Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of my father’s death. He died under a tree somewhere in northern Alabama, preparing to set up a deer stand. A hunting buddy found him, sitting there, as expressionless as ever, frozen in time.
I remember the call, my mother’s broken voice on the other end, “Ashley, I have some bad news…” She needn’t finish her sentence. I knew. He had been sick since his first heart attack—a major one that required open heart surgery and subsequent years of doctors telling him to take better care of himself.
I was home alone, as I am tonight. Tiffany was three hours away in southern Vermont. It was Tuesday, my day off. I had been listening to one of my favorite self-titled albums, over and over again, gently moving about the house, navigating the cracks and crevices that would become as familiar to me as the chime of the grandfather clock that still marks the time, one quarter-hour after another, in my mother’s great room.
I could hear its half-hour tune in the background when she said, “Your daddy died today.” She had not referred to my father as my “daddy” in years. It was a tender gesture, one that I’m still only beginning to fully recognize for its brevity. I didn’t know what to say.
What could I say? I’m sorry? Sorry that, what? Sorry that he wasn’t the man any of us wanted or needed him to be? Sorry the government drafted him into a war that screwed up every man of his generation? Sorry that he died, alone, under a tree, without saying a word, or any of the words we all wanted to hear from him over a lifetime?
I don’t remember what I said. But it didn’t resemble any sort of apology or regret. I think I asked her if she needed me to come home, which sounds silly to me now. At the time, I suppose I was probably trying to be pragmatic about the whole thing. Or maybe I was just in shock that the inevitable had actually arrived, on a boring Tuesday, under a plain old sycamore, beneath a gray, cloudless sky.
The weekend after I broke my collar bone, Steve came to Burlington for a short visit. We laughed so much that I thought I would re-injure my shoulder. Steve couldn’t stop laughing at my photo essay from the 7th grade, which included the picture of my dad, dressed in his plaid flannel shirt and jeans, pulling my sister and me on a makeshift sled—which he’d apparently pieced together from a cardboard box and some rope.
I suppose seeing a picture of a fully-bearded man dressed as a lumberjack, pulling his two daughters around in two inches of snow in Alabama, would appear to be oddly humorous to an outsider. And I suppose one could argue that I had an epic childhood, filled with the kind of haunting experiences only William Faulkner could write about.
I am not Faulkner, however, and I only write about my childhood in sporadic attempts to reclaim it. But Steve asked me if he could use the image as an impetus for a story loosely based on my relationship with my father, tentatively titled, Bama Sledding.
“Sure, why not?” I said. So Steve wrote a 15-page short story about “Julia,” all of which was derived from that single, blurry image of my father standing next to me piled on top of my sister and a piece of cardboard, flying down the driveway, on our makeshift lives…
(the following is a self-edited excerpt from the final paragraphs of Steve’s original story)
Julia and her father walked as far as they could up the street. Julia noticed a few of the neighbors peering at them from their living room windows. Her father placed the piece of cardboard on the street, covered by two inches of snow, at most. She lay down on top of the cardboard, and her father pushed her. She went nowhere. Her father pushed her again. Again, she went nowhere. She started to cry. “Hold on. Hold on,” her father said, as he moved to the front of the sled and grabbed the rope. Her father wrapped the rope around his hand and held it tight and he started to run. He ran and ran and ran, and Julia slid behind him on her cardboard sled, the fingertips of her mittens holding the edges the entire way. When they got to the end of the street, her father was breathing heavily and Julia was giggling and could not stop. “Let’s do it again, daddy!” Her father leaned over and placed his hands on his knees, still breathing hard, and looked at her with the same serious brown eyes that he had passed down to her. “Julia,” he said, “This is what you call ‘Bama sledding!” and he grabbed the rope and took off running down the street like a quarterback still in his prime, daughter in tow.