My dad. I’m fairly certain he had a bluebird in his heart, so deep down not many knew of its existence. He passed away 5 years ago, alone, in the bedroom he rented from a minister who ran a “sober” house. A house in which 4 men, all strangers, each inhabited a bedroom and shared the common spaces. Like college roommates without any connection to each other whatsoever. And minimal conversation.
Of course, when I called my sister to join me in saying goodbye to his body, stiffened in an upright, seated position, we noted that his blaring tv was set to a sports channel, and we wondered what he had been watching for his last moments. He hated sports. We sent him off, packaged in an awkwardly shaped body bag to the the local medical school, and emptied his room. There was a backpack tucked deep in his closet, filled with emptied Jim Beam bottles. He had a couple drawers of clothes, and a laptop. And, propped on his dresser, a framed photo of us taken during our childhood.
Our mother was forbidden from visiting. She was, as he claimed all too often, “an asshole.” Theirs was not a civil divorce. His girlfriend of 15 years had evicted him a month before he died. He clung to his cell phone, undoubtedly hoping for her call during his last day. She never phoned. I could only imagine the drama they had shared. God knows, we witnessed 20 years of it in our own house. The angry silences, the excuses after his late nights, half-concealed bruises on my mother, the slurred rants, plates smashed against walls, the tears.
Clumsily moving aside these images, I choose to focus on others. The drives to school, windows rolled up, cracked open just a touch, so that the cigarette smoke could meander up and out, but only after leaving us with its stench. We carried the lunches he prepared for us . . . the mini pizzas accented with added mozzarella and slices of lunch meat. We didn’t have the heart or courage to tell him that by noon, the cheese and meat would have congealed into a cold mass.
He would sing sometimes, eyes closed, head tilted upward, smiling and feeling every word of Bridge over Troubled Water. When we scattered his ashes in the ocean, my sister and I anchored our canoe, shared stories, and sang his favorite Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel songs. We knew song was how he allowed his bluebird to appear.
I wondered how long in the past it was that others could see that bluebird as well. So many secrets that, like the bluebird, peered out every once in a while. Secrets that forced my dad to guard that bluebird fiercely from a childhood spent moving from family to family after some hushed abuse, mysterious not-to-be-shared time as a sharpshooter in Vietnam-era Southeast Asia, countless fights, a lackluster attempt at self-employment, and failed relationships.
Somehow, I have a confident knowing that today, my dad’s bluebird is perched next to him, both of them singing wholeheartedly and with so much feeling.