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This is the first installment of my column, CNF 500. The column will deal with topics related to anything and everything creative nonfiction, and will be 500 words. As essays editor of The Nervous Breakdown, I’m always ready to consider essay submissions of any length for publication. Please email essays to ekleinman at thenervousbreakdown dot com.

I’m going to tell my mom about my writing.

We’re in the International District in Seattle. It’s January. I’ve always liked these types of outings with her. We took the bus from Lynnwood. I’m wearing her coat because I live in Austin, Texas and I don’t have anything warm to wear. It’s a black coat from JCPenney with huge pockets and a fluffy hood.

endofevecoverLung Cancer Noir

Two months shy of the death date my mother had written on her calendar in red pen, Sol and I sublet our studio apartment to an art student for the school year. We’d keep the shop space downstairs.

“Your situation is interesting,” the art student said as he signed the lease agreement. “If there’s a gay kid in the family, it’s always the gay kid who has to take care of the sick parent. I always thought that was because the gay kid wouldn’t have any children of their own. But that’s obviously not true for you.”

I shrugged. “Always great to be the gay kid.” And we packed up the car again for our move across town.

“Let’s make a pact,” Sol said as she turned the key in the ignition. “If we start plotting to murder your mother, we have to move out.”

I laughed. “Agreed.” But I knew she wasn’t kidding.

My father’s urologist projected the CAT scan on his computer screen, pointing out the major organs like battle sites on a Civil War map. My father’s body, my homeland. Bladder. Liver. Intestine. Spleen. “Here’s the right kidney,” he said, using his pen to mark the perimeter. “You can see its recognizable shape, a healthy shape and size.” We nodded, my mother, my father, and me. We knew pointing out normalities meant an abnormality was coming. Dr. Petroski inhaled. “And now here’s the left kidney,” he said, moving his pen to a dark area that did not mirror its right-hand counterpart. It was as large as my father’s liver, but misshapen, a bulge in the center like a football. “You see the difference in the shape? That’s a tumor. That’s the problem.”

We here at TNB Music would like to extend a swift kick in the ass with a steel-toed boot to 2012, with menacing threats to never, ever show its ugly mug around here again. That said, this open heart surgery of a year has yielded a rich trove of enduring albums and songs, and as we impatiently wait for 2013 to pull up out front and beep its glorious horn, the intrepid writing corps at TNB Music now pause to share our favorite offerings from 2012.

To our readers, colleagues, conspirators, confederates and harried editors, we wish you all a happy, healthy and hopelessly sexy new year.

-Joe Daly

TNB Music Editor

 

Suicide and I have a relationship.

I would not say we are friends, but we go way back.

Way back to that day in 1975 when I was four years old and my father took the rope of a robe and tied it around his neck.

It’s the relationship I just can’t shake. It’s always there.

It was there when my mother moved us, not just from the house he died in, but the state.

It was there when I slept in my mother’s bed next to her for several years. She would buy me colorful new bedding hoping to lure me back to my room, but the sheets went unused.

It was there as I sat in our back room watching videos of my father over and over until the tape wore out and his image went missing.

It was there when each new school year I secretly hoped he hadn’t really died and had just lost his memory roaming the world aimlessly. He’d be my new math teacher and during attendance he’d see me and snap out of it.

It was there when my mother made me take down a photograph of him from my bedroom. And wouldn’t explain why.

It was there when I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s features. And there when my mother would tell me to stop making a certain face, so closely resembling him in that moment, upsetting her with just my smile.

It was there as I saw her huddled on our couch reading, alone.

It was there as I asked my friends each night on the phone if they were really my friends. Did they think I was funny? Pretty? Smart?

It was there when as I grew older I kissed more boys than I should have. And there when I excused those boys who turned out to be liars or cheats, and let them back into my bed.

It was there when I worried, at the end of my own rope, if it was my time now. The words would whisper from deep within and I knew that these same words spoke to him. I thought about following the sounds.

It was there when my grandfather after a few Grey Goose and tonics would grow quiet and sigh, “stupid kid” under his breath, but loud enough for me feel each word.

It was there as I traveled from place to place seeking out information. I went looking for his thesis at his college, now my college. I got his autopsy report and held it in my hands. I had dinner with his friend and felt jealous at his memories of him.

It was there when I got married and he didn’t walk me down the aisle.

It was there when I made my husband promise that if we had a son we would not name him after him. I did not want to chance being sad each and every time I called after my child.

It was there as thirty years later I found myself in a Survivors After Suicide group therapy meeting pleading and hoping to no longer be so burdened by his action.

It was there when I swore I did not want it to be there any more.

I was more than just the girl whose father killed himself.

