I found this in the file-cabinet the other day…from April, 1997….
We accuse our children, when they are little, of having over-active imaginations when they tell us that there really are bad creatures hiding beneath their beds or clinging to the insides of the curtains when we are finally able to turn-out their bedroom lights in the evening, but how much better are we, when suddenly, one of our kids isn’t where he is supposed to be at a given time? How fast do our minds race when we are contemplating all of the horrible ends that they may have come to? Unfortunately, we as parents have the unwelcomed luxury of knowing that our imaginations have every right to be over-active, given the headlines that our minds absorb every morning over that first cup of coffee. Right, nothing will ever happen to our kid, he’s simply too smart to be taken by some stranger. The world is too messed-up for our minds not to race.
He wasn’t in front of the library which could only mean that he was still at the school which was less than a block away. I raced the engine of my little Toyota and headed-out of the drive-by loop of the library and bounced down the curb on my way back to the school. Damn me if I sought relief, thinking surely he’s going to be there. We had arranged to pick him up at 4pm and it was now 5:30 and he was nowhere to be seen. What the hell was he thinking when he walked away, or was driven away from where he was supposed to be? Seeing that the school was essentially deserted, I drove back to the library, impatiently slowing at the one stop-sign and giving a glance to the musicians playing in the parking lot of the coffee shop. I sped through the drive-by loop in front of the building and grabbed a parking space. Thankfully, there was one close so I didn’t have to walk further. I was undecided as to whether I was angry or not. I did know that my step carried fear as I hauled-ass into the library’s opening corridor. I quickly glanced up toward the glass elevators and saw nobody that I knew. The security guard just looked at me as I thought of asking him if he had recently seen a rather long-haired, blonde boy, skinny, carrying a green book-bag over his shoulder and a trombone case in the other hand. Of course he just looked at me. There is a performing arts school just around the corner and half of the kids who go there come here after school. My developing rage didn’t allow me to be still enough to ask the man anything. I feared that he wouldn’t know what a trombone case looked like anyway. “What was he wearing today,” the policeman asked me in my imagination as I rode the elevator to the fifth floor. “I don’t know,” I responded. “I haven’t seen him yet today.” He told me goodbye as I lay in bed on my day off. The boy’s mom took him to school, but knowing him, he is probably wearing a pair of blue jeans that needs to be washed and a striped shirt. The colors of the stripes don’t matter. He is about this tall and has long hair – “to here,” I would point at my shoulder.
The empty or busy faces coming my way hadn’t seen him either; you could just tell. They were too busy talking to their friends to notice the fear that was forming on my brow. None of the kids I saw were familiar. You could tell that the lady at the information desk knew nothing that would be of help to me. She looked like she was part of the desk, unmoving, unblinking in my glance.
We stopped at the second floor for the little black boy and the taller black woman with the business look to her dress and face to get off the elevator. Just me and my thoughts now were being carried to the top floor. They say it is the largest reading-room of any library in the country. I thought of that, too, as I made my way down the left central aisle. The largest one in the country hopefully holds my sleeping son in one of its study chairs. It has in the past. The fart was late coming outside for me to get him after school. I had waited for 20 minutes past the pick-up time before I finally went up the same elevator to the same fifth floor and found him sleeping, head on his pillow arm, crashed and dead to the world. Today he wasn’t there, though. Goddammit!! Where now?! Will I find him torn to shreds, his blood splattered all over the bathroom floor if I go in there? No, the doors were open and an unconcerned couple of boys came out as I walked past. There was no blood spattering on their faces and their Nikes tracked-out no tell-tale footprints on the blue high-traffic carpet.
