ready. It’s Sunday morning. “No he’s not,” he says kindly. I just shrug and say softly, “yeah… he is. It happened this morning.” I think he knows I wouldn’t bullshit him. I think he know I wouldn’t lie; not about something like this. He berates me with a series of, “are you serious?” comments. Then, he takes off down the hall to tell his parents. The next few moments feel awkward. I feel like I should say something as I shift my weight from one foot to the other. I keep looking at the floor. I feel his parents’ eyes all over me. They must be wondering why I am here. Why am I not at home? Why does it look like I haven’t shed a tear? Where is my mother? These questions must roll through their minds on fast-forward. Maybe they know, more than I do, how much this changes everything. They must be rolodexing issues in their minds about life insurance, funeral arrangements, mortgage payments, my mother’s mental health, god, death, and the hereafter.

    All I remember are the particles floating through the air beside the window. The sunlight shines through Kyle’s window. I am dumbfounded by the light, by the dust playing with itself in midair. The reality that I have brought into this house fades out of my mind and my mind feels near empty, occupied by only one thought. A thought I will not tell anyone for another twenty years. “I’m kind of glad he’s gone,” I say to myself.

    The wooden floor cracks beneath my feet. The walls fold up. I look to my feet again and then like a light switch, my memory shuts off. Sunday disappears from my brain and the rest of that day escapes me. If only I knew what was ahead for me. If only I knew the holes that had been ripped open inside of me that day. If only I knew that all the questions I would later have for my father, would go unanswered. These questions would linger in the air during my childhood and adolescents. They would remain hidden until my twenties when I would try to find my father’s answers in the voice of a lover. Each question, each time, was returned with silence. Null and void. Because of that cold March morning, little shifts give way to big shifts. Little waves of change would begin cutting through my family like a force of nature.
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