Shannon R. Blake
At 64 my father had a midlife crisis and tried to kill himself. Instead of dying, he found solace in a prostitute/model named Ashley. My mother cried for three days and then moved on. And just like that, in the span of two sentences, 35 years of marriage was over. We were left holding only fragments of each other. That, and the crinkled photos of a family we once knew.
When I was six, he left us for the Gulf War. I remember watching those blurred images of beige, brown and sand on our television screen. My mother, Deb, wrote to him every week, told him about my grades, my teenage sister’s tantrums, the case lot sale at the commissary. When I was six, he left us for the Gulf War and we didn’t know if he’d return. When I was 30, he just left and never returned.
PTSD. Also known as Shellshock, also known as Soldier’s Heart, also known as Combat Stress Reaction is not something we ever talked about in my house. He carried it well, internalized it and taught us all to do the same with our own emotions, and we did because that’s what strength was. At 63 he retired and spent hours walking around the yard picking up stray rocks, paper clips, bits of glass. He ironed my mother’s clothes, cleaned the house from top to bottom, tightened screws on door handles, painted over dirt in the hallways of their home. Now, the locks are changed, and he has to ask permission to come. There are times I visit and believe I hear the faint laughter of lover’s secrets coming from their bedroom. When I told my therapist about this, she scribbled something on her pad and shook her head. Even now, I believe she was reminding herself to complete some mundane chore after I left.
September 2004. Fifteen positive pregnancy tests later and I finally start to believe it. In my dorm room at the University of Tennessee my roommate is studying for her biochemistry exam and the television is on Jeopardy. Through the bathroom door, I hear a question about a naked prophet. I answer incorrectly before the sound of the buzzer. She asks if I’m okay and I shake my head no but answer with a polite “yeah.” These are the most words we’ve exchanged in weeks because she hates me, and now I have a reason to hate me too. Months later she’ll tell the RA that I’m pregnant and I’ll get kicked out. Before I even get the chance to talk to her, she’ll be filling out the application for a single room while I vomit the last of her Pringles in the sink.
Five months after we celebrate my 20th birthday and I’m sitting on the bed at a friend’s house with Matthew, my child’s father. Next to me, the phone buzzes blue and red. It’s been buzzing all week because I refuse to answer the phone for my parents. My father, the one who changed my diapers, the one who stormed into the hospital after I was born demanding to see me, is the one I fear the most. He taught me everything, taught me to be stronger than the rest, taught me where weakness lives. “Disappointment, is the worst of all,” he once told me. On the day I finally answer the phone and tell him, he won’t talk to me until months later after my son is born. Sitting at my desk on a clear day in May, I’ll remember this betrayal and wish him dead.
Addict. Also known as Junkie, also known as Dope Fiend, also known as User is what Matthew and I both were back then. Xanax, Hydrocodone, Methadone, Percocet, Vicodin, white ones, blue ones, yellow ones, even the speckled ones that reminded me of Sweet Tarts but weren’t. October 2004, days before Matthew‘s birthday, I finally gather the nerve to say something about my situation.
“So, I’m a bit pregnant,” I say.
Matthew smokes a cigarette and nods his head. He laughs, turns to me and smiles.
“A bit huh?” he says, “so what are you going to do about that?”
“Well, I’m trying to ignore it, but that doesn’t seem to be working.”
He laughs again and continues watching his show, and in that moment, I knew we had lost each other. We no longer had the simple joys of pleasantry or of knowing just what the other needed and how much or how little and how often. We no longer had the sweet hell to crawl through together because no matter what decision I made, it would be mine alone.
“Well, what do you want to do?” I say.
“I don’t know. Put it up for adoption,” he responds.
Those words rung in my head for days after the fact, and I knew that there was an entire list of things I would rather do than birth my child and hand him over to strangers. He had my blood and Matthew‘s blood, and he would be the only good thing two addicts could create together. In those days, I continued to go out, continued to behave as if nothing in my life had changed. Once, I sat in the damp haze of his living room drinking a shady concoction of something brown and clear. We sat silent for a time, sipping, smoking, lulling along through the night. The first kick I felt from my son was followed by a violent fit of sickness. My son, stubborn like his mother, like his father, and his grandfather, announced himself in that moment. He let me know that he would not yield, and that he would go down fighting before he let me unnaturally wash him away.
Abortion. Also known as termination, also known as feticide, also known as misbirth is what I found myself contemplating as I stood at the top of the dark stairway. Matthew had taken to eating meals at his parent’s house as I rationed out my potatoes and bagels for the month, and letting the air in is all I could think about while my body screamed for drugs. Evan, my now 10-year-old son, grew slowly in those months, and I tried my best to ignore the sensation of being drained dry by him. When I finally commit myself to force a fall, he began to move and kick furiously as if he could read my mind, as if he were an animal fighting for its life. This need to stay close to ensure his safety and mine will continue as he grew older. Matthew quickly fell away in the distance, and left me to raise this willful clairvoyant alone.
December 2013 my father disappears for ten days and I automatically assume the worst. May 2014 Matthew calls and says he wants a relationship with his son. From May until August a number of events occurred: My father moved to Charlotte to become father/lover to his 27-year-old girlfriend and her 6-year-old daughter. Matthew spoke to Evan a total of three times before disappearing again. I cried more in those months than I have in my entire life.
Love, devotion, allegiance, weakness, misery, neglect. Matthew and my father have nothing in common except they both loved my deeply, and believed in ever after. The saddest part is that I believed it too, and we all forgot about the universe and her sardonic nature. 27-year-old Ashley shone her wondrous promiscuous light and stole my father away. In the case of Matthew, his love of the high overshadowed any love we created together. For the rest of my life, I know I’ll never love anyone one as much as I loved these two. For the rest of my life, I’ll be like so many of you and that is the most depressing truth of all.
To these fathers I give no glory, no praise, no third instance with which to finish breaking my heart. To my son, the only son that matters, and to the ghosts he has to carry with him the rest of his days, I give a world without end. Forever and ever. Amen.
About the author:
Shannon R. Blake is an English Instructor at the University of South Carolina-Sumter. She loves writing in the dark, reading in corners, and putting her feet in the grass. Currently, she lives in Columbia, SC with her son Evan and dog Dundun where she works on her collection of nonfiction essays.