Up and down the aisles, north end, now south end. The News Channel 12 helicopter still sat on its pad just south of the building, so I knew it wasn’t involved in spotting for our television audience the car that held my unconscious boy that was being chased by a veritable legion of police cars. It was a legion. A guy called the office the other day saying he had legions on his penis. No, they were lesions. The man in the line to check-out his books had a briefcase like mine. Is he hiding my son in there? Did he show him my briefcase and tell my son that he had to go with him because I needed his help? How do I know where these thoughts are coming from? They’re just there. My son isn’t where he is supposed to be and I’m scared. A week or so ago some freak started rubbing my son’s leg as he sat on a church wall grieving over a bird that one of our cats had mauled to death. So, forgive me if I’m concerned. I doubt that I really saw anybody as I searched the second floor of the library. I remembered that one of the doors had been open at the school, so someone was probably still there that may have seen him. I bounded down the two flights of stairs, feeling my fat stomach jiggle with each step. I’ve got to lose weight and get in shape. I thought the same thing a couple weeks ago as I was chasing the asshole that was hitting on my son. I just couldn’t run fast enough and I was wondering if I was going to get there in time.
The steps held and I made it outside, past the unknowing security guard and back into the Toyota. I thought about what a mess I’d be in if the car wouldn’t start and I had to go looking for my lost son on foot. I’d have to ask the cops for a ride home and then what would happen? My face was glistening with sweat as I got to the car. Unconsciously, I had chewed a hole in the side of my cheek as I was touring the fifth floor of the library. Consciously now, hours later, it hurts. Adrenaline and disregard for self allowed me to bang my head on the car-frame without too much pain as I hurried to get going over to the school. Where is he?! WHERE is he?! Dammit!! How many times have we told him to just stay where he’s supposed to be if I’m not there right on time? How many times have we told him not to make us come looking for him? The rule in our house: “Be here on time. Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there! Every time!” If you’re not there, then I know something is wrong. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be there. I will get you, every time – so just STAY there!
I smell onions on my fingers now as I twist the raw edges of my moustache. While I was racing through the library, I smelled its characteristic smell. I haven’t been able to identify what it is yet, but it’s the library. I can smell it on my son all of the way home on some winter days. When it has been too cold to open the car windows to have the scent blown out of his hair, I could smell it for the full 20 miles on the way home.
The young drama teacher just kept talking on the phone as I stepped up to the counter in the school office. I stood there for five seconds waiting for him to realize that a parent shouldn’t be standing at the office counter more than an hour and a half after school was dismissed. Pardon me if you’re on the phone! Just tell me if you’ve seen my son! He never asked, I never told. Down the hall, the lady was cleaning the floors, of course she’s black; it should be a white woman. Will it ever change? Down the hall further, past the open door to the girls restroom with that one really tall full-figured girl standing in front of the mirror with her hands over her head holding her hair in a bun talking to some other girl, I imagine it’s a girl, as I pass. Is there a pink light in there? No, he’s not at the other end of the hall either. He’s not on the parking-lot side of the church school building. Just where is he? Back down the hall, racing my reflection in the large windows to my left, searching for his sometimes childish self out in the courtyard, where he could be standing behind a tree. He’s 14yo now and should realize that this isn’t the time to play.
The good Doctor Lady is in the office; no, she hasn’t seen him this afternoon, “During the day, yes, of course, but not since school got out.” Well, my wife called from a pay phone, said she looked all over for him and he isn’t to be found, I told her. I drove down there to find him and I can’t. Have you seen him, where is he?! Can I use your phone? “Sure, just pick-up the line and dial out.” Nathan, is Caleb home, did he call? “Yes, Mom said she’s got him. She told me to tell you to just come home.” Just come home. Drive 20 miles home, alone, calm down. It’s ok. He’s home. It’s ok. He’s ok, really, he’s fine. That’s good.
So, here I am sitting in the tub with my clothes on, the philodendron plant is resting on my shoulder as I write this, bouncing with each new word that leaves the pen to find its eternal home on this yellow page. The fan in the toilet-room needs to be replaced, as it’s making that rackety noise that the other one made before it died. My fingers still smell like onions, somehow, and I can feel my left eye burning where I scratched it as I tried to rub out that allergy itch earlier. My ears are ringing with their familiar cicada song and the chains hanging from the ceiling fan in the bedroom are swirling like they’re doing a belly dance…and my not-lost son is downstairs with his brothers and sister and mom.
