After My Father Died

By Alex Silberstein

After my father died, he crawled up onto my back. I had to carry him around everywhere. It wasn’t easy. I was only eleven years old. He never asked my permission or explained what he was doing there. My father was not a loquacious man, but his silence as I trucked him about was troubling. Why did I have to be burdened with him draped over my shoulders, his legs dragging behind me as I struggled under his weight?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

No one else seemed to notice him there, even though my posture was obviously impacted.    “Stand up straight, Adam!” my mother demanded. I tried my damnedest.

I’d never excelled at sports, but now moving about nimbly was quite impossible. My teammates resented my ineptitude. Usually, I was left on the sidelines. At social events, I kept to the perimeter, while my peers twisted and twirled on the dance floor.

Hunched over my desk in school, I spent hours drawing futuristic cars and fearsome robotic monsters, hoping to impress certain girls with my creativity. Cheryl, who had an adorable splatter of freckles garnishing her cheeks, said she thought the pictures were cool. She even pointed them out to her boyfriend, Ted, who grunted his approval.

Ted cornered me in the yard after school, warning me to keep my distance from Cheryl. Then he asked me “What’s the matter with you, anyway? How come you’re always bent over like that?”

Stumbling into my teens, the heaviness of my father became easier to bear. I’d even forget he was there for periods of time. But when I could have used some guidance, a little fatherly advice, he remained stubbornly mute, and I’d feel the oppressiveness of his dead weight. The familiar body I’d inhabited throughout childhood suddenly transformed into a gawky, pimply alien sprouting hair in unexpected places and driven by urges I didn’t understand. How was I supposed to manage this? Like my first attempt at shaving. I stood before the bathroom mirror, daubing foam on my cheeks, trying to imitate the brawny, shirtless men I saw in TV commercials. I emerged from the bathroom, Band-Aids crisscrossing my face like warpaint.

I drifted through adolescence feeling weary, unsure where I was headed, or how to make my way through the world. I decided to focus on my creative talent.

“I want to go to art school,” I told my mother.

She eyed me skeptically. “If you’re father were still alive, he’d want you to go into business, like he did.”

But he wasn’t still alive, and whatever he wanted, he wasn’t saying.

I picked a college in a distant city. Carting my dad up the lengthy flight of stairs for my first class, I was exhausted before I’d even started. The other students had a lightness about them, a sense of frivolity and spontaneity. While they sketched the nude models posturing in front of us, I kept working on my cars and monsters.

I got an F in figure drawing.

#


After dropping out of school, I found a job busing dishes at a café. One day they hired a new waitress named Miranda. Her deceased mother clung to her like a starfish hugging a rock. We started hanging out together.

Our relationship had its challenges. In bed, we tumbled about awkwardly trying to get comfortable. Miranda suffered from debilitating back pain due to her mother’s intense grip. She often moaned in her sleep, waking me repeatedly throughout the night. Consultations with several physiatrists, osteopaths, and chiropractors offered no relief.

I became obsessed with trying to dislodge her mother’s grasp, exploring a variety of occult practices. We tried crystals, chanting, ancient native rituals, even a formal exorcism performed by a priest. If anything, Miranda’s mother only clenched harder. Thus, I was totally shocked when Miranda walked into the room one day and spun around like she was showing off a new dress. Her mother was gone!

“What happened?” I gasped.

Miranda beamed, practically giddy. “You know, I woke up this morning and said to myself that I’d had enough. I just told that bitch to get off. It was as simple as that!”

#

I was stunned. It never occurred to me we could simply demand our parents to leave. With her mother gone, Miranda’s mood improved dramatically. She started working out at the gym and wanted me to take her dancing.

But I was still lugging around my father. One day, while Miranda was off backpacking with friends, I decided it was time to confront him.

“Dad, I need you to get off.”

No response. I tried speaking more forcefully.

“Dad, I really need you to get off.”

Nothing.

“Dad! Please!!”

He wasn’t budging.

After Miranda left me, I began to question what my father was doing there in the first place. Perhaps he was just trying to protect me. Being bowed over like I was, I couldn’t reach very high. I got hired at an auto parts warehouse, where I excelled at stocking items on the lower shelves. Constantly looking down as I walked, I tended to step very carefully, avoiding potentially dangerous falls. Maybe I was better off hobbling through life like this. Having grown accustomed to him there, it really wasn’t all that bad.

