Sunday, January 23, 2005

Into the Night

When I was a little girl, tucked under my pink chenille bedspread in the room I shared with my whispering sister, if I stayed awake late enough, I could hear my dad's laughter echo down the hallway of our tiny tract house. Every night, he ate a hamburger my mother grilled for him and watched Johnny Carson's monologue before he left for work.

He was a ship-to-shore radio operator for ITT World Communications. A few times, for reasons which remain a mystery to me, I was taken to his workplace during daylight hours. The building sat between two towns in a blackberry vine infested pasture and was built on stilts. I remember climbing a set of wooden slatted stairs to reach the entrance. Inside, I'd find myself bewildered by a dazzling array of radios and equipment with flashing lights. My dad had a cot there and he would doze until he heard the Morse code call letters of the station, indicating that an incoming ship had a message for him to relay.

He mostly hated that job, and who could blame him, really? He worked from midnight until 8:00 a.m. and then he spent the morning tinkering with radios and televisions and eventually, computers. He always ran his own shop where he fixed things that plugged in. He slept in the afternoons, if he were lucky, and just the early evenings otherwise. And then, at the last minute, after we'd already gone to bed, he'd emerge from his dark cave-like bedroom with its room-darkening shade where he wore a mask over his eyes in an attempt to block out the day, dress in a flannel shirt, and roar his irrepressible laugh at Johnny Carson's smirking grin and raised eyebrow and jokes.

For several years, my father didn't actually speak to my mother, though they slept in the same bed (though not at the same time). Perhaps that's why I listened, late at night, to his laughter. It was the only time I heard him laugh.

My parents never fought in front of us, either. Once I discovered tears rolling down my mother's cheeks while she was preparing to go out to dinner with my father. She assured me nothing was wrong, but I knew better.

It was probably around the same time that I heard them argue through the walls of my make-shift bedroom (my grandfather had built a wall and enclosed the space where our dining room had been, so I had a room of my own, nestled between the kitchen and the living room). My parents were on the other side of that wall and I heard my mother rebuke my father: "I cleaned up your vomit!" He'd had cancer and chemotherapy and she'd stood by him, cleaned him up, survived it with him and he repaid her by leaving us. Cancer had introduced him to Death and Death made him walk backwards from my mother, his wife of thirteen years, and sprint for the nearest exit. He had some living to do, and apparently we were holding him back.

Does anything end up the way you imagine it will? When my dad left, we saw him more than we'd seen him before. He took us bowling for the first time ever. We went on drives and outings. He came to my baseball games. Before a year had passed, I lived back under the same roof, listening in the dark to him hee-hawing his way through Johnny Carson's monologue. He had a new wife, but some things never changed.

No one laughed harder or louder than my dad, but that laughter is only a memory I can conjure up in words, not sound. None of us have any audio recording of his laugh, so I can describe his glee, his exuberance, his head thrown back, his eyes watering with tears from that hard laughter, but I can't hear it.

When I heard that Johnny Carson had died this morning, I felt the loss of my childhood and the loss of my father's laugh. One more tangible part of my father's history is gone, eroded away by the relentless, coming-and-going tide of living and dying. Soon, the world as I know it will be completely unlike the world my dad knew and the very idea of that changed landscape brings with it a lonesome fog of longing.

And so, off they go, into the night, while I stand here on shore, straining to hear the laughter.


Blogger Marykay said...

Once again, beautiful. It's not yet 8 am and I've already had tears coming down my face. Thanks.

4:35 AM  
Blogger Wash Lady said...

Once again - your entry has spoken to the depths of my soul in ways that I can not even articulate.
Thank you.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Square1 said...

I am near tears right now. How sad for your mother. How sad for you. Beyond that I am... speechless.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

Johnny Carson's death from emphysema brings to mind my grandfather's death from that same awful disease.

I have a painting of him, done by a friend when he was eighteen. He has a cigarette in his mouth. I want to pull it out. I wish my husband and kids had known him.

Mel, have you thought of teaching writing? Most writing is PAINFUL. Yours is a pleasure, even when it brings me to tears.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Tina said...

It's always amazing to me how clearly you seem to remember...
I can practically see it and feel it myself..

3:33 PM  
Blogger Smoov said...

Sadly, I can kind of relate to your Dad feeling as if he had some living to do and the family was holding him back. I hope that I can find the strength to overcome that feeling and remain where I am and where I should be.

Great entry by the way. I love how you connected Johnny Carson with your Dad and childhood. I clearly remember staying up late sometimes, watching Johnny Carson with my Dad. I would sit in his recliner with him, squished up right beside him, his only little girl :)

4:17 PM  

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