I look almost exactly like my father. Cheekbones, hair, fluctuating body type, it's all the same, except the eyes. Not the color, but the shape. Mine are rounder and wider apart. If you look at pictures of me and of my Dad at my age, it looks like someone grabbed his ears and pulled until his whole head stretched.
The eyes, I suppose, come from my mother. I'm not sure though. I have very few pictures of her and in the ones I have, she's already sick and that's really all you see in her.
I look nothing like my Uncle Greg, which makes sense, as we don't share any genes. I sound like him though, especially upset. My mad voice and mocking vocabulary, thrown at inept waiters and gridlocked traffic. That's him. He comes out when I'm angry.
So, basically, I talked like him nonstop from thirteen to eighteen.
My father didn't exactly have it easy.
I don't blame him, not anymore, but oh, God, did I then.
I get that it wasn't his fault though, I mean, his job took a lot out of him and then there was me and then my grandparents sued for custody again and there were all these people coming into our lives and telling us how to live. He was just one man.
And then there was my Uncle Greg.
Uncle Greg wasn't the most paternal figure in the world.
How do I explain?
Oh, okay, you know that scene from Brave New World, where they go into the childrens' dorm and there are row after row of sleeping kids and these little speakers whispering at them to be good little children and not question society or whatever?
I always got the feeling Uncle Greg was pissed off he couldn't do that to me. Except instead of, "Gosh, I love new clothes," the speaker would say, "Be cynical. Be skeptical. There is no God. There is no soul. Gosh, we're all just meat bags running on electrical impulses, programmed by past behavior, stimulus and response."
Only, he wouldn't say gosh.
He didn't believe in pulling punches and he didn't believe in inappropriate conversation and he didn't believe that a ten year old shouldn't know that the reason his father didn't get out of bed in the morning was because he couldn't stand to look anyone.
More on that in a second.
It's usually about this time I say, I remember.
I remember being angry as a kid. I remember being lonely.
I remember it was Christmas Eve and we were cruising home after one last shopping trip. I was kicking the air between my booster seat and Dad's seat back and updating my Christmas wish list one more time.
"Dad. Dad. Dad. Did you see those remote control helicopters? Do you think Santa will bring me one of those?"
"I don't know, buddy."
"I think he might. I know I didn't ask him for one but I think he might anyway. Or maybe he'll bring Uncle Greg one. Uncle Greg would like a remote control helicopter." I waved my hand through the air and mimicked a helicopter, granted one that moved like a jet plane.
I remember my Dad was smiling. I remember the radio was playing carols.
I remember the car came out of nowhere.
Wanna know a family secret?
Dad speeds. I know, he doesn't look like the type, but he speeds like a maniac. Dad cuts corners fast, rolls through stop signs and parks in illegal spaces. And often, while he's doing these things, he doesn't wear his seat belt.
When the big silver SUV plowed into the side of our little car, I wrenched hard against the plastic harness of my car seat and cried out in shock. Dad, on the other hand, smacked his head against the driver's side window, shattering the glass and then fell over the steering wheel, limp as a rag doll. He didn't make a noise.
It seemed to take forever but when the car finally stopped we were in the middle of the intersection. People were yelling. Cars were screeching to a halt. Dad wasn't moving.
I remember yelling, "Dad!"
I was a blubbering, snotty, screaming, red faced mess when they dragged me out of the ambulance. It took two EMTs to get me into the emergency room and I was kicking the emergency room doctor every chance I could get.
I was one hundred percent sure my dad was dead. My dad was dead and they'd take me away again and this time they'd send me God knows were and I'd never see my school or my room or any of my friends ever again.
So I was kicking the emergency room doctor.
Don't try to reason it out. It's panicked little kid logic.
The doctor kept trying to get her hands on me, to check my pulse or the bruises running from my shoulders down my abdomen or to see if I was bleeding.
"Joseph," she'd say. "Joseph, honey, remember me? You know me, sweetheart. It's Doctor Cameron."
And then I'd kick her again.
This went on for a while. I don't remember how long.
She was getting frustrated and then finally she backed off, gritted her teeth, and asked me, in a pseudo calm voice, if I'd rather she tied me down.
