On the Death of a Father
My father was tall. He was tall and strong and quick to smile. He was dark-headed and balding, not just thinning, on top. To cover this, he always wore a white Stetson hat that matched his white button up and blue jeans. His murder was one of the most sensational events to hit Wartburg, a small, unexciting town of 902. Now I constantly relive this crime every time I go back home. I was reminded of this while reading over August Wilson’s “Fences”. This carefully woven tale of fatherhood, assumptions, and the burden of the children of giants relates to my own struggles with the loss of my father and the continuity of his legacy.
I was 14 when my father died. I had only been in high school for two weeks and was running high off the thrill of finally making it in with the “big kids”. It was early morning, around ten, and I was in computer class. They called me up to the vice principal’s office and I waited with the principal, vice principal, and, oddly I found at the time, the school counselor. We gathered around until the phone rang and my mother told me to sit down before anything else. I questioned this and the adults in the room immediately scrambled to bring a half rusted folding chair from the corner of the room to beside the desk. My mother’s words were short and quick, “Maria. Daddy is dead. He was shot. I’m sending one of the men to pick you up. I need you to hold it together.” She had me hand off the phone to my vice principal, a woman I had known since 6th grade when my mother and I went to her house to help nurse a baby donkey. They spoke for a few minutes, confirming that one of the many men that worked for my family’s farm would come and get me while my mother dealt with the police. I don’t remember much. I remember handing off the phone and their conversation. I remember clinging to my vice principal and asking what I was going to do, what was my brother going to do, and she had no answer. I cried harder than I had in my entire life at that point. I would cry much harder later. The counselor didn’t do much besides get my bag from the computer room. The principal was an old southern man and despite his obvious concern and sorrow, he didn’t seem know how to deal with a crying girl. I sat in the main office with my blue school bag and waited for my father’s employee to pick me up. The next six months are a blur of tears and pain. I barely remember anything from that time.
This was six years ago. I am okay now. I have learned how to deal with grief. I know it’s rhyme and rhythm. I know when to ask for help, and therapy does wonders. I have been called upon to give advice on how to deal with Death and all his nuances. I have always said that grief is like a broken arm. In the beginning everyone can see it. They sign the cast and send cards and flowers. Everyone helps lift things and carries books. But it will heal. It gets stronger and stronger and eventually the cast is taken off. After that it is downhill. People will forget. They don’t mean to. As soon as they are reminded, they will gush and apologize for forgetting. And the arm will eventually get better, and one can do everything they normally did, if not just a little sore. One will forget. Most days it is not in the forefront of the mind. And then one will wake up and not be able to even move the arm. It will hurt to even flex a pinkie finger. It will ache and ache and if one says anything about the pain the world will say, “I thought that happened a long time ago?” And that is that only answer they will give. Like Rose making do with the life that had been given her, I have made do with the pain around me. (1471)
Life is easier when no one knows. The first year after was filled with pitying glances and hushed conversation surrounding me. I have always been bright for my age and as a result have always hated when people speak to me like I am a child. But as soon as someone finds out about my father I am barraged with “oh I’m so sorry” and “are you okay” and “can I do anything”, as though I cannot use my own words and ask for help myself. Ever question leaves me a little more bitter and hallow inside and makes my breath a little shorter. Just as Cory wants to walk around his father sitting on the step drunk, I want to walk around my father’s death (1465). I keep the knowledge of my father’s death around me like a mantle but guard it like a gem.
The rest of high school was tedious, as high school often is. I grew, moved schools, moved back, got into petty arguments, and eventually graduated. But my father was always there. At the end of each school year, the school gave out academic awards as awarded by the teachers. I received four in total at the end of my freshmen year, tying with a junior that had made a 32 on the ACT. I sat in the back of the room thinking I would be called up for only one award. Every time I was called, I had to walk from the back of the room, with every busybody soccer mom from my home town clapping only because they hear my father’s last name. After the award banquet I cried and told my mother I hated every single one of the awards.
“Why, Buggs?” my mother asked.
“Because they just pity me. They just did all of this because he’s dead.” I cried for the rest of the night. My mother could only hold me and try to reassure me that it was because of my merits that I had earned these, that everyone clapped because I had won all the awards despite a newly dead father. I know she was just doing what mothers should do. I also know she knew I was right. I never won another academic award at that school. I honestly never cared to. My father made impeccable grades all through schools. My grandmother has saved every report card, every school project, every golden star he ever brought home. She has kept all of her children’s rooms virtually the same from the time they moved out. My father’s old room is basically a shrine now. She would pull out these accolades from time to time and remind me of how he double majored in college and graduated with a 4.0 and how I must surely be able to do the same. I wanted to live up to this standard. I wanted to be valedictorian, like him. I wanted to win dozens of scholarships, like him. I wanted to be so much more like him. But, just as Troy prevented Cory from playing football and going to college, my father’s legacy prevented me from mimicking him (1452). I had a taste of awards given for pity rather than honest choice, and I never wanted that again.
The hardest part is going back home. My mother still lives in the same house she built with my father; now with my stepfather, a wonderful man I love dearly. I love the house and my family and the place. I can not stand the people in my hometown. I dread the gas stations and grocery stores and schools. I rush in and out hoping not to be recognized, running between the aisles and ducking behind cars. All it takes is one person, unsure but determined, to ask, “Aren’t you Calvin Howard’s daughter?” I can not stand the question. It makes me flush with anger and stumble with nausea. My mother’s training kicks in and I must smile softly and politely say something along the lines of “oh yes, that’s me.” I then must listen to how sorry they are and how he was such a wonderful man and how they were best friends in the sixth grade or some other half-truth. I hate the question. I hate the people that ask me. They have wide eyes and even wider mouths. Just as Cory found, “Everywhere I looked, Troy Maxson was staring back at me” I have found remnants of my father throughout my small town (1471). And just as Rose corrects Cory’s behavior, my mother tries to reassure me that it is just people remembering how wonderful he was. My heart takes it as a stab at my hurt. Another case of the poor girl whose father got shot.
Now my father and Troy Maxson are nothing alike. My father was kind-hearted and adored his family. He spoke softly to all and never drank. I remember watching John Wayne movies with him and going on hay deliveries to read off directions. He never raised a hand to any of us and would have been mortified at the suggestion. But Cory and I are very alike. We have a dead father, an unwavering legacy to uphold, and a soul burdened by grief. We see our fathers in every room of the house and feel them in every breath we take. In the end, we could not escape them if we tried.
I see my father every day. I have his hands, his checks, his broad shoulders, the curl of his hair, and the curve of his smile. I think of him every time I sign my name, Maria Howard. I remember him each time I see my brother, his only other child by blood. I have carried my father’s death on my back like Atlas carrying the world. It weighs on me and grounds me and yet I must carry it. I do not have a Hercules to hold the sky for me, even for only a few minutes. Like Cory struggling to come to terms with his father and his larger than life persona, I struggle with my father’s memory. And just as Cory learned from Rose, a father is “all you’ve got to measure yourself against that world out there.”