The patients were unremarkable on that particular day, July 17, 1996; however, there was one older man who we treated for secondary syphilis that might be worth mentioning. He was roughly fifty years old and lived around 15th Avenue and Tonto. When describing the situation of his meetings with the unknown people with whom he had sex, he said that it is similar to being thirsty in the middle of the night and going to the refrigerator for a glass of milk. It was that simple. He just goes out to the street, finds some female walking past and asks if she’s interested in having sex. Of course, there are a few dollars that must change hands, and given that this wasn’t one of the more posh districts of town, there were literally only a “few” dollars that must be exchanged. The prostitutes in this part of Phoenix did not require much in exchange for their wares, five to ten dollars, sometimes as much as twenty dollars, was all that one must have to find a willing sex partner on or near West Buckeye Road. Any amount would help them get what they needed in the way of rock cocaine. With the fee paid, they got down to business. They cleared a spot on the alley floor, consummated the act, redressed, and went about their respective ways; the woman continued down the sidewalk and the older man turned the corner and walked back to his house. Free enterprise, supply and demand, capitalism at its finest. Thirsty for a glass of milk in the middle of the night….
My little one questioned the pile of branches and limbs with their dead and rotted cores, the grayed sticks that used to reach and wave magestically above the surround of our yard…and house the denizen birds and whatnot that came to live in their shadow and shade. He asked if he could have some of the sticks to build a fort and I told him no. I told him no because “You already have your swingset-fort thing that I added to and now it’s a hideaway with all the walls and elevated table-bed…just like you wanted. Don’t you remember how you cried and pleaded for it?” Yes. He didn’t ask where all the branches came from, he just entered the house and went about his “I just got home from school” routine that included going to the bathroom, hanging-up his back-pack and jacket, and then letting his dog in from the back yard.
My little one walked into the yard after opening the door for his dog and found that the cottonwood that had been his shade and companion for his entire eight years of life had been greatly diminished since he left for school this morning. In the summer and fall, it covered his swingset-fort-house thing in full shade. That far corner of the yard was always cooler in the extreme heat of our Arizona seasons. Sitting on the bench beneath the grand tree was one of our family’s favorite pasttimes, enjoying the cool shade, the birds overhead in their many and favored spots, and the rustle of the millions of leaves clapping and shimmering in the many evening breezes. Somehow, during the past summer, it either caught a bug or suffered more intensely from the summer’s heat than it has in the past. Midway through the year, the leaves turned brown on one branch and then on another and another, until finally, the top two-thirds of the tree was dead. The birds would still visit the tree in their more sparse numbers, but gone are the days of hundreds of them congregating overhead and chatting down the sun.
The last monsoon season blew down several large branches and we often wondered how much longer the skeleton tree would last. Given that it’s in the corner of our yard and there are three other neighbors’ yards on the other sides of our fence in that corner, we were concerned that branches would break away and fly into their yards during another storm and cause some unknown degree of damage to the neighbors’ yards or houses. Anyway, after trimming the date palm that reaches over and into our southern neighbor’s yard, I finally got out the chainsaw-alligator-jawed apparatus to cut the limbs, rope to pull them down into our yard precisely where I wanted them to land, in our yard, and the extension-pole-saw-thing that I usually use to trim the palm trees. Four hours later, the bottom half of the tree was bare, the ground raked clean, and all the branches and limbs hauled out to the front curb, from which the city will soon take them away.
And my little one walked into the yard and surveyed the damage, climbed up into his cedar swingset-fort-house kind of thing, got a piece of chalk out of the can and lined-through his earlier printed sign that said “Cottonwood Observatory.” He then wrote in his squiggly hand as he hung from the rock-wall-climbing thing, “Closed Permanently.”
