But things wouldn't be different. That much we know. Lillian arrived a few days later to claim her sons, in doing so writing them out of Red's story entirely. Did she say No judge will ever let you near these boys now in that same coolly detached voice she had always used to provoke him? Did his mother confirm this in her own cynical way? Courts don't side with the father, Red. Best to go on and let them be. Did he believe any of this?
Whether he believed these claims or not, he must have recognized the futility of fighting, particularly during a time when family courts still followed the tender years doctrine, which believed mothers to be the most appropriate custodians of young children in nearly all cases. Maybe he even recognized that his own problems--the nightly drinking, his swelling rage, the nightmares that woke him in a cold sweat--were just more evidence that Lillian was right: No judge would willingly subject children to this. How long he dwelled on these points is anyone's guess. How much consideration he gave to his father's reputation is also unknown. But while Red had been with Lillian and the boys in Maryland, his older brother Alvin Jr had been busy raising hell all around his hometown, tarnishing his father's good name in the process. If Red had truly been, at his core, the good man his close associates would later describe, then he might have just believed, as his boys would grow up believing, that everyone would be better off without him. Lillian would find a steady man to raise his sons; his father would be spared the humiliation of watching another of his children fall into the black hole of addiction. Whatever his thinking, he packed up and moved to Florida, and no one in North Carolina would hear from him again for over twenty years.
* * *
This is the point in the story where I am supposed to describe what growing up without a father was like for my own father. At least that is what my notebook tells me: Return to hospital scene with Dad. Talk about life without father. Present tense.
But my father no longer exists in the present tense. In early December, just a few days before my planned visit with him in Pennsylvania, he took a pair of scissors that he had stashed away out of sight of his nurses at the veterans' home, and, working through the abdominal fistula that had kept him bedbound for the last several years, proceeded to eviscerate himself. He succumbed to his injuries a few weeks later.
Now, he is in a box on my dining room table, one I look at periodically but can't yet open, though I need to, if only to retrieve the death certificates required to tend to the business side of dying. I can only think of Pandora when I think of opening it, though I feel embarrassed to make such a prosaic association. Your thinking should be more original than that, I scold myself, though what audience I'm trying to impress with my private thoughts is a mystery. There's a quirk to Pandora's tale, if you'd like to know it, a mistranslation. In the original Greek, she opens a pithos, which is a jar, not a box, one that traditionally held corpses awaiting burial. Unknotting the silken cords from her jar, Pandora's fateful act begins, a part of the story that would sound strange to us before returning to the familiar, she releases death and destruction and evil into the world. Inside a jar, buried inside this box on my table, is evidence enough of her meddling. What more damage could opening it possibly do? Still, I wait.
In another box, one I'm less hesitant to open, I have stored another part of my father's life: twenty-seven years of his letters, letters that outline his struggles and his triumphs, his dreams and his regrets. In many ways, they are an answer to the question I had planned to ask during my last visit, a chronicle of a life lived with an undercurrent of loss. The letters are filled with various if-then statements that have become heart wrenching in the re-reading: If I could just get back on my feet, then I'll get a little place in the country where you can visit me. If I could just lose this weight, then I'll be in less pain. If I could just be happy, then sobriety would be so much easier. If I just weren't broken, then. . .If only life were written as a simple line of code, then realizing these things would be as easy as listing them.
There's one small comfort in all of this. In every one of his letters, he never fails to express his abiding love for me and his gratitude for my own continued love and support through all the years he suffered from addiction and mental illness, years that he was often absent from my life, save for his letters. My love and support, of course, could never be enough to heal him. His final letter, which was returned to me with his personal effects, was an apology: Munchkin (still, at age forty, this name), I just can't take the pain anymore. That's all there is.
It's clear to me, in retrospect, that pain is all there ever was.
About a year after Red and Lillian's marriage ended in that standoff with the boys, Red returned to their house in Baltimore to speak to Lillian's mother. What you will imagine him saying to her depends on your feelings toward him at this point in the story. It's possible to imagine him storming into the house in a rage, screaming You can tell Lil to go straight to hell as he waved divorce papers in his mother-in-law's face. It's equally possible to imagine him walking in calmly, resigned, and leaving the signed papers on the kitchen table.
Tell the boys I'm sorry. I just can't take the pain anymore.
In truth, I haven't yet opened the box of remains because I'm avoiding the pain of it. Opening it will only confirm what I know to be true but can't quite face, that this is the end of my father's story. No matter how much more I write, it will never be in future tense. There will be no miraculous recovery, no reunion with long-lost family, no tearful forgiveness of his father's sins. He has escaped the maze; all anyone can do now is retrace the line.
Sometimes I think about the conversation we might have had in his hospital room, the one I had planned on. I imagine it going something like this: I'd sit in the wheelchair at the foot of his bed and prop my feet up on the mattress. He would offer me a candy bar, which I would take under protest, and I would ask questions that he would avoid answering by making jokes instead. We'd laugh a bit, and it would all be so easy until one of us would make it difficult.
"I know some things you might like to hear," I'd say, trying to bait him. In my head, I'd be playing with a line from an old Amy Hempel story: There's more about your father, I'd think to myself, but it will break your heart.
He'd smile at me and shake his head just slightly, as if to say I'd never learn anything.