Memories are a powerful thing. They are clouds of captured moments, drifting inside each person, eternally encompassing passion and fear, joy and dread, love and loss. There is no telling which moments will remain with you forever and which ones will slowly dissipate as your years come to their final stages. The ones you hold onto in your mind’s eye are the ones that can stay with you the longest, but it is a tricky game to play. Some are better left untouched in the far corners of your mind until they slowly dissipate into nothing more than a faint whisper of something you cannot fully recall. Like a dream you desperately try to remember after waking. The memories you want to keep with you are like clouds that hang heavy in the sky, and as you name each one in the blue sea above, there they remain, recognized, familiar, cherished; but those you try to block out are like ominous morning mists that hold off the approaching dawn, creeping towards your window as you wake, forcing you to accept the scene before you. No light. No hope. No escape.
I remember my dad. One memory in particular that remained with me through the years happened when I was a young girl. I was about ten years old at the time. We lived in a small town not too far from Jacksonville, North Carolina. It was a beautiful area: close to the Atlantic coast with hot summers, quiet falls, temperate winters and beautiful springs. We were isolated, but it was a welcomed isolation. It wasn’t that we were averse to city life. Quite the opposite. We merely enjoyed having something that was just for us, something that the three of us could share together away from the outside world. We had all of the pleasures of privacy as well as the serenity of the surrounding nature. It was our sanctuary.
But my dad frequently had to leave on business trips. I was never really clear on what he did, but what youth is really concerned with the details of her parent’s occupation? Whenever he had to leave on one of his trips, we would walk from our house to our secret place in the woods that surrounded our home. This refuge in the woods was an old oak tree, as large in size as it was in years. It was quite a hike from our little green home that rested in a plain surrounded by the woods, but I enjoyed these private moments I had with my dad. We spent almost the whole day talking here, laughing, telling stories. Sometimes we would venture out into the woods looking for both real and imaginary things in the forest. Then, before nightfall, we would head back home to a warm meal with mom. I’d share all of the adventures of the day until it was time for bed. Anything to keep my mind off of the fact that dad was leaving. And the next day, when I woke in the morning, he would already be gone.
On this day, we followed our normal routine. The first part of our journey into the woods was a dusty, well-beaten path that went through the middle of a large, grassy field. This road stretched for about a mile from our front porch to the surrounding woods. It was covered in wildflowers. I remember enjoying this portion of our walk the most as my dad and I walked hand in hand, engulfed in the wonderful aroma of the surrounding foliage and in the comforting sounds of the vibrant animal life. The air was so sweet. It was like walking into a kitchen with a hot berry pie baking in the oven. It was welcoming, comforting. I kept closing my eyes, so that my sense of smell could be heightened, so that I could enjoy each scent as much as possible. I laughed as baby deer bounded from the field towards their mothers, hiding in the tall grass. And when I saw the small, brownish-grey rabbits following after on our approach, I laughed with delight. Pictures of Thumper and Bambi playing on screen flashed though my head. I searched for a little black skunk to complete the image.
Eventually, the path led to a small stream that we had to cross to continue our hike to our tree. I can still recall the sense of peace I felt when I heard the slow and steady beat of the water as it flowed across our path to our tree. It was as if the water flowed right through me, from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes, soothing me with its cool touch. Once we reached the stream, we took a few minutes to enjoy the change in scenery, dipping our feet in its coolness and taking long draughts of the freshest water I had ever tasted. Eventually we crossed over and took the path that led into the woods. The path that led us to our tree. A place meant only for my dad and me; our little home away from home. This is where that memory fades, as the myriad of trips we took there now blend into one, long, happy feeling.
We always stayed silent for this part of our trek; it was a welcomed quiet as we both prepared the things we would say to one another. Once we reached her, stories, laughter and tears were unstoppable. Dad often left me with a few captivating and elusive words before we headed back home that stilled my flowing tears and kept me thinking. I savoured every word he gave to me more than any toy I could want. He did this to ease the pain I felt whenever he had to leave home, but he also did this to sharpen my already precocious and perceptive nature. Though this same insightfulness helped me realize his tactic, even at such a young age, his ability to ease my worries worked all the same.
Every time we reached our tree it was like seeing her for the first time. The very image of her invited a sense of newness, of discovery. She was majestic, unrelenting, woeful. Though twisted, bent and uprooted in some places at her base, she stood proudly, towering thirty feet above our heads. Looking at her straight on, it seemed as though her branches hugged the sky, keeping it in place. Many birds would rest on her arms and sing sweet songs as my dad and I talked at her feet. To me, being with my dad at this sacred place was almost like being in another world. Nothing else existed save my dad and me when at last we got to play and to talk with her loving and watchful figure close by. I even remember pretending in my thoughts that no one but the two of us could see this tree, our tree. Like it was so strong and so full of mystery that, like magic, it kept the secret for us from the rest of the world.
