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“You’re glad I’m dead.” It was a statement with no feeling. There was no look of hurt or accusation in my father’s eyes. He had just stated a fact, and although it wasn’t a question, I felt compelled to answer. . . “yes”.
I shot to a setting position and swung my feet to the floor. I was soaked in sweat. The security light streamed through my bedroom window and I could see the pole from which it hung, but the light was too high and out of my vision. I ran my fingers through my wet hair and stared at the open door of my closet. I looked at the doorway into my room half expecting to see my dad standing there. Then I remembered, he couldn’t be standing there, two weeks ago he had lay dying in my arms. I’d been dreaming. I started to relax until I remembered what he had said. What the hell was all this about? Sure the old man had been hard on a few things, like where I went and my choice of friends. I couldn’t wear my hair long like the guys who were popular with the girls or wear the popular clothes, but I wasn’t glad he was dead.
The night before he died we had fought over how I was going to spend the money I was going to make that summer. I had just turned sixteen and he had gotten me a job working where he worked. I wanted wheels, they would be my ticket to freedom, dating, hanging out with friends. He knew and understood all of that, but he knew I couldn’t afford a car, with insurance, maintenance, and gas. He had gotten so angry that his face had turned purple, and it scared me. I wasn’t scared that he would whip my ass—I knew he could do that—it was the color of his face that scared me. I knew he had a bad heart and when I told him to take it easy, it just made him even madder.
What had made him angry was he wanted all those things for me too, but he couldn’t afford them either. He had other things on his mind: He was expecting to hear from my mother’s doctor about a biopsy from a lump in her breast that I didn’t know anything about. He died of a heart attack the next day just minutes after getting a phone call from her doctor telling him that my mother was terminal. It would be another eighteen months before I learned she was dying, and before I knew it was the phone call from the doctor that brought on the heart attack and not the fight we had had the night before.
I lay back down, and the wet sheets felt cool on my back. The night before, I had thought I saw my father searching for something on my dresser, and when I asked him what he was looking for, he turned and gave me a look that went right through me, as if he were looking at something beyond—my soul?—then he vanished. When I became conscious of what had just happened, I was sitting on the edge of my bed staring at the dresser. To this day I don’t know if it was a dream, or if I had in fact seen the specter of my father. It had only been two weeks since he had died, and the next day my mother was going in for a double mastectomy. It was a lot to process.
When we had gotten to work on the morning he died, my father had given me a quarter for the Coke machine and told me to get myself a Coke and come have my break with him. As he handed me the quarter we stood there looking at each other for what—even at the time—I thought an unusual amount of time, as if he had something to say. Whatever it was he never got the chance. Just before break, the foreman came and got me and told me something had happened to my dad. When I got to him, he was laying on the floor of the shop. He handed me his keys and told me to lock up his tool boxes and when I went to give him the keys back he told me to put them in my pocket. He grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s pray.” We prayed. I haven’t prayed that hard since.
The death rattle isn’t really a rattle; it’s more of a strangling sound. It’s very loud, and it seems to go on forever—it’s a relief when it stops. I can still hear those sounds, in the cool hours of morning, when sleep doesn’t come, when I hear my answer to his question—in that dream.
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