It was there when determined to do good work I signed up to be a grief counselor. I cried as I toured the facility for the little four year old girl that I was that did not have a place like that. And it was there when I sat during the first day’s training and knew I would quit. I had a secret. I was two months pregnant and there in that moment I realized I was no longer interested in being so enmeshed with death, with suicide. I wanted to concentrate on this new life, not the one that I had never really known.

It was there when my son was born in an emergency, dire situation. “No. Why me?” I thought. “I have already had my tragedy.”

It was there when as my son got stronger, I realized I too had great strength from many years of practice.

It was there when we named our son after each of our grandfathers. And it was there, but by my invitation, when we gave him my father’s Hebrew name, needing to connect them. I needed to honor him.

I am determined to share with my son how my father lived. That includes how he died. But it will no longer be the first and only information about him.

My father was charming.

He made people laugh for a living.

He proposed to my mother in Italy.

He struggled with his weight.

And he killed himself.

My son will know these things.

My father’s baby picture hangs on my son’s bedroom wall along with all of his other grandparents’ baby pictures. Each night, I tell my son how much they love him. I have come to refer to my father as Grandpa Daddy. He holds equal weight each night with the other grandparents. But when I scan the pictures, it is Grandpa Daddy who my son most resembles.

Sometimes I get sad as I say our goodnights and place my son in his crib.

I am sad that they will not know each other. Sad that he is just a photograph to him.

I am sad that I never really got to know him, except through other people’s memories.

I am sad that he died, but not as sad for how he died.

There in that moment, after thirty years of hard work, how he died does not seem as important.

It does not go away. It is always there.

But now more like just a little bit over there.

Not right here.

I sit in my white Reem Acra duchess satin gown in a room on the second floor of The Metropolitan Club with everyone I know just downstairs waiting for me, the bride.

Down those great big stairs is Jay, my future husband.  My mother flutters about.  I am sure waiters are about to trip and spill green apple martinis all over me and ruin 13 months of planning.  I take a breath. 

My father is not by my side, not here to give me away.  He is dead.  A suicide when I was four.  This is the fact of my life I expect people to know about me instantly.  My defining layer.

Then there is Stanley, sitting right next to me, our knees almost touching, like a protector from errant waiters, his tuxedo jacket almost like a superhero’s cape.  He was once my step-father, now my adopted father.  I still feel a little like a liar, like alarms will blare and the truth police will arrive when I refer to him as my “father” though.

I first met Stanley when I was about nine at Kennedy airport.  He came to pick us up after a trip.  There he was down the long hallway along with everyone else’s someone special.  My mother seemed to know him as evidenced by the hugs and kisses.  But I was unsure.  I couldn’t sleep in my mother’s bed anymore.  He encouraged me to make my own friends and not hover by my mother’s side.  I found him suspicious.

Now twenty three years later here we are at my wedding.  This man by my side.

Is it okay to admit that I recognize how important a father is at a daughter’s wedding?  Is it okay to admit I still mourn for a man I barely knew?  Is it okay to admit I still expect him to show up?

“This is everything I’ve ever wanted,” I say to Stanley.  My voice cracks and I can feel the tears.  I feel as if I am the only person to have ever done such a thing before.  He looks at me as if, perhaps, I may just be the first bride ever. 

 

When Jay and I went for our marriage license, I had all the proper papers with me.  Passport.  Birth Certificates.  Driver’s license.  We filled out all the forms.  I was overwhelmed and surprised that there was a space for my new name.  New name?  That is the hardest part of all.  No one in my family when I was growing up had my name, since my mother remarried.  I want my children to share my name, that means taking Jay’s, giving up my father’s.  I didn’t know I had to do it then.  I thought I could think about it, ease into it.

I had thought about changing my name once before.  Stanley and I sat in some judge’s chambers finalizing the adoption.  I was about 19.  I wanted to speak up, declare I wanted his name.  I wanted to please him so, but something kept me quiet. 

“Don’t do it then, just leave it,” Jay said.

I filled the space in the form.  Rachel Schinderman.  I took it as an option.  I hated that part of it.  A claiming of.  But was I upset because I wouldn’t be claimed as my father’s anymore?  My father who I go out of my way to remember and to celebrate.  My father who left me.

I handed over all of my papers.  The woman was perplexed when she saw I had two men listed under father.  I handed her both birth certificates.  I was issued a new one after the adoption with Stanley’s name.  She looked at me as if no other person had ever come before her window with such a situation.  I found that impossible.  She went deep within her area and conferred with others.  They looked over at me with that’s her in their eyes. 

She came back and declared, as if she were the ultimate authority in New York State, that since I had the same name as one of them, Jeffrey Zients, that that was who would be listed.  Fine.

She turned to her computer.  “How do you spell Jeffrey?”

“J-e-f-f…”  Was it an e or an r, Jeffrey or Jeffery.  I picked up the birth certificate to check.  “J-e-f-f-r-e-y.”

Jay took my hand.  He could see that I was upset, that I didn’t know off the top of my head how to spell my father’s name with no uncertainty.