This traditional walk was one that I both loved and loathed as passionately as any little girl could, for these moments with him were treasured yet bittersweet. For though this tree was a place all to ourselves, it was also a place that signified dad’s imminent departure. Though distracted by some riddle or tale my dad left me with, my heart still hung heavily in my chest as we made our way back home. He never talked about when he was going to come back. Perhaps because he wanted me to be strong and to simply have faith that he would be back soon. Though my mom and I never knew where he was going, he did always came back.
Like a strong, supernatural force between my dad and me, I always knew the day when he was coming home. It was almost like I could feel it in the surrounding air. An electric current would spark within me and flow throughout my entire being, signalling his return. My mom could never understand the bond I had with him, but I knew it, and so did he, inexplicable though our connection was. She would lovingly tease us as she pointed out the quirks in our strange relationship. She couldn’t understand why my dad spoke to me the way he did, with such solemnity and seriousness at times, and even more so, she could not comprehend how I took it all in with the same mentality, being so young. Whenever she verbalized this, he would laugh heartily and say that it was a blessing for me to carry on his family’s greatest trait. Enigmatic to me though not so much that I missed the pained expression he made whenever he answered her in such a fashion. I simply smiled wide at him and tried to forget the look on my mom’s face, pride and chagrin fused together in one small moment of clarity. Mom would simply shake her head, smiling, and continue with whatever activity she was engaged in at the time of scolding. My dad and I could not help being connected so strongly. Though we both loved mom very much, our bond was undeniable, and, thankfully, my mom never felt left out.
But, like all things in life, every good memory must be countered with an unpleasant one.
I remember the last time I was with my dad. A new morning greeted my opening eyes with the spring season again in full force, but the feeling of this one was not as inviting. Though the scene before me burgeoned with life anew, I could not help but detect an eerie silence. Some calm before a torrential storm. There were no sounds of birds to welcome in the new day. I looked out at the scene before my window: the flowers did not stand proudly but rather drooped as though weary from some invisible burden. Even the sun did not glitter in its normal tone of bells and chimes. Insecurity rising, I ran to the kitchen to find my mom in the same fashion as I found this new day. She was practically shivering, peculiarly quiet and tacit. Though she tried her best to mask it from me, I could not be fooled. I could recognize the emotion she tried to hide just as easily as I could recognize the fear rising within me. She was afraid…but of what? Suddenly, I realized my dad was absent, and just as suddenly, I looked from my mom’s fearful eyes, poorly masked by her forced smile, to the table. He was supposed to be sitting there, waiting for me to meet them for breakfast. We weren’t supposed to make our hike for at least a few days.
I finally realized that I had been ignoring the signs that led up to this present moment:
After my dad’s last return, I noticed that something had changed. From the way he looked at things, at mom, at me, to the way he spoke. He was saddened yet resolved. He looked the way I had always imagined him to look when we parted at our tree. The face he never dared show me. Now I understood why. To look on him in this state was to shake the very core of my confidence. I did not understand it. My dad was supposed to be my rock, and he looked like he was falling to pieces. He kept talking to us like he was trying to let out everything he had ever held back from us. Like he wanted us to know exactly how he felt about us, so that we would never doubt the way he loved us. He was trying to be comforting, but as the days wore on with this kind of talk and attitude, I became more frightened than reassured. Strangely, my mom took on the same kind of attitude, trying to make the most of every moment we all had together. For once, my acuity could not break through to understand this strange behavior. I was simply a confused little child, trying relentlessly but to no avail to understand what was happening.
Or, rather, what was going to happen.
Had I known that the weeks of putting up with this new dad was leading up to this moment, I would have tried harder to hold on to him. I would have begged him every night to tell me what he was thinking. I would have made him promise to stay home. I would have blockaded the path to our secret place. I would have burned down that damn tree.
“Where’s dad?” I asked, distressed. With the memory of my parents’ strange behavior remaining in my thoughts. “He’s supposed to be here.”
“He’s out at that tree of his,” mom replied, straining, “He was a little restless last night, and early this morning, he decided to go for a walk.” I couldn’t believe what she had just said. It was like our years of ritual had simply been forgotten, as if they simply blew away with the passing wind.
