Our Father Who Art in Heaven
by Cyndi Yuska
I was thinking of what you said to me about our dad the other day. He never was the lady’s man, yet all us ladies in his house adored him. Granted, we were children, and he was the best tickler in the world. He certainly did have that going for him. But it was more than that. Like the day, when you got your period for the very first time, and he quietly put a care package filled with pads and tampons of every variety, Midol, chocolate and (just to make you laugh and think he had no idea) a bottle of Metamucil, in your bedroom. He did it in a way no other father could – like a mom. It was something he knew we needed growing up – and we needed so much in those days. Rides to school, rides to the movies with boys who we swore were just friends, diet soda, affirmations we didn’t need diet soda, chocolate, peanut butter, more chocolate when those boys who were just friends told us they didn’t want to be friends anymore. He fought fires by day, and cooled the fiery fights between us girls at night – some man, huh? No wonder our husbands never feel they meet our expectations. We were raised by a man who set our standards high.
There was the time when we were having a picnic at Eagle Rock Park, and Sara, only three, ran into the woods by herself. We didn’t tell him, though we saw her do it, and at first he didn’t notice she was gone. He was so busy with Jessie, who'd fallen in a puddle of mud and was covered head to toe, new white tennis shoes and all. When he saw Sara wasn’t with us two, he ran, glancing back as we pointed him towards the trees through which she’d disappeared, and found her, he said, right before she nearly fell into a creek, swollen from the rains of ’75. He taught Sara and Jessie how to swim that summer, took them to the river and made them learn to fight upstream. He told me, just a few years ago, that he never forgot the fear he felt that day, that he’d let Mama down—she who had insisted you and I learn to swim when we were practically in diapers. He said he didn’t think he could teach the others as well as she’d taught us, but he tried his best, because she had taught him something, too: that you can never be too prepared.
And what of the night when I came home from one of those non-dates with a boy who swore he was my friend, swore it was okay to be with him that way, I might not think I wanted to, but he could tell deep down I did. I was fifteen then, and so afraid I’d be in trouble with our dad that I called you from a pay phone behind the movie theater where the boy Daniel had tried to take me, begging you to come and pick me up. He’d hurt me, I said, but just a little. And don’t tell Daddy. But you knew right away that Daddy had to know—you were seventeen and had been through all these things. You came and picked me up, tried to calm me, told me you’d have Michael, your boyfriend, kick Daniel’s scrawny ass for what he’d tried to do to me. When we got home, Daddy was waiting at the door, tears rolling down his face, and I knew you’d told. "It wasn’t your fault,” he said, “please baby, are you okay? Melinda, are you all right?" I could do nothing but collapse in his arms, the arms of a real man, my protector, our dad.
He was telling me something the other day—I’m not sure you know. It was 1958 and his arms were tired from shoveling coal at the mill. He was jogging home in shale-stained Dickeys and a blue workman’s shirt, dirt smeared on his stubble-covered face. The sun slowly dipped beneath the shadows of sleeping slums, blinking, sometimes glaring in Dad’s eyes. As he approached the corner where Main Street met the alley where he lived, the sun poked out between two crumbling brick houses, and the sudden crimson flash hindered his sight. Turning, he rubbed his eyes with blackened fists, and as his arm dropped limp to his side, he caught a glimpse of blonde hair reflecting the sun at his flank. A moment too late he stopped in his tracks, knocking the girl off her feet.
“You know, I’ve heard of knocking someone’s socks off, but I didn’t think you’re supposed to do it like that!” The girl, our Mama, grinned up at Dad, and he bowed his head, holding back a laugh and a tear, and taking her white hand in his dirt-coated one, he pulled her up with his aching arm, whispering, “I’m sorry, are you alright?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” she laughed. Her laugh, he said, tinkled itself into his memory. Her dress, pea green and flapping in the breeze, fell over her curves to her knee, lending her a class he'd never seen before in a girl. Yet she was looking at him, he in his dirty laborer's clothes, her dark pupils catching his eye as she bantered, laughing and placing her hand on his shoulder, not caring as her hair fell loose upon her shoulder, as a strand slipped over her turquoise eye. "You wouldn't happen to want to walk me home, would you, um, sir? That’s silly—what’s your name?"
"John. My name is John. And yes, I'd be honored to walk you home, it's the least that I could do.”
"My name is Raquel, and maybe this way the next guy turning the corner will knock you down instead of me!" She took his coal-covered arm, and walked down the street, pea toned dress swinging with her hips.
Here's the part he never talked about before; she told him this much later, when their romance had already flowered. Mama, that day when Daddy ran into her, was coming from the doctor, and had just had the cancer, which in our childhood years took her from us, diagnosed. Meeting Daddy as she walked towards home brought her just a ray of hope, some company along her way. His look of shock, and the smudge of dirt near his right eye brought her comfort, though fear pierced her gut as she thought of the cancer eating away at her lungs. He never was a ladies' man, as you said the other day, but she liked to remind him he was the man for her. He never could believe he won her heart that day. It had never been so easy to get a girl, he said. It's lucky he didn't know that all it took was knocking a woman to the ground—if he had known, he might have been married off long before he ran into our Mama.
The days in which Daddy and Mama met were the early days of chemotherapy and radiation. Daddy told me of some days when he would come calling on her, and she would simply lie in bed, sometimes heaving into a can her mother set beside her arm, but she would always say, "John, I'm only pretending to be sick, you know, to get out of going on a date with you tonight." Even as blonde strands fell from her head, she would flash a smile at him each night, and she would often joke, "I can't go out this weekend because I'll be washing my hair!"
Daddy spent each day the summer after they met at Mama’s side. She loved the beach, so he poured a cup of water, stirred in fistful of table salt, and sprinkled it over her covered arms, careful not to drop any on her parched, reddened skin. He pilfered booty from the neighborhood sandbox and stowed the grains in Mama’s shoes, so when she stepped into them she could almost forget she hadn’t left the house for Myrtle Beach. That she hadn’t left for anywhere but the hospital in months.
One day Mama came to Daddy waving a letter back and forth, tears streaming down her face. Remission. Remission, remission, remission, she shouted. Daddy grabbed her and swung her frail body round and around, and when he put her down he knelt on his knees, clasping his arms around her legs, the bone of her knee pressing into the flesh of his inner elbow. He pulled out a small diamond ring, and asked her, "Will you be my wife? Through sickness and in health, I want to love you for the rest of my life."
You know the rest. He married her in health. She bore him, in health, four children, all girls. In health she loved him and he loved her with all his heart. In sickness she came to him one day, coughing blood into a pea green handkerchief. With a sick heart, he brought her and their four small babes to the hospital, and, without knowing of the love these two had shared, without knowing that this woman's laugh had echoed through our father's mind for fourteen years, the doctor said "The cancer has returned." In sickness, she lost her hair again, wrapped her thinning arms around us girls each night. In sickness she passed from us. In health he carried on her work in raising us, and carried on their love. He loved her for the rest of his life; that promise he always kept.
And now as I look back on his life, as I prepare the eulogy I must give for him tomorrow, I wonder—what would our Mama have said of her man? He was not a lady's man, and yet he was, to all of us. He was a Daddy and a mother—and a friend to all his girls. He cleaned blood from our knees when we fell from our bikes and from our mother's pillowcase when she coughed in the night. He bought the best chocolate when we were sad, which was often in those days. He was always most handsome with a smudge of cinder next to his right eye.