Everyone always told me I had the most beautiful mother. My friends’ parents, my teachers. My boyfriends. “I look like my father,” I always responded. But on this late autumn afternoon, with the sun peeking through the thickening October sky beyond the window, I can no longer see it.
“You came,” he whispers through fearful, clouded eyes. He slips his hand from beneath the covers and arduously pushes the arm of the television away. A playoff game is on. I slide the obligatory blue vinyl high-back hospital chair beside the IV pump. Closer, he takes a more comprehensive inventory and finally utters: “You look pale.” “I know. Mommy told me to put on lipstick before I came here,” I force a chuckle, my throat tightening at the irony. I start to tell him that she says I look dead without makeup, but change my remark just in time. “She says my face disappears without lipstick.” I am tempted to tell him the story about my wedding day, when my mother, right before she was to lead my attendants down the aisle, pulled a tube of lipstick from her cleavage and spread a new coat of color on me. Again I stop myself; he wasn’t at my wedding, he wasn’t the one who walked me down the aisle. And until he fell ill a few weeks ago, we hadn’t seen each other since I was 19.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen him at weddings and funerals, where we’ve been nothing more than two guests, two mourners who’ve nodded to each other and passed some pleasantries, like “How are you?” and “How’s work?” He’s a man I haven’t known for more than 30 years. I don’t know if he ever fell in love again, or which team he’s rooting for this October Sunday. I don’t even remember him being a baseball fan. Over the years, my older brothers never spoke to me about him, and at first, didn’t want to include me in the dying of their father. But at one time, for a time, he was mine.
His name is Joe. Joseph. I wasn’t much of a talker as a very young child. And when I did speak, animal was aminal. Glove was glubs. And Joseph was Jofish. What exactly happened between us, I can’t say. It had to do with the distance in miles after my parents divorced and my mother and I moved away. A physical distance that turned into an emotional one. It had a lot more to do with his laziness and my apathy bridging that distance as the years passed.
And as those years passed, as he ebbed more and more from my memories of day-to-dayness with him, I held onto to one. We were at the beach on the last vacation we took together as a family. My brothers were body surfing and he lifted me onto his shoulders. “Can you see the Eiffel Tower?” he asked. “Yes!” I shouted into the salty air. Oh, it was likely the mast of a boat, but I wanted to believe that I could see clear across the Atlantic, because my father was telling me I could.
A second memory has surfaced as of late; it is one that haunts me now, sitting beside him as the sound of the metal food cart bangs and rolls closer. “Daddy, please don’t smoke,” I pleaded with him that night in his apartment.
I was in the sixth or seventh grade, visiting over the Christmas holiday. We were eating the popcorn he’d made in a saucepan (my mother had taken the electric popper and it always bothered me that, knowing how much I liked popcorn, he never bought one for his own home). We were up late watching a rerun of The Honeymooners. At the end, Jackie Gleason always emerged from behind the stage curtains, a cigarette poised in his hand. The Surgeon General’s warning had just started appearing on the sides of cigarette packs and I looked at my father, who, I suppose inspired by Jackie, reached for his own pack.
He smiled. “Nothing will happen to me. I promise.”
Twenty-some years later he did quit. Today, 15 years after that, he’s dying of cancer that started in his lungs, spread to his esophagus, then spine and has colonized throughout his skeletal system.
The food cart passes his room. I want to tell him that he was the first man I loved and the first man who broke my heart. I wonder if he wants to say anything to me. A second baseball game drones on. It’s dark outside; he asks me to flip on the overhead light. I walk beside his bed and reach for the switch behind him. This is the closest I’ve been to him in more than three decades. He takes a long steady look at me, then with a shallow, labored breath, says, “You don’t need lipstick.”
And I want to believe I am beautiful—because my father is telling me I am.