“It’s our tree!” I yelled as I pushed past her, running to the front door.
That was the only answer I could manage, incensed as I was about her response. She knew perfectly well that the only time dad went to that tree, our tree, was when we walked together the day before he had to travel for work. I couldn’t take standing still any longer. I ran out of the house into the open field, hoping to see dad waiting for me there. He was no where to be seen. Though I did not want to believe it, I began to run down the path we took to our tree, and in doing so, I felt that the tradition was now somehow tainted. It would never be the same. I ran so fast that the colors of the flowers were a blur. I ran so fast that the wind rushing in my ears drowned out the sounds of everything else. I ran so fast, concentrated on finding dad, that I could enjoy no sound. Everything blurred into one undeniable force that took me over: fear. I wasn’t ready for him to go.
I found my dad at the stream, walking up the small bank towards my sprinting figure. I didn’t stop until he scooped me up, mid-leap, into his arms. It was then that I started crying inconsolably. And though I was relieved that my dad had not gone just yet, I could only accuse.
“You went without me!” I accused between sobs. “You can’t do that! It’s our place. Ours. We don’t go without each other.” The last part came out like a command. If he was losing control someone had to take over. If he was going to forget the rules, I had to remind him.
He did not respond immediately. For the first few moments, he cradled me in his arms and held me tightly. My anger quelled as I felt my hair soaking up a wet heat. When I looked up, I saw my dad’s face swollen with tears. His resolve gave way to pure sadness. Upon seeing him in this state, I wrapped my arms around his neck and covered his face with kisses. He continued to hold onto me tightly, not wanting to let me go.
Finally he managed to choke out a simple, “Let’s walk.” But instead of walking home as I thought we would, he pulled me back towards the path that led to the woods. The path that led to our place. I was confused. He wasn’t supposed to be leaving. Not yet. But as tradition held for this particular hike, we walked on in silence, eyes now dried.
The silence was deafening. Each step I took rang like an ominous chime in my heart, begging me to turn around with dad and head home. Run home. I could not think of anything we would say, anything we would laugh about upon our arrival to our tree. The timing was off. We weren’t supposed to be walking to her, but on we went, no turning back. This time, I could only focus on the fact that he would be gone when I woke up in the morning, not on what we shared before we walked back home for dinner. It felt like we were already parting. Like this walk was just a dream, and soon enough, I’d be waking up to a breakfast with mom, wondering when that electric current would signal dad’s return home. Only this time, I wasn’t sure if he actually would.
When we reached our tree and I laid eyes on her, I could no longer submit to my dad’s lead. I jerked my hand out of his in all the fury that I could understand to use. I looked at him sternly, crossed my arms over my tiny chest and said a firm, “No.” I did not scream. I simply remained definitive, immovable. I commanded in the same way that I had at the stream. I wanted a reaction out of him. Anything but this darkened and silent sadness. Even anger would be better than this, and anger I tried to elicit from him as I rebelled against his lead. I needed to fight. The look on his face in reaction to my revolt instantly turned my legs to putty, and I immediately fell to the ground. He looked at me with a deeper sadness than I’ve ever known, and that sadness has remained with me to this day.
“Grey, we have to go. I can’t talk to you here on the ground,” he stifled a sob. “What I need to tell you is important, and though I am forced to tell you before the time I planned, it must be done.”
“Why can’t we wait if it’s not the right time?” I continued to fight.
“Just come,” was his answer. Confused, I got to my feet and followed after him, understanding at the very least that I would have to succumb for the benefit of something. Though I found new resolve to take on what I knew was coming, I could not help but notice that even our tree looked downtrodden, as if she understood the events to come and was preparing to share in my sorrow. I shuddered at the thought as we sat at her base.
“I want you to have this,” he began as we stood at the base of the tree. In my hand he placed a small, worn necklace. The chain was simple and unremarkable; dulled silver in color. Attached was a tiny circular trinket of the same color, equally of no consequence. I looked more closely at the trinket and noticed it had small engravings upon its face. The engravings looked more refined though it was dulled like the color of the necklace from the wear of time. Each portion of the designs and writings on the tiny trinket glowed uniquely as the light touched it with each turn of my hand. The first design I could see were the letters I, R and E in a golden hue, but I could not tell if they were initials or the word, “ire” (odd as that may be). With another turn of my hand, the face of the charm beamed in a brilliant blue; this time, there were no engravings, just color. It seemed as if there were three more letters that had been coupled with this new color that had just revealed itself, but they faded too quickly for me to see what they spelled. I remember being particularly intrigued by this as no turning of my hand could make those letters reappear. And with another turn, glowing deep red was the figure of a heart that shined with the brilliance of the sun. The heart was contained by the outline of what could only be some land mass (country or continent) though it was a shape with which I was altogether unfamiliar. I did not understand how all three images could be contained on the same face, but I was too captivated by its simplistic beauty.