Even at the City Clerk’s Office, he was with me.  I tried to shake him off.  As we waited in the next line, I leaned into Jay’s arm.  I was so sorry I was crying.  This was a happy time.


My mother, Stanley and I take our place in the hall before the stairs, the stairs I have worried about for almost a year.  The club’s coordinator gets the go-ahead on his walkie-talkie and signals us to go.  The string quartet below begins to play Over The Rainbow.  We come into view for all below to see. 

My dress is more difficult to manage than I had thought.  My mother holds my arm securely.  We are already almost halfway down.  Stanley isn’t holding me, just standing by my side and grasping the railing on the other.  He won’t even come near me.  I must have been too vocal about not making me trip down the stairs – or is he just moving from spot to spot, playing this role, making his way through?  Is he my “father,” getting to walk me down the aisle because he pays for the wedding?  What does this mean to him?

“I need you to hold me,” I whisper in his ear. 

He looks surprised at my request for help, as if to say all you had to do was ask, like he didn’t want to intrude on me.  He takes my arm solidly in his and we continue down even further.

I kiss my parents and Jay greets them.  As I let them go and take my place next to Jay, I am suddenly calm, even giggly.

Jay turns to me and makes his promises, his vows.  I hear bits.  Pieces.  I can feel my body curl in, taking him and the moment into me.

Then I make my vows to him.  “…And when I need to cry, as I sometimes do, you never say, ‘just get over it.’”

I see the rabbi lean back, surprised by the thought, taking it in.

I dab my tears and we smile at each other, grasping the other’s hand.  Hard part’s over.

Jay steps on the glass.  We kiss.  And everyone yells, “Mazel Tov!”  Then we hurry back down the aisle together, married.

I am thirty-two, almost eight months into being thirty-two.  My father was thirty-two, just over seven months when he died.  I have made it past the length of his life.  This is a good way to mark it.

When we all settle and sit at our tables, Stanley rises and heads to the microphone.  I sit up a little higher in my chair, ready for this moment, a father’s toast to a daughter.  I really get one.  Will this actually count as a father’s toast?  I don’t know what he will say.  A stepfather’s?  I hope it is more than just “Welcome and please have a good time.”

“First of all, thank you very much for coming here tonight and simply joining us.”  Adopted father’s?  “I think there is just a bit of a void that should be addressed and I would like to address it.  And I would like to say a few words on behalf of someone who is not here tonight.  And I guess I’m speaking to all of you, but I’m really speaking directly to Rachel.”

I look for my mother.  Her face reads stunned.  She didn’t know this is what he was going to do.  I look back for Stanley in the center of the big dance floor, holding the microphone, tiny in his tuxedo.  I remind myself to pay great attention.  Do not get lost to the emotion.  Is this really what he’s doing?

“I would like to say a few words for Jeff Zients.”

Yes, it is and I couldn’t have imagined it, couldn’t have dared to dream it.  I didn’t know it was just what I wanted.

“I think if Jeff Zients were here, he would tell Rachel certain things.  I think he would tell Rachel that he marvels at how a four year old has developed and turned into a wonderful, truly wonderful young human being.  And Rachel is marvelous, I think Jeff would say in many ways, not the least of which I think is her respect for tradition, for family, and, maybe most of all, her respect for respect itself.  And I think Jeff would tell Rachel he loves her very much because of that.”

Hearing his name, Jeff, over and over, is a sound that is strange but lovely.  I can feel it enter me each time.

“I think, however, most of all, what Jeff would say is that I love you because you are my daughter and you will always be my daughter and for eternity you will be my daughter…I think Jeff would have said those things, and if I’m right, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, it is not too late for it to be said appropriately.  For myself, I think I would only like to say one thing, if in fact what I believe Jeff would have said, he would have said, ‘Rachel my love, he is speaking for me also.’  We love you.  Thank you.”

There is a silence in the air.  I go straight to Stanley, hug him and am at a loss.  This is more than I ever could have imagined.  A true fatherly moment.  I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by Stanley.  But I wear my father’s death as a badge, a shield.  Have I kept him at an arm’s length?  Fatherless is how I identify myself.

 

There is always a little broken place.  That little broken place reminds me that such events do not go away all wrapped up pretty in a box, but rather need tending to, and when tended to properly, they sleep and rest and allow you to tend to other things.

I know my history will not all be gone after today, but I do not care.  I have a husband.  A mother.  A father.  High above in this ballroom that puts us dancing on the same level as the tips of the trees in Central Park, we dance jumping high off the ground, up toward the sky, through the tall city buildings, into the night.  Pounding and thumping the dance floor each time we come back down. 

Jump!  Jump!   

Then up again we go, up, up we jump. 

Jump!  Jump! 

Jumping for joy.

For on this day I became one man’s wife and another man’s daughter.