Everyone always told me I had the most beautiful mother. My friends’ parents, my teachers. My boyfriends. “I look like my father,” I always responded. But on this late autumn afternoon, with the sun peeking through the thickening October sky beyond the window, I no longer see it.
“You came,” he whispers through clouded eyes. He slips his hand from beneath the covers and pushes away the arm of the TV. A playoff game is on. I slide the blue vinyl high-back hospital chair beside the IV pump. Closer, he takes more comprehensive inventory. “You look pale.”
“I know. Mommy told me to put on lipstick before I came here.” I start to say that she tells me I look dead without makeup, but change my remark in time. “She says my face disappears without lipstick.” I am tempted to tell him the story about my wedding day, when my mother, moments before she was to lead my attendants down the aisle, pulled a tube of lipstick from her cleavage and spread a new coat of color on me. Again I stop myself. He wasn’t at my wedding. He wasn’t the one who walked me down the aisle.
He’s a man I haven’t really known for more than 30 years. While we’ve seen each other at weddings – and funerals – and passed pleasantries, I don’t know if he ever fell in love again, or which team he’s rooting for this October Sunday. I don’t even remember him being a baseball fan. Over the years, my older brothers never spoke to me about him, and at first, didn’t want to include me in the dying of their father. But at one time, for a time, he was mine.
His name is Joe. Joseph. I wasn’t much of a talker as a very young child. And when I did speak, animal was aminal. Gloves was glubs. And Joseph was Jofish. What exactly happened between us, I can’t say. It had to do with the distance in miles after my parents divorced and my mother and I moved away. She was married now to the man I would come to call “my father” (the man who did walk me down the aisle). And though we lived only two hours away, what should have been a manageable physical distance turned into a vast emotional one as the years passed.
And as those years passed, as he ebbed more and more from my day-to-dayness with him, I held on to one memory: We were at the beach on the last vacation we took together as a family. I stood beside him at the water’s edge, watching my brothers body-surfing, when he lifted me onto his shoulders. “Can you see the Eiffel Tower?”
“Yes!” I shouted into the salty air. What I saw was likely the mast of a boat, but I believed I could see clear across the Atlantic, because my father was telling me I could.
A second memory has surfaced as of late; it is one that haunts me now as I sit beside him, the sound of the metal food cart banging and rolling closer. I was in the sixth or seventh grade, visiting over the Christmas holiday. We were eating the popcorn he’d made in a saucepan, up late watching a rerun of The Honeymooners. At the end, Jackie Gleason always emerged from behind the stage curtains, with a cigarette jammed between his fingers. The Surgeon General’s warning had started appearing on the sides of cigarette packs, and I looked toward my father, who, I suppose inspired by Jackie, reached for his. “Daddy, please don’t smoke.” He smiled, tapping the bottom of the pack against his wrist. “Nothing will happen to me. I promise.”
Twenty-some years later he did quit. Today, 15 years after that, he’s dying of cancer that started in his lungs, spread to his esophagus, then spine, and has colonized throughout his skeletal system. The food cart passes his room. I want to tell him that he was the first man I loved and the first man who broke my heart. I wonder if he wants to say anything to me. A second baseball game drones on. It’s dark outside; he asks me to turn on the overhead light. I walk beside his bed and flip the switch behind him. This is the closest I’ve been to him in more than three decades.
He takes a long steady look at me. “You don’t need lipstick.” And in that moment, I feel beautiful. Because my father is telling me I am.