Sunday, June 6, 2010

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This is from an essay about my dad.

Dad sat on the living room floor, shoeless, his back leaning against the base of the sofa, legs resting Indian style. The room was reflected in the dark TV screen and Dad stared past his reflection. I sat next to him and he leaned forward, his face closer than necessary like he was going to whisper a secret. “I feel real good,” he said. “Pretty damn OK.” The corner of his mouth twisted and he slouched his head to the side above my shoulder, his lips smacking with each exhale. His eyes drifted shut, but his lazy smirk kept resurfacing sloppy and leaning to one side like a drunk keeping his balance against a wall. Dad hadn’t grinned in months and it took this smirk for me to realize how much I missed his contagious laughter.
Dad followed the Word of Wisdom, Mormon doctrine written by Joseph Smith advising members to abstain from cigarettes, alcohol, and damaging drugs, but it didn’t say anything about abusing prescription painkillers. He could take as many as he wanted, provided a doctor prescribed them. The pills crept through his blood, numbed his skin, and slowed the beats of his heart. His eyes dilated and he embraced the intoxicating numb. He’d never experienced anything like getting high and as the painkillers eased his nerves and relieved the stress of work and family he realized that they granted him the power to relax, something he’d never been good at. I don’t know how long it took for him to become an addict; perhaps it was with the first pill. Sometimes I wonder if he ever became self aware enough to know that he was dependent on painkillers. Before his first surgery Dad had one doctor, a year later he visited twenty. Doctors became drug dealers as he circled offices complaining of pain, asking for second opinions, and each doctor handed him a prescription. Pills lined bathroom counters and shelves, filled kitchen cabinets, and shook like maracas in the console of his Ford pickup.
Mom confronted Dad about his drug use. She yelled at him, asking if he really needed to take a hand full of white pills each day. She described his changed behavior. She told him people in our congregation were asking about his trembling hands, slurred speech, and why he stumbled on flat ground. His face relaxed, one eye half shut, “I just need’ a get better.” He gazed at her for a long time, lips moist fighting saliva, face shrunken and cracked like old lumber. I could see Dad’s decay and so could Mom, but he was blind to the changes in himself.
I had a recurring dream during this time where I went to a funeral. Inside the coffin was Dad. His body stiff, polished, and dressed in a suit, but he could still speak. He couldn’t move and his voice came from somewhere beneath his chest. I tried to divert my eyes from looking at Dad’s corpse and focus on his voice. I can’t recall what he said, but I remember his voice sounding distant like he was speaking on the other end of a long tunnel. As his charming laughter surfaced less, and as he slept on the sofa more than sat at the head of the table, and as stick horses slowly became extinct, the dream became a reality.
Aided by painkillers, Dad continued to craft heating ducts. He slogged about his shop like his feet were heavy in mud. His grip around aviator snips weakened, slowing his ability to cut sheet metal and he struggled to draw a straight line. His new slower pace further damaged his body. In the haze of his forming addiction, he drove screws through his fingers, broke bones on ladders, slashed flesh with box cutters, and crushed his foot with a compound press. Wearing a white bandage protecting his arm, he stumbled about his shop in a prescription boot, gauze taped along the seam of his abdomen. The decline on his body reflected in his shop and in the quality of his work. Curled and jagged scrap sheet metal littered the shop floor and most of the heavy machinery held a thick black metallic dust. Heavy weeds lined the gravel yard surrounding the shop along with broken pallets and failed heating ducts. Customers complained about the quality of his work and he spent many hours repairing mis-wired thermostats and sagging heating ducts.
He lived by the cliché: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Perhaps that’s why, when my parent’s relationship got rough, he didn’t say much to Mom. He stopped making her laugh and his silence echoed through our home as Mom cast aside general communication for rage.
She screamed at dad, her face arched up and next to his, only one inch separating their height. The spit exiting her mouth held enough force to make him flinch. She rolled her shoulders back, her chest swelling. She hated all the pills he took, the way he leaned against walls for balance, struggled to retain saliva, and forgot appointments. She told him he was a shitty father and terrible husband. “I wish I’d never married you,” she said. He didn’t try to turn the situation with his charm and he didn’t scream back, but just stood, fingers rolling across his Wrangler jeans, face cold like the sheet metal he crafted into heating ducts.