That's when the curtain pulled back and there was Uncle Greg.
I launched myself at him and he threw his cane down on the bed to take me up in both arms.
This was not something that happened very often.
I wrapped my legs around his stomach, rested my head on his shoulder, and wailed pitifully.
"Get lost," he told the doctor.
Uncle Greg checked me out himself.
I was fine. Bruised and shaken up, but completely fine, not a scratch.
The next parts are confusing and I remember them out of order.
I remember I took a shower and changed my clothes. I remember there was glass in my hair.
I remember a police officer came and took pictures of my chest and back. The bruises formed a near perfect outline of the harness of my car seat.
I remember Uncle Greg yelling loudly at Lisa, a friend of the family, who I think was in charge at the time. She was telling him hospital policy and he was telling her to go to hell.
I remember my Dad.
He was lying in the hospital bed, one eye bruised and swollen shut. It wasn't until I saw the easy rise and fall of his chest that I let myself think he could be alive.
I turned to Uncle Greg.
"He's breathing-breathing, right? Not machine-breathing?" I knew they had gizmos that could keep your lungs inflating and your heart beating long after you were dead.
"Joseph?" Dad croaked.
I let out a little relieved sigh and ran to him, putting my hands on the metal railings of the bed.
"Joseph. I'm so sorry."
"It wasn't your fault." I said. "It was the goddamn SUV."
"Its fine, Wilson," Uncle Greg said. "He's totally fine."
There's this problem in my family. See, we're three guys, three guy-guys and there are times when not a one of us can express what we're all feeling. So we stand around and stare at each other and say things like, "I'm sorry," or "It's fine," when what we mean is, "I'm scared. I love you very much and I'm scared that I'm going to lose you."
This was one of those times.
Some of Uncle Greg's doctors came in, wearing white coats.
Uncle Greg put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me back from the bed.
"Joseph. They have to take him for an MRI."
Dad closed his other eye and they wheeled him away.
"Don't say goddamn," Uncle Greg said to the empty room.
I don't remember this.
I was sitting next to Uncle Greg in one of the waiting rooms. Uncle Greg was staring into space. I was drawing on scratch paper and shooting my mouth off.
"Maybe," I said, apparently, "Santa Clause will bring my presents here."
"Look, kid," Uncle Greg said wearily. "About Santa Clause. He's…"
I flipped out, dropped my papers, stood up on the chair and stuck my palm over his mouth. "No!" I said.
Uncle Greg pulled away my hand and gave me a look.
"Don't tell, Dad," I said.
"Don't tell him what?"
"That I know there is no Santa Clause."
"Because it makes him happy."
I don't remember it myself, but I remember Uncle Greg repeating the story every Christmas Eve for years and years.
Head injuries are weird.
You can seem fine, or at least, seem like you're going to be fine. They can send you home to rest up on the couch while your son opens up the remote control helicopter he saw you sneak into the trunk. You can pass all the tests, put the story cards in the right order, and repeat who the president is. You can do all these things and still be royally fucked up.
Look, I'm not a doctor, but I remember him before and I remember him after and afterward it was different. He was slightly moody, more prone to depression…
This is really stupid but he was a less bouncy Tigger. That's how I thought of it at the time. It was just like in the video, he went away and when he came back the bounce was gone.
Anyway, all of that stuff is much later. This assignment was supposed to be small. Write about a moment in your childhood when something important was said that you've always remembered.
"You're not wrong."
"Do you want them to take you away?"
"I'm so sorry."
"Don't tell Dad…because it makes him happy."
Written out like that it seems so small, fragile, this weak little flame we all huddled around, trying to keep each other sane.
I can't tell my father I love him anymore than I can sprout wings and fly. We don't work like that. But we do work, mostly, and we do occasionally stumble into affection and cooperation and even happiness (though we usually get so startled we raise our hands in surrender and walk quickly back down the path we came.) I can't say, "I love you, Dad." I can't say, "And you too, old man." I can't say, "Thank you for the sacrifices you made and the life you allowed to change and the million tons of effort you shoved into me every single day."
I can't say those things.
I can say this.