“Where did you find this?” I finally managed to ask my dad, still turning my hand to see each image.
“That is not important. What is important is that I am giving this to you for a purpose.”
“What kind of purpose?”
And then he explained:
“When I was younger, I became very restless. It was hard for me to concentrate on any one thing. I had passions, yes, ones that I still carry with me to this very day. But there was always something missing from me. I outgrew everything. Not to say that I was some kind of genius or some anomaly that could not reconcile itself with anything or anyone; I was simply, different. Adaptable but never truly a member of any one thing, and no matter how hard I tried to fight that notion, I couldn’t ignore its presence. I always managed to fit into a lot of different places, but that restlessness always drew me away, made me drift to the next thing.”
“I’ve spent a great deal away from the two things I love the most because of this part of my nature, and I am so sorry for all of the times I’ve had to leave you and your mom wondering where I was going and when I would be back. I did all of this to protect you, I hope you understand, for I could never bridge the gap between these two parts of myself of my own accord. But it seems that my restless nature and the things I love have finally met, and this is not a thing I can readily welcome.”
“I gave you this necklace for you to remember me and to inspire you. You, like this necklace, will seem to the imperceptive eye to be something quite ordinary. Yet, when one takes a closer look, they will see how you can shine with such unique beauty. Don’t ever forget that. Hold that as close to your heart as you wear this necklace. We have to go back home now. Tomorrow I will be gone. I fear that the time for your own restlessness will be coming soon. In that way we will always be connected.”
“And with that,” my dad concluded, “I pass on everything that I am to you. Now I must do everything in my power to keep you safe.”
“I won’t be safe unless you’re here with me,” I pleaded, eyes fixated on his face.
“I wish I could explain it all to you in a better way. Sometimes it’s good to stay in order to keep someone safe…but in this case, I need to go,” he answered.
“When will you be back?” I asked, breaking another rule. He never told me when he was coming back home. So many things had happened out of the ordinary that day. I needed to be reassured.
But he didn’t answer me. He simply stood up. And then did something else that was so out of the ordinary, I didn’t have the strength to fight against it: he walked away without me, in the opposite direction of home. Where was he gong? We were supposed to go home together. Mom was waiting for us there. He didn’t turn back to look at me, he didn’t say goodbye. I don’t know how long I sat there, too exhausted to cry, as I watched him walk away. I didn’t call out to him. I don’t think it would have made a difference.
“Please, don’t go,” I whispered silently as I began the slow progression towards the torrent of tears, and I watched his figure fade away as the distance grew between us, like a memory slowly lost over time.
My heart sank lower and lower as each deliberate step he made widened the gap between us. I wanted to run to him, to close the rift. As I was about to act on this impulse, this urge to stop the inevitable, I was rooted to my place beneath the tree by the image of him finally acting on his impulse, breaking his resolve: he turned to get one last glance at my face. The act stunned me to stillness, silenced my sobs, quelled my tears. The look on his face made me accept what was to happen: he was never coming back. I stood now, resolute, and forced myself to look strong for him. He needed to know that I would make it, even if I wasn’t sure of it myself. I didn’t know what “it” was exactly. And though years have separated me from this moment, I still haven’t figured it out.
That misty morning with dark and clouded memories began to reformulate in my mind: the vision of my dad as he walked away; the empty feeling growing inside of me. The words he left me with ran through my head at lightning speed. I was trying to understand each word he said, knowing that they might be the last words he would ever share with me. I clutched the necklace in my palm: something to remember him by, to inspire me. But it didn’t serve its purpose; it hung on my neck, a heavy burden, containing all of the fear and sadness taking over me. It represented everything I wished could reverse at that very instance. If that was the uniqueness I had to show to the world, I didn’t want it. I would gladly trade it if it meant my dad would come back. There was no stopping the tears now. They drenched my face as if a storm cloud hung right above my head.
I returned home at some point, though the exact time was hazy to me even in that present moment. I was thankful that I cried as much as I was able before returning home. I had an agenda. Mom knew something about this parting that I didn’t. The look on her face before I chased after him was at the surface of my thoughts, overpowering the replay of events that were racing repeatedly through my head. She was going to tell me everything. I didn’t even wait for her to greet me as I walked through the door:
“Why isn’t dad coming back?” I demanded.