The somber mood was cast. Deliberate steps around the yard, walking around the swingset, climbing up to the top level, walking about, climbing down, swinging on the swing, eyes downcast, and none of his usual happy antics. I had to ask/tell him to do certain things two or three times each in the several minutes that we’d been home, so I wondered if he was fading a little from not eating all of his lunch. I finally managed to get him to decide what he wanted to eat and then set about preparing it. He wanted “sopa,” or ramen noodles, “the kind that smells good,” which is the chicken flavored variety.
It was only a couple minutes after we both sat at the table until his tears started and the sobs came out as my little one told me that he didn’t want the cottonwood to be dead. Between gulps of air and crying he told me that the tree has been there all of his life and that it always shaded his swingset from the sun and he wants me to get another one right away. He wants the big tree to be there again because the yard doesn’t look the same, it’s different now. He doesn’t like different, my little one. He likes consistency and routine and to know what’s happening next; he’s less anxious that way…and now his tree is gone.
About a year and a half ago, when my wife and little one and a couple of his older siblings were living in Utah for a year, the landlord came to the house one day and cut down my little one’s favorite tree. It was nearing the end of the lease and the landlord and his family were going to be moving back into the house. He thought he’d get an early start on redesigning and landscaping the back yard…and he started by cutting down and removing some of the trees, and the one tree in particular that my little one climbed almost every day. It was his hideaway, his place to recover from the storm of school and a life in a new house with new people in his life and without his dog and his dad and other siblings. His world was upside down, or sideways, anyway…and he would climb the tree to be by himself, to find that peace again that he needed to be ok in his unsettled world.
So I thought about all of that today, limb by limb, and branch by branch, as I started “chopping down” my little one’s beloved cottonwood…and I wondered if he’d be ok, rather, I wondered how long it would take for him to be ok again.
And he sat there at the table with his tears covering his cheeks and the little trails of snot running from his nose and down into his ramen noodles…and asked, “But what about the remains?”
I have seen them before, watched their eyes move about, sometimes focusing on things that were nowhere near them, reflecting on images from their past, memories from childhoods, adulthoods, crossings and re-crossings, flashes of places and faces left behind. I have watched their struggles to find the most appropriate words to describe their feelings, their thoughts, and the sacrifices that have become such a part of their lives. I used to marvel, somehow, in not comprehending their realities, as they were so foreign to me, so un-natural in what they must be. I have been saddened, too, at the simple thoughts of what their lives must have been like over there, and simultaneously confused at the possibility of such disparity. While words are great paintbrushes for demonstrating the hues and possibilities of what certain things are “like,” they can sometimes be only weak re-presentations of what actually “is.” Our trip to Nogales, Sonora was the coming to life of words that I had heard and read over the last several years. The trip was an instance of thought becoming reality, of painted imaginings becoming real and hard, tangible life.
I believe the human element is often overlooked, and maybe even ignored sometimes in the public conversations about immigration issues. Those conversations appear to focus more on the economic concerns related to the masses crossing the borders and tapping into what are by some degrees scarce resources. I think our nation’s policy makers would benefit from a trip south to see some of the people who are most affected by the laws that they are working so hard to create and enforce. How easy it must be to sit in their state houses and design laws and policies concerning the social constructs of “undocumented aliens” without ever having seen the environment from which those people came or having been touched by the lives that those people live.
