by Jo-Anne Cappeluti
Every night after dinner, my father would go to his black, leather recliner to read the newspaper, and within a few minutes he’d fall asleep – and stay asleep while my mom, my four brothers, myself, and our Samoyed went in and out of the room, watching TV, talking, laughing, and barking. I grew up with my father asleep in his chair. And he remained there, in my mind, after I left home, got married, had a son, divorced, raised a son, earned a PhD, taught at a university, and got married again.
I was 50 when my father died, and suddenly, oddly, in my mind, he was awake – looking at me like he had when I was 18, walking in at around two in the morning, just as he was waking.
He’d always ask, What are you doing?
I’d always reply, I live here, remember?
After he died, I remembered reading that when a parent dies you feel possessed by him or her. It seemed to be true. I realized I look off to the right when I laugh, just like he did. I realized I used his pet phrases. The sky’s the limit. Did you learn anything? And I’ll give you something to cry about.
Sometimes, in fact, looking in the mirror, I’d see his face, especially his eyes, looking back at me, and one of his sayings would come to mind. It felt as if he were addressing me, challenging me to answer. I’d start to feel uncertain about who was in control – and answering back, challenging him.
I wasn’t used to him being so close, much less awake and part of me. Most of my life there had been a distance between us. One of my oldest memories—at age two and a half—came to mind. We were at a train station, ready to leave Canada and come to California. My mom and my brother were inside, but my dad and I were walking around in the cold. I kept asking him when the train would come, and he’d keep saying, Before you know it. Then we heard the whistle, and my father lifted me to see, but my gaze was drawn to his eyes, far away, behind the reflection on his thick glasses of the train – a monstrous, black horizon pulling in through the snow.
For the longest time, I looked into his eyes, looking back at me, through that distance. I felt a pull between me on one side and him on the other, seeing each other through a distance, yet up close.
I felt that pull again when I got the news he had died, a phone message left by my youngest brother, telling me when – as if it were a departure time from a train station. It felt like my feet didn’t reach the ground.
I saw myself in the mirror by the phone and saw my father’s eyes—wide awake—looking back at me.
What are you doing?
I live here, remember?
I wasn’t sure who said what, but over the years since I’ve grown accustomed to that feeling of uncertainty: sometimes it even makes me smile.
That’s when it hurts the most, as I realize what I’m seeing is far away behind a reflection of my own face.
Jo-Anne Cappeluti has published primarily poetry over the last 30 years, most recently in Summerset Review, Oyez Review, Lyric, and Light: a journal of photography and poetry. Her creative non-fiction piece, “Where You Go,” appears in St. Katherine Review, 5.2 (2017).