when pictures fail me…
I had to look up the date again. And decided to post this, written in 2005.
Every year, the beginning of October forces me to recall the exact dates of two important events in my life, and every year I need to resort to salvaged agenda books and newspaper clippings. Normally I am very good with remembering numbers and details, but I seem to always block these two out.
On October 2, 1957, my father was electrocuted while working on a utility pole. 6,900 volts. He was twenty-six, and I was four. The photo made the front page of The Harrisburg Patriot— his limp silhouette hanging there with a big arrow drawn in by someone in the production art department. I discovered the article’s existence many years later. My aunt told me about it, and that my grandmother hid it in her dresser drawer and looked at it every day, crying, until Anna Mae took the liberty of throwing it out, thus ending her mother’s ritual comfort of self-torture. I went to my hometown library’s microfilm viewer and scrolled past the girdle ads and Cold War headlines until I found it. Then I printed several copies on the Xerox machine, and patched the whole thing together into a mini-panorama of my father’s death.
No wonder I never know the date; it is never mentioned in my family. I know we visited the grave, my mother, sister, and I, with our hyacinths at Easter, and poinsettia at Christmas. And in October, armed with mums. We arranged them in the vase year after year, silently acknowledging the loss for just as long as it took to set up the flowers. But I never remember my mother saying, “Your father was killed on this day, one year ago,” or “three years ago,” or “ten years ago,” and she didn’t say it this morning, a half-century later.
The other date is October 5, 1995, when Pat Brown and I have our first date. The start of a nine-month gestation period of giddy and intense hope for happily-ever-aftering begins on an innocuous note.
Now, ten Octobers later, the vague stirrings of jumbled numbers in this first week try and break surface with authority, to no avail. I rummage for the 1995 “Month-At-A-Glance” that I have saved all these years. I see the entries again for that Thursday—a 3:30 haircut with Seiji, then “PAT- 8PM.” The name of the restaurant is not entered, but I recall that it was a Thai place in the East Village. I suggested it so I could have the perfume of steaming lemongrass sear its way through the dull thickness of the season’s first head cold. Feeling too lousy to be either nervous or excited about this first date, I simply wore jeans and a black sweater. He wore a light tan jacket, a conservative windbreaker that might have had the label “Members Only.” He looked like a normal, attractive guy, and I remember thinking on my way home, “Maybe too serious.” There was no flirting, no playful discoveries. The gravity of the interaction was unusual, heavy, not to be cut with the spicy vapors of soup or the diced shards of witty small talk.
Three days later the ambivalence left in the wake of that first meeting accelerated into something else entirely. I received a follow-up call from him, not for a second date, but to relay some news. His young buddy and protégé in the FDNY had just been killed in a horrific fire. Pat asked me to explain to the head of our karate school why he would not be in class that week. An article and photo showing Pat accompanying the grieving family ran in that morning’s New York Daily News, providing details.
He relayed the information in an even tone, and I somehow received and processed it in the same manner. “Calm” was something I knew how to project and maintain. Very soon I would learn this was a keystone to what Pat and I had in common, a defense mechanism one defaults to as a result of dealing with trauma, spawned from a mental retreat into self-protection, numbness. We had both been calm, stoic soldiers in our youth.
But now, while I certainly could appear to be a partner in arms, I also was severely doubting myself. I couldn’t maintain the type of support I imagined he needed; I was no Earth Mother. And I had never dealt with death, starting with my father’s. I had never even been to a funeral. Pat’s serious demeanor on our first date now started to make sense to me. Still, surely I wasn’t what he needed, and vice versa.
He called me a few days after Pete’s funeral. Did I want to join him for dinner out that evening? Instead, I invited him to my Brooklyn apartment for some privacy, and whatever I was already preparing. Pat showed up at my doorstep smiling, genuinely glad to be there. He met my cats and shared my dinner, then my sofa. And we talked. And talked. Words, then tears flowed, and by the end of the evening I realized I wanted nothing more but to get to know this man who entered the door of my life wearing a Members Only jacket.