Author Miriam Davidson, in her book Lives on the Line, discussed the contradictions of the border region, how the booming industrial environment, with its maquiladoras, held the promise of economic rejuvenation for the country, while offering below adequate wages for the people who would work in them. She mentioned workers earning the equivalent of $45 for a 48 hour work week and their inability to pay for what we consider to be the most basic living essentials, such as running water and electricity. The corporations who built the maquiladoras were thriving while their workers were living in destitution and poverty. Davidson touched on the responsibility that the corporations and maquiladora managers have to their employees. I pondered this notion when we were in Nogales, standing at the top of the hillside looking down into the shanty-town of Colonia Colosio, and then again a few moments later when our guide pointed to the brand-new housing development being built for the factory workers across the street from the ultra-modern maquiladoras. This was a situation where corporate and state responsibility to the workers became twisted in the ironic marriage of capitalist interests and the pretense of doing something for the workers. The monthly payment for the new apartments or condos was extravagant in comparison to the wages that the household of maquiladora workers would have to combine in order to live in them. How sickening it is, on a human level, that the corporations, with their NAFTA agreements and constitutionally protected rights, can pursue their economic success, no matter the cost or exploitation of the workers whom they employ. Images of indentured servitude and slavery come to mind when I consider the relationship of the corporations and the maquiladora workers. In truth, though, those images are somewhat mitigated when I remember that the people can leave when they want to. They could go back to the hinterlands where their family’s ranchito and small agricultural holdings no longer provide a living. They could go to another border city where the working and living conditions would be the same as they are here. They could also try to cross the border and take their chances at making a living in the United States where the contradictions of legality and illegality, boom and bust, open arms and fortified fences await them, a place where “No tengo papeles” (I don’t have papers) means further exploitation and difficulties.
One of our guest speakers at the BorderLinks office was a young lady, Kat Rodriguez, who works with Coalición de Derechos Humanos, another organization that focuses on border and migrant related human rights issues. Kat discussed the Altar-Sasabe road that is taken by people trying to enter the United States through informal means. This road and travel network was also addressed in the Washington Post article, “You Only Have One Life” (2006). The article highlighted the role played by the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP), Grupos Beta, as they attempt to educate, and even dissuade, the migrants who make their northward journey into the unforgiving environment of Arizona’s southern desert. While the USBP is an enforcement arm of our federal government, Grupos Beta is more of a humanitarian entity of the Mexican federal police. They attempt to protect migrants from being victimized by their coyotes and other organized hoodlums by offering education and real-life examples of what can happen to them as they try to make it across the desert into the United States.
When we met with the Grupos Beta staff in Nogales, I was impressed by the genuineness of their concern for the migrants. While they were somewhat matter-of-fact in their deportment and interaction with some of them, there was an obvious concern for their health and well-being. They were committed to restoring the returned/deported migrants to relative health and facilitating their journeys back to their home villages. I think the Mexican government’s Grupos Beta is an excellent example for what the United States government should do in regard to its immigration “problem.” Our government needs to think “outside the box,” and devise more humane ways of dealing with the people who are leaving the personal-level economic devastation of Mexico and trying to make a better life in the United States.
The man stood in the doorway for a moment before grabbing the elongated brass handle to open the door. He was looking at the house to the west of his and noticed how the image of the lowering sun was about to touch the roofline. The slate roof seemed to dip in the moment of the sun’s contact, causing the illusion that the weight of the sun was bearing down on the roof, or maybe the roof was molding itself to the shape of the sun to give it a more comfortable resting place at the end of its long day. The sun was bright, of course, but softened somehow in the closer atmosphere and haze of industry and pollen and life that existed above the horizon’s curving line, so the man stood there with unshielded eyes and continued to watch the sun’s dip into and below the roof line. He turned away and the golden glow remained in his eyes as he looked through the door’s glass to find his son. It was time for dinner and the boy was somewhere outside.
The door handle lowered without a sound and the door swung open quietly as the man pushed against it and walked out onto the back patio of the house. As he passed the mustard-colored and rectangular-shaped charcoal grill, he noticed that it still smelled of burnt sugar from the last time he barbequed ribs. It had been a couple weeks or more, but the scent still lingered. The man was barefoot and noticed, too, that the cement of the patio was still warm from the day’s sun, but the grass was cool as he stepped into it and began his search for his son. The man turned to the left from the patio and looked into the back-yard proper, gazing at the rock-fronted embankments that supported the tiered lawn that rose from the yard up to the street that ran behind his house. As he walked toward the front of the house that faced the town’s park, he craned his neck to look further into the yard to where the boy liked to play around the young, conical pine trees that resembled miniature Christmas trees when they were dusted or coated with December’s snow.