#

Eventually I met Judy, who had been supporting the weight of both of her parents since a car accident took their lives when she was 8 years old. Compared with her, I felt positively unencumbered. For her part, Judy had learned to balance long-deceased Edna and Marty on her sturdy frame without excessive discomfort. We married and before long we had a son, Stevie. Coincidently, he was born on the anniversary of my father’s death.

Maybe, I thought, my son’s arrival would initiate some transmigratory shenanigans causing Dad to slip into the boy’s little body. But as Stevie squirmed in my nervous arms, my father remained in place, unmoved by the birth of his grandson.

I certainly didn’t expect any words of counsel from my father about raising a son. Any wisdom about fathering I’d need to discover for myself. I imagined myself a mountain, sheltering the boy deep within a cave. If any tempest passed by, ripping up the landscape, it would simply move around me. Stevie wouldn’t feel the slightest breeze or sprinkle of rain.

I continued shouldering my father as I tried to keep up with my elfish, rambunctious son rampaging through the house. Though slight of stature, he was energetic and adventurous, often leaving me winded.

My son approached his eleventh year as I was about to turn forty-two, my father’s age when he died. I was consumed by a superstitious foreboding. Outliving my father had always seemed unlikely, even impolite or disloyal. It could happen any day, without warning: being hit by a bus, slipping in the shower, or choking on a croissant. Death would show up in his gruesome gray shroud, saying, “What makes you think you can live longer than your father?” My son would end up bearing both me and my father piled up on his back. I thought of that frail little boy, crippled by the crushing weight of generations.


#

When the earthquake hit, I was down in the basement looking for lightbulbs. The shaking threw me off my feet. I lay on the floor as it split open, a ragged hole belching dust. Tumbling into the cavity, I bounced against rough walls as I fell into a cramped, dark space. Fortunately, my father shielded me as chunks of crumbled concrete rained down for several minutes until the trembling ceased.

The tumult of the quake subsided into silence, except for an occasional screech or rumble as the collapsed house above settled. I struggled to emerge from the mound of debris that had formed on top of me like a newly birthed mountain. Miraculously, I had suffered only a few minor scrapes. I dug into my pocket to retrieve my phone. There wasn’t any cell service, but at least I could use its light to look around and assess the situation.

I found myself at the bottom of a deep, rubble-clogged crevice. Looking up, I could see the opening covered with broken beams and crushed sheet rock. I felt relieved that Judy had taken Stevie to soccer practice, hoping that being in an open field they were safe from falling objects. But here I was trapped and would have to wait until rescuers arrived to dig me out.

Shining the light from my phone around the walls of the pit, I saw an opening on one side that led to a tunnel. Out of curiosity I crawled into the entrance of this passageway, not intending to go any further. Underground drafts danced and whispered like ghosts. Then I heard something else, a distant sound like a mewling cat: the faint whimpering of a child.

I squeezed through the narrow shaft and followed its twisting path until it opened up into a chamber where a little boy wearing purple pajamas decorated with moons and stars and spaceships sat hugging his knees, his face drenched with tears, keening like a wavering violin, whispering, “Daddy, Daddy!”

My father climbed off my back and went to the little boy, embracing him gently.
“Daddy! Where did you go?” the boy pleaded in a thin, choked voice. “You never told me you were going. You never said goodbye.”

I didn’t know,” replied my father with the raspy grumble I hadn’t heard in decades. “I couldn’t help it. It was the middle of the night. You were asleep. My heart just stopped working. It happens like that sometimes when you least expect it.”

The boy dissolved into heavy sobs. “I missed you!”

I heard shouting from back down the tunnel as the earth shivered with an aftershock.   “We’d better go,” I said to them.

My father looked at me and said, “You go. Go be with your son.”

I left them there, the two of them clinging tightly, my father rocking the boy in his arms and whispering, “It’s okay. I’m here now.”

I made my way back to where I had first fallen. Some of the wreckage had been cleared away from the opening. Workers dropped a rope to haul me back up, with Judy and Stevie looking down, calling out, cheering, crying, laughing, even Marty and Edna smiling and waving as I was pulled up out of the depths.


San Francisco psychotherapist Alex Silberstein writes around the corner from reality, on the edge of dreams, seeking inspiration from the idle chatter of trees. His writing has appeared in Writer’s Egg Magazine and in the inaugural issue of God’s Cruel Joke. He lives with his wife and a labradoodle named Pavlov.

2 Comments

  1. Leslie Kirk Campbell

    Terrific story. Shows the value of emotional honesty and digging deep. Congrats, Alex!

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