Grief is a prankster, a child who cheats at hide-and-seek. I tip-toe around it, quiet as snow, while it counts to ten. I know that my stealth is useless because that grubby liar always peeks through its fingers. I never even asked it to play, but once it muscled into the game, it became a constant companion. We met in 1983, on the day I lost my father.
It grabs me at odd moments, when I am overcome by the smell of wood smoke from an autumn bonfire or I hear the plaintive call of geese flying past in the November dawn. Those are the times when I miss my father’s coffee and cigarette scent and the girl I was, before I ceased being his daughter.
My father was a renaissance man. A musician, whose concerts were all played on the tattered living room sofa; a sculptor whose delicate wood carvings were only ever given as gifts to friends. An inventor. A mechanic. A poet. His genius was matched only by the insidious nature of his mental illness. I never learned the diagnosis that earned him a medical discharge from the Marine Corps in 1969, but the family legend was that he was discovered practicing a bleeding ritual to rid himself of a dark child that inhabited his body. He had a tremendous capacity for tenderness, but was just as frequently callous and cruel. Most of all, he was a vicious defender of the narratives that strung his life together. There was no contortion too complex or painful that he would not bend himself into to maintain the perception of himself as a righteous, misunderstood man.
My earliest memory of my father is lying in bed with him and playing sleeping beauty. I would squeeze my eyes shut and giggle, while I waited for him to kiss me on the lips. He was my prince, when I was a girl of five or six, my arbiter of magic. There was nothing he could not transform: mundane objects like a willow branch and a glass stone became a fairy crown in his hands. There was also darkness in him. His anger was a dangerous, ranting thing that could splinter the peace of our home in a moment and without warning.
Home was undefinable by the time I reached second grade. There was no way to explain to the adults in my life what happened when the door closed and it was just my father, my mother, and I locked inside our sad, little apartment. I was his daughter on good days, his pearl. He would sit me at his feet and play his guitar, making up songs about Greek gods. He taught me to read with Shakespeare. I could recite the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet before I was six. He did not know my mother or me, on the bad days. He would stalk and mutter until something in him broke and he dropped where he stood, screaming I can’t take it anymore like he was being tortured.
The worst times for me were the days when he did not speak at all and lingered in the corner of the living room or by the door, like a trapped ghost. He would stare at me, holding a cigarette in one hand, while the other flicked and adjusted his penis through his trousers. I do not think he even knew he was doing it; to him, touching himself was as reflexive as breathing. There was a weight in his eyes that I did not understand. A glare that froze me to my marrow, sending a sick jolt of electricity skittering down my spine, and making me desperate to please him at the same time.
The orbital pattern of our family was set with my father at the center, leaving my mother and me subject to his flares of mania and the dense gravity of his withering depressions. My mother moved around him in careful circles of silence, while I raced by her, sketching frantic parabolas in the day-to-day motion of our lives.
My father’s attentions became more intrusive with each successive birthday and by nine he had plucked me out of the air and transformed my growing body into a vessel for his darkest imaginings. I was subjected daily to the mercurial alchemy of his illness; one moment I was the wellspring of his most cherished hopes and the next I was a bottomless gorge of disillusionment.
I learned my role well and became as malleable as clay, not just for him, but for the men and boys who could see his sorcery at work. I attempted suicide at thirteen, a botched job that ended in the emergency room where I was force-fed Syrup of Ipecac until I vomited the pills I had taken. I was sent home the same night. It was 1983 and no one asked me why.
The psychiatrist who treated me was named Dr. Sunshine, because the universe is a place of savage poetry. He labeled my behavior a call for help, patted me on the shoulder, and said I would feel better after a few days of rest. My father held my hand during the entirety of the interview with the doctor, the perfect picture of a frightened parent.
We were home from the hospital before midnight and I went straight to bed, waking hours later in the ephemeral blue of false dawn, thirsty for a glass of water. I passed the living room and found my father awake. His face was tear streaked, his lips pressed into a thin line and blanched white. I called to him, but my voice was just background noise, like the sound of wood settling in an old house, disregarded, trivial, and muted by the mind. It was the first and last time I saw him cry. Later that morning I stood in the bathroom and stared at my reflection. The girl I saw was a stranger. I mourned for her body that was never truly hers, and her heart that was as blank and empty as a dying star.
After that night, there were no more sightings of the charismatic man who fashioned fairy crowns out of willow branches. He had vanished and been replaced by a sour doppelganger who regarded me with suspicion. I was an interloper, a fake. My fragile attempt to claim dominion over my body had made me as alien to him, as I was to myself. That is where I first met grief, in those cold days following the hospital, when all traces of my father were lost. I became a thing, a possession to be coveted or discarded depending on the whim of the man who lived in my father’s skin.
The girl that was his daughter hovered over my shoulder for decades. She whispered in my ear while I read his letters or spoke to him on the phone. He wrote me poems about the sex workers he had bedded and the exotic dancers who reminded him of my spark. He would laugh, delighted to tell me that the day I was born was the happiest day of his life, and in the next breath liken my intellect and beauty to Verdi’s famous French courtesan, Violetta.
I was thirty-four when I began to untangle the snarl of beliefs that tied me to him, until I severed the final threads of our connection. It took another decade to learn the language of a survivor. Grief was my companion through that thirty-year journey, the shape and flavor of it changing on my tongue when I finally allowed the girl I once was to retreat into the past.
The riddle of what happened when the man, who was my father, died is all that remained. That is the complication for those of us who have escaped the hungry, wandering hands of our history. We mourn a living person, aware of our grief each day, until the one who has been misplaced is brought down to dust, and we are released.
Jennifer K. Kowalski is an author whose poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction explore the intersection of gender, sexuality, and sexual expression. Her sex-positive, blended-genre erotica is published as Anne Stagg on Bellesa.co. Jennifer also contributed feature articles and a regular column to dialogue Magazine and poetry to Tar River Poetry’s 25th Anniversary Edition under her family name Jennifer Ralph. She holds a Master’s in Social Work and is a vocal advocate for the creation of physical and virtual spaces that affirm gender-expression and sexuality without shame or apology. Visit http://www.jkkowalskiwrites.wordpress.com and http://www.annestaggwrites.wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jkkowalski and @annestaggwrites.