The evening was peaceful, now that the neighborhood kids had left the park and gone home or wherever after playing soccer for most of the afternoon. Looking toward the east and over the hills that fronted that side of the town, the man noticed the swallows darting over the park for their evening feeding and play-time. Overhead, the clouds were pink and orange and white and darkening gray with the falling sun and approaching night. Further north, he could still see the white line of a plane’s contrail that was still intact even though the plane had been gone for hours…just the singular, lined cloud was left in its passing. The man didn’t see his son anywhere, not in this side of the yard and not out in the park. He thought about calling-out for him, but didn’t want to break the quiet by raising his voice or yelling. Instead, he retraced his steps around the house, passed the back-door patio, and toward the other end of the yard, the side that fronted their street. The man walked along the low hedge that separated his yard from the neighbor’s and then past the gooseberry bushes and toward the side of the house where he could peek around the corner to see if his son was playing under the cherry trees. His step was quiet in the cool grass and the moss that grew thinly among the grass where he was, but was thicker under the trees.
Because the sun had completely lowered itself beneath the roofline of the neighbor’s house by now, there was no chance of the man’s son seeing his father’s shadow intrude into his quiet play. When the man slowly moved his head around the corner, he saw that his son was sitting cross-legged, facing away from him, and leaning forward with his hands busy at some task. The boy had his tan and green army-men positioned in loose rows and partially hidden in the moss, or situated behind various military vehicles and broken sticks from the trees above him. He occasionally leaned back or to the right or left to straighten a fallen man or to move a truck closer to the grouped men, enacting some strategy or maneuver of protection or attack. The boy even rolled a golf-ball or lightly tossed a shiny, black cherry in the direction of the men, imagining that they were rockets or some other projectile, sometimes knocking over one of the men or coming to rest next to or on top of one of the vehicles, and sometimes not. With the impact of the cherries or golf ball, the boy made his eleven year-old’s version of a soft explosion…a hushed “pkshew!” that he thought only he could hear.
The man smiled to himself as he watched and listened to his son. He saw the purplish-pink stains on the boy’s white t-shirt and imagined the cherry-fight that he had had with his friends earlier in the afternoon…the cherry-fight that he wasn’t supposed to have had. As the man attempted to kneel down into the moss and grass next to the house, his shorts scraped on the prickly stucco finish on the house and startled his son. The boy was in mid-reach across his battlefield and gasped and dropped one of his army men as he jerked and turned around to face his father.
The boy’s heart was pounding and his mouth was suddenly dry. “I didn’t know you were there,” he said. His mind was racing back through his day, wondering at what he might have done wrong, wondering what little or grand sin had been revealed and was now set to ruin what he thought was an otherwise good day, and wondering why, if he hadn’t done anything wrong, his father was there on the side of the yard looking for him…and getting ready to sit down like he was planning to stay for a while.
“Well, I wasn’t here for very long. What are you doing?”
The boy tried to swallow. “Just playing…Army.”
“Weren’t your friends out here earlier?”
“Yes Sir, but they had to leave.”
“Which friends were here?”
“You said your friends were here earlier. Which ones were here?”
The boy looked across the gravel and grass driveway and out into the park where the swallows were still darting around. He saw a couple boys at the water fountain at the far side of the park. “I…don’t know,” he stammered. “I don’t remember.”
“But they were just here,” the man said, “who were they? You’re not in trouble, Stephan, I’m just asking which friends were here.”
“Hansi and Martin.”
“Isn’t Hansi’s father the butcher?”
“I don’t know. I think so…maybe.”
“Isn’t he one of those older boys that you were playing with in the spring and got into trouble with?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember,” the father said, “when you guys stole the bratwurst and then went off into the woods and cooked it? You don’t remember that?”
“Yes Sir…I…think I remember.”
“Wasn’t Hansi one of those older boys?”