“Sweetheart, what are you talking about?” trying to keep her voice even.
“Where did dad go, and why isn’t he coming back?” I repeated.
“What has he told you?” she delayed. I fell for it anyway, thinking that she would fill in the gaps.
“He said he was leaving to keep us safe. He didn’t tell me when he was coming back. Even after I asked. What did he tell you?”
Finally, she conceded. “He told me to keep you safe, to try to remain unnoticed and to not talk about him leaving to anyone. We have to pretend that everything is the same and that nothing has changed.”
“You know where he is! You have to tell me, so we can go after him! We need to bring him back home.” I was starting to lose my composure.
“I don’t think he’s coming back, Grey,” she said, defeated.
“He is! He is!” I kept screaming over and over, stamping my feet. With the loss of my composure came another torrent of tears. I had forgotten my resolve to stay calm and get the whole truth from her. I was so angry that I didn’t care anymore.
My mom ran to me as I fell to the floor. She scooped me up in her arms and sat me down on the couch. Her arms never left me; she just cradled me as I let out all of my frustration, and she wiped my tears away as they fell. She cried with me. We suffered together on our own little island of grief for most of that night.
Something died in me that day. Some purpose he tried to pass on to me was locked away in a far chamber of my heart. And though I could never fully ignore it, I buried it so deeply within me, just out of reach, that I could only acknowledge its presence. I could not understand it, and for once, I didn’t want to understand what was gnawing at me. It was like the token he left for me that last day at our tree. I could see the necklace, and it was with me always, but I could not understand the meaning behind the glow of gold, blue and crimson that made the necklace’s charm so captivating. The charm that carried a purpose, a purpose that I carried but ignored more severely each day dad didn’t return.
It took me months to accept that he wasn’t coming back, and nothing mom could say or do could bring me consolation. I woke each morning hoping to have that feeling of electricity that connected me with him, that made me know with absolute certainty that he was returning, that magnetized our hearts together, but it never came. And day to day, mom could see how the pain of this slow and agonizing realization was weighing on me, changing me.
No matter how well we masked it, or rather, how well we thought we masked it, our family friends and neighbors began to talk. Rumors began to spread, each one more ridiculous than the last. It started with the speculation that dad had to move to a more permanent residence because of his job, of which they also knew very little, and then it turned into crude gossip about our personal life. He became a womanizer who had run off with someone new and younger. I remembered how much anger I felt for those who would quickly believe such an awful lie about such a good man. It only got worse. Once the idea of dad running off with another woman died off as impractical and unlikely, a change I gladly welcomed, it moved on just as quickly to conjecture on his standing with the law. He was on the run, avoiding incarceration for dealing drugs or working with the mob. I didn’t understand how they could even play with that idea as being anything close to possible, but somehow it was accepted. I grew more and more disdainful with each sympathizing eye we met in town.
We were going into town less and less. Anything to avoid the stares and whispers we knew were about us, about dad. I became more and more troublesome in school. I couldn’t help it, and I didn’t want to. It was the only way I could act out against everything I was feeling: the emptiness of my dad’s absence, the sorrow for my mom’s pain, the anger at people’s insensitive assumptions. I became the problem child, only adding to the stress my mom had to deal with. Between keeping me out of trouble and keeping the incessant questions about dad at bay, she had very little time to breathe.
After a year of enduring the town gossip, mom decided to move from our little green home in the woods. She sold almost everything we owned, for almost everything we had in our home from books to trinkets to pieces of rare furniture had some connection to him. It was clear that we needed a clean break. A break from a town that was once dear a break from the daily reminders of his absence, a break from anything that knew dad or made us think of him.
We moved the little that we had kept to an even smaller home in Tampa, Florida, a city completely different from our small town in North Carolina. The feel of life there was so impersonal compared to our small town, and though it was what we needed at the time of the move, we couldn’t help but feel chagrined by the impersonal and disconnected lifestyle we were now in. But we adapted. We had no other choice. And in this place, removed from the physical memory of a past life, I could finally see how the separation was affecting mom. If it seemed that I was taking it hard, it seemed twice as difficult for her. Our attempt to start new, to wipe our slate clean, to cut our losses and move on only veiled what we truly felt. We were lost and alone. Forever changed without him. But we quietly accepted our circumstances and moved on as best we could, at least in appearance. Somehow in all the years I spent growing up in Tampa, we managed to find little pieces of happiness that made our loss tolerable.
Though the separation always remained an ever existing presence.