My oldest sister got sent home from school on the day JFK got shot. She was five. “Mom,” she said as she came through the door. “The President got shot.”
“No honey, that was President Lincoln,” my mom said.
“No,” my sister said.
Twenty-five years later, I demanded from my mother, “What were you doing during the 60’s?” I was home from college, this time from Washington State. How could my parents have missed the entire decade? Why hadn’t they told me anything? “We were having babies,” my mom said. Rolling coins and pulling kids on a sled to the grocery store.
The raggedy ends of my feelings of loss tied themselves up for a long time. I considered myself lucky to not be in the breakdown category. Elvis, John Lennon—I was too young to appreciate their deaths. But Leon Klinghoffer? Soon it was Columbine and Sandy Hook. The world didn’t seem to be getting any better at holding itself back.
It is Christmas of 2013. My dad walks out of a hard morning, lays his head on my mom’s shoulder, and says, “Just shoot me.” My time-travel machine runs out of gas. I’m here now, and we have to get that man to sit down. We get my dad seated.
We go through the fruit list, the cereal options—we could have a hot breakfast, oatmeal or eggs. Cheese could be melted. But my dad just wants his juice and pills. He’s having a bad day and wants to go back to his chair. I would camp at his feet for a million years if I thought it would help. Instead, I tuck a blanket around him and hold my finger under his nose to make sure he’s breathing. I’m sure my mom has done this a million times.
It’s been almost a month since I’ve seen my dad, which I know doesn’t compare to anybody not seeing Martin Luther King for forty years, or Elvis, or anybody who’s died in a plane crash, or Nelson Mandela, or JonBenet, or any of the kids from Sandy Hook. But any word from the missing is valued. My niece, having recently visited my dad as well, tells me a story on the phone:
“I gave Grandpa a card and wrote all of the things I love about him in it,” she says. “I wrote the words and colored them in like bubbles.”
“I’m sure he loved it,” I say.
“Well, I did write ‘nature lover’ for one of his attributes, but he read it as ‘mature lover’,” she says.
“Did he read it out loud?”
“Yes,” she says. We do a long-distance cringe together. There is so much to be said for staying home for the holidays. “What did he say after that?” I say.
“He said, ‘Honey, I didn’t know you knew me that way’.”
The Christmas season passes, and there is no good reason to give gifts until Valentine’s Day. We don’t all have a holiday named after us. We haven’t all waged peaceful wars, we haven’t all risen to our utmost potential, and most of us haven’t gotten shot.
My dad dreams all of this out loud in a nightmare, and my mom hears it on the baby monitor she keeps in her bedroom. She flies down the hall twice a night to make sure he is still there.