The boys had moved from the water fountain and were now kicking a soccer ball out on the field at the park. “I don’t know.”
The man sat down in the grass and moss and leaned against the house. “Stephan…look at me. You’re not in trouble…we’re just talking…ok? You can answer me,” said the man. “Look…here,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “You’re ok.”
The boy turned his head from watching the boys with the soccer ball and met his father’s eyes. He didn’t answer him immediately, but just looked at him. This was unusual for him; the boy…he felt odd, bold somehow…maybe even brave. His father’s manner and voice were unsettling. There was none of the harshness or sarcasm that he was used to…and his eyes didn’t look angry. It looked like his father was really just asking him a question…not investigating an offense.
“Augie’s father is the butcher,” said the boy, “but Hansi was part of the group that did that, yes Sir.”
“Is that Hansi out there playing soccer?”
The boy looked at the two other boys out on the field for a couple seconds and then turned again to his father. “No Sir. Hansi had to go home. He said it was almost getting dark and he had to go in for dinner.”
“Why what?” said the man.
“Why’d you want to know if that’s Hansi out there playing soccer?”
“Nothing, Stephan. I was just asking…nothing. Relax, would you? And stop calling me ‘Sir.’”
The boy looked at his father’s hands for a couple seconds and then moved up to meet his eyes. The eyes were still dark brown and still set deep into his father’s head, but the prominent brow-ridge seemed less severe as his eye-brows were raised in a gentle and almost inquisitive arch.
“What? Just call me ‘Dad’ now. Say ‘Yes Dad,’ not ‘Yes Sir.’ That seems wrong somehow.”
“Can I ask you something and not get in trouble?”
“Yes…ask or say anything you want.”
The boy just looked at him.
“I’m serious…really…anything…you won’t get in trouble.”
“What happened to you in the wreck? I know you broke a couple ribs, but what happened…you know…inside your head? Mom said it went through the front window, right?”
The man looked at his son…intently, gently…and picked a tuft of moss from the ground. He moved his eyes to the moss and then asked, “What do you mean, ‘What happened in my head?’”
“You’re not like you used to be,” said the boy, looking past his father, but still watching him, trying to sense if he was going too far. “You’re different.”
“Almost dying in the wreck like that made me think about my life; it made me think about how I was treating people…how I treated you and your mom…and I decided that I needed to be different.”
The boy looked out into the park again. He didn’t want his father to see the tears that were starting to spill from his eyes. “Just like that…you ‘decided’ that you needed to be different?”
The man looked down and watched his fingers as they slowly tore the moss apart and let it drop back into the grass. “I guess so. When I was laying there in the hospital with my neck in that brace and my face all bandaged-up and tubes sticking out of my lungs, I thought about how lucky I was that my heart was still beating and that I wasn’t hurt as bad as I could have been considering what I had been through. It almost seemed like I was being given a second chance or something, you know…somehow…maybe…to do things right…if that’s possible.”
The boy turned back and looked toward his father, not meeting his eyes exactly, but looking through him at some point directly behind his head. “If you could just decide that you needed to be different when you were laying there in the hospital, why couldn’t you have decided a long time ago that you would be different…why didn’t you decide when I was a littler kid that you weren’t going to be so mean…that you could talk to me instead of hitting me, or that I could talk to you like you were just my dad and not some…kind…of…whatever you’ve been?”
“I don’t know, Stephan. I guess it took me almost dying to realize how much I love you…I don’t know.”
“Oh. Well, that’s when I figured out that I don’t love you,” said the boy, “when you were in the hospital almost dying. I always thought I did, or wanted to, maybe. I thought that if I loved you more you’d be nicer to me, but it didn’t work. So when Mom told me that you might die, I was hoping you would, because I knew I wouldn’t have to try to love you anymore. It would be ok that I didn’t…and now you’re not dead and I still don’t love you.”