Our bonding peaked with such euphoric intensity it frightened us both, with a force equivalent to a backdraft. Within weeks we were unequivocally entwined–a haunted, heroic captain in the FDNY, and a fashion illustrator with a small weekly column in the Style Section of The New York Times. But Pat was still a wounded warrior. Nine months later, PTSD fueled his retreat from emotional intimacy and commitment to share a life. His exit left a gaping hole in both of us.
But while our crystal ball was still pristine with promise, he had asked for a photograph of my father and me, telling me that “energy never dies,” and that my father’s loving spirit was also in him, Pat. Next to his bed was a meditation table where he kept personal, sacred tokens and mementos; reminders of loves, achievements, and loss: his white belt from karate, a sea shell, a rosary, and the laminated memorial mass cards of too many firefighters, including Pete, whose death connected our first two dates with such searing emotional epoxy. I gave him a snapshot of my father and me smiling, seated in a lawn chair, his strong arms ready to hold me aloft or to shield me. Pat set it on the table with his other treasures.
One of my earliest memories of grade school was the very first day, being passed a sheet of mimeographed paper that asked for some basic information, such as our name, address, and phone number. “CE-dar 4-5804,” I proudly printed with my No.2 pencil. Next came our mother’s name. “Does anyone not have a mother?” asked Mrs. Keating. No hands went up. I dreaded the inevitable next blank. “Does anyone not have a father?” Billy S. and I raised our hands slowly, and I felt all eyes turning toward us. He was a chubby-faced boy with heavy dark glasses and blonde crewcut. Now we were branded, together. We were the only ones with no father. Next we were told to print out the letters on the line:
We now knew what that word meant. It meant we were different. My cheeks burned. One minute I had been perched on a pedestal, my father’s strong arms lifting and placing me there as if it were the most natural setting in the world for me. The next minute, it had been kicked out from beneath my dotted swiss dirndl skirt, cruelly, and with no explanation of how or why. Our family simply stopped talking about my father.
I would always miss, but never actively seek attention, preferring to hover around the edge of the spotlight, out of the heat and glare. Then came Pat, who placed me back in the center, and I remembered how it felt as I slowly unfurled and relearned to bask in the warmth, in the presence of his support. Until that too, suddenly, disappeared. I was stunned by both the shock and the familiarity.
Two years after he had broken off our engagement, we reconnected and resumed a relationship that lasted through the millennium. It was different, the second time around. There were no pedestals, no spotlights. Just our history, and a type of acceptance of life’s limitations. There was love. But there was no promise.
Yet a new calendar date has trumped both of those days in October: September 11th, 2001. It is the scrim that blurs and separates “then” from “now.” It is a screen that sifts and filters all of my sensory perceptions, my values, my memories. Especially my memories of Pat.
I rushed home that morning to turn on the TV at 10:28, just as his tower started to fall. “Pancaking,” they called it. I rushed home to see him die. The big black arrow burned in my brain that once pointed to a utility pole in Pennsylvania now points to the ghosts of the Twin Towers.
When I was four years old, my repeated question, “Where is Daddy?” was one no one wanted to answer. So I learned to stop asking, tip-toeing around the caution tape that surrounded my family. Repressed curiosity kept me distant, buffered. I packed away the complete toolbox of my feelings and began using only a select few. Until I met Pat, that is, when, one by one, they started reappearing. And with his death, I found the very last of them: the missing wrench that I share with my mother.
And so, I call her. “Do you know what day it is?” I ask. “Yes, “ she replies. “Your father died on this day.”
I have many more questions for her. Somehow, it has become safe to ask. The caution tape is down.
copyright sharon watts 2005
excerpt from Back To My Senses
Sharon, I have been reading your words for close to 10 years. I started following you when the live of my life, Martha Hartley died. I still have a black Martha sized hole in my heart but your words have given me great comfort. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you so much, Steve. I miss Martha too. She was the go-between that initiated my meeting Pat for a date.