The Last Time I Saw My Father

I’ve been thinking about my father lately; the ghost of a man he has been in my life. As the weather warms in my son’s 10th year, I am reminded of when I was about 10, and it was the last time I saw my father.

It was about 1990 and my mother let my brother and I go to the North Carolina shore with my grandmother, his mom. How strange that sounds today. How progressive of my mother to keep her young boys in touch with their father’s family even though that father had gone to work one night five years earlier and never returned home.

I can remember his dark hair being long, just past his shoulders. And he was tall. Back then, he was like some sort of giant, rising like a Phoenix as he entered the vacation condo and looked toward my brother and me. These memories fade as I age, but I distinctly recall the quiet moment of unrecognition when he came through the door. I can’t remember his face, but I remember the nothingness of bewilderment as he came in. I imagine, now, that his face faded from joy and excitement as he entered the hushed room. He had probably pictured his sons running to him, so glad to see him. I doubt he had predicted such blankness. I imagine his face was probably like my own face, which I also can’t remember, but it must have transformed from whatever it was into utter confusion.

“Don’t you know who that is?” my grandmother said, breaking the awkward.

I thought I knew, but I still wasn’t quite sure of his identity. I only started to figure it out when my brother got up to hug him and I followed my brother, like I always did back then.

The next morning, I followed my brother again, this time across the private walkway to the beach with our kites. I recall the string getting stuck in the brush before we had a chance to let them fly. My brother, a year my elder, did his best to shush me, the whiny one, as he tried to get the string out himself. So strange it was to have my father actually show up and tend to his fatherly duties. He took over with poise and showed his sons how a man traces string through nature. He followed the thin thread through the bushes, pinching it away from the leaves as he went, keeping careful not to criss cross it into tangles. This man got the string undone and we flew kites into the evening sky.

Flight was a common theme of this quick week at the beach. The next day, I followed my father up Kill Devil Hill to see the Wright Brothers Monument. I still can’t see his face in my head. It’s only hair in the hill’s heavy wind, fluttering all around, grating on his nerves as we tried to conquer the historic spot. I started off only a step behind, but I barely looked away as the wind became stronger than we thought. His frustration quickened his stride. I was small and, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep up.

I don’t remember the Wright Brothers Monument. Instead, I remember walking behind my father, desperate to keep him in my sight as he got farther away. I remember losing sight of him in the crowd, the struggle of the climb, and that feeling of desperation. I was desperate to catch up because I was scared I was going to get lost, but I was desperate for something else as well; I was desperate for him to look back and wonder if I was still there. He didn’t, of course. And after that week, he didn’t look back at all.

I’ve written about my father before. There was an awkward phone call in my young adulthood around Christmastime. Not long after, in 2005, I received word that my father had passed away. I knew he was sick, but I didn’t realize he was an organ recipient until the obituary.

I will be 39 this week; my father died at 50. I hope I have more than 11 years left; sometimes the slog of life leaves me doubtful. The irony is that I will never be out of my children’s life because of my father. My children will remember my face.

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