The man turned his eyes to watch the neighbor drive past in his blue Saab. He followed the car until it stopped at the water fountain by the corner of the park and then turned down the hill where it disappeared behind the Vivo store on the opposite corner. Then he turned slightly in the other direction and watched the kids chasing each other and kicking the soccer ball for a few seconds. Finally, he looked back at his son and said, “Wow…I don’t know what to do with that, Stephan.”
“I don’t either,” said the boy as he reached for one of his army men.
“I guess I’ll have to work on that, won’t I? Give you a reason to love me?”
The boy pulled a handful of moss and began to gently tear it apart and lay the pieces across his army trucks, camouflaging them against the enemy that was lined-up behind the moss and grass berm that he had built close to the trunk of the nearest tree. He then absently grabbed a cherry from the ground and slipped it into his mouth. He bit down on the sweet flesh and then used his tongue to separate the seed as he slowly chewed and swallowed the tiny fruit.
“Stephan? I said I’ll have to work on that, won’t I?”
“I don’t know.”
The man slowly stood and then leaned over to stretch his legs that had been folded under him while he sat and talked with his son. He said “Ok,” and then turned to walk back around the corner of the house. After a couple steps, he turned around and leaned down so he could see his son better under the cherry trees. “You need to come in now. The streetlights are coming on and it’s time to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
The man raised his voice a little – “Stephan, I said you need to come in.”
I wanted you to know that I love you.
I wanted you to know that I still love you.
I wanted you to know that, even with everything that has happened between us, and even not between us, but between those others who we loved or love, that I still love you.
I wanted you to know that there is a piece of my life that is missing because you aren’t a part of it like you used to be.
I wanted you to know that even when my words have been infrequent or nonexistent, my heart still speaks; it still loves you and misses you.
I wanted you to know that even when you’re gone, I will still love you.
I wanted you to know that I will still love you when I’m gone, whenever and however that might happen, or whatever that might mean.
I wanted you to know that even though you’re gone, I still love you.
I wanted you to know that I haven’t taken you for granted.
I wanted you to know that I haven’t been uninterested in you and your life just because I haven’t asked you questions about you and your life…I was giving you space.
I wanted you to know that the others still ask about you, still think about you, still wonder about you.
I wanted you to know that it’s not too late.
I wanted you to know that I’m sorry that I wasn’t what you needed me to be when you needed me to be different than I was.
I wanted you to know that I’m sorry I didn’t grow or change fast enough to make the difference that you needed me to make.
I wanted you to know that I was there when you thought I wasn’t, but I didn’t know how to make myself more known to you.
I wanted you to know that my anger was really sadness…or shame, but I didn’t know how to express it as such.
I wanted you to know that when I seemed to be distant and unconcerned, I was really hiding inside myself because I was hurting, too.
I wanted you to know that I never meant to hurt you…even though it appears that I didn’t try hard enough in meaning to not hurt you.
I wanted you to know that there were times that I was selfish and wasn’t thinking about you and others, and I’m sorry for being that way.
I wanted you to know that I know the past cannot be undone and that some things cannot be fixed.
I wanted you to know that I’m sorry that I hurt you when I did what I did.
I wanted you to know that I’m sorry that I hurt you when I said what I said and wrote what I wrote.
I wanted you to know that I will understand if you can’t forgive me, if you don’t forgive me, if you won’t forgive me.
I wanted you to know that I still love you.
I wanted you to know that what you did to the others hurts me, too, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I wanted you to know that regardless of the decisions you made yesterday, or last week, or last month, or last year, I still love you.
I wanted you to know that regardless of the decisions you make right now, or tomorrow, I will still love you.
I wanted you to know that I’m sorry I didn’t protect you when I should have.
I wanted you to know that I’m sorry I didn’t speak-up for you when I should have.
I wanted you to know that I don’t expect you to be like everyone else; I love you for who you are.
I wanted you to know that I don’t like the distance that exists between us, the obstacles of time and place and not-talking and isolation that have grown like fences and rivers and mountains and dotted lines on maps…like boundaries that split and divide us.
I wanted you to know that I love you, still.