I was four when I saw my father cry for the first time. He came to pick my brother and me up from our place in Kingston, Ontario, to take us back to Toronto to spend some time with him. Toronto was about three hours away and Mom wasn’t coming. My brother and I refused. Our father felt bad–that much was clear to my four-year-old self. We didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but we didn’t know him the way we knew Mom. We were too young to really know how much us going ––or not––meant to him.
“We’re making him sad, let’s just go,” is what I remember saying to my brother. So, we went.
That was my earliest memory of my father.
The second time I saw my dad cry was when he was in the hospital for complications due to gastric cancer. When I think about that time, I remember taking five trips to the washroom in the space of an hour after my stepmother had suggested I fly home to Canada to see Dad. Fainted. Hospitalized. Internal bleeding. I was literally scared shitless.
“I brought you a surprise,” my brother said to our dad, who was sitting up in his stretcher in the emergency hallway while he waited for a room. No one had ever looked as happy to see me as Dad did when I popped up from behind him. I made it back to Canada from Colombia in less than 24 hours for him, and he was moved to tears.
A few days later Dad was moved into the room where he would spend the first two weeks of February. The oncology ward was a calm place with a mix of neutral beige and pastel hues, but to me, it represented cancer in all its diverse manifestations. Upon exiting the elevators onto the floor where the ward was located, I was confronted with ads for specialty wigs. Was there really a difference between “regular” wigs and cancer patient wigs? The somber expressions on visitors’ faces and the hushed tones of medical professionals added to my discomfort. I found myself wondering which type of cancer folks had, and who would be lucky enough to walk out of that ward.
“Dad’s rooming with a young guy––he’s just like me,” my brother said when I wondered aloud if bringing Dad’s radio might be too bothersome for a shared room. This guy was not young like my brother––he was a lot younger, by about twenty years. He was a teenager, it seemed, in the oncology unit. I wanted to ask him what he was in for, but knew to mind my own business. Still, it was hard not to eavesdrop.
“You’re just trying to be a man,” I heard a woman say from behind the dividing curtain.
“No, not really. I mean, I’ve had to find a way to deal with it. The medication doesn’t really do nothing for me.”
“So, you just put it out of your mind?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Pretty much.”
A weird intimacy developed in that hospital room. We tried to ignore each other out of respect for the other’s privacy, but no one wanted to be seen as rude, either. So, each day with the first encounter, we’d share a head nod to say, “I see you.” Then we pretended not to see each other when he went for a walk or came out of the washroom, which was located on Dad’s side of the room.
“Hey, a question…” I started one afternoon when he walked past me. It was our third day together. Instead of asking what he was in for, I decided to ask what he was listening to. I either hadn’t spoken loudly enough, or he didn’t realize I was talking to him, because he just kept walking to his side of the room. Minutes later I heard, “Alright, take care.” I looked up to see our young roommate, dressed in street clothes, heading out with his backpack.
“Yeah,” I responded. “You too.”
He was a lucky one.
The realization that we would lose Dad sooner than later set in after a week in oncology. He was having difficulty swallowing even liquids and didn’t have the strength to stand. His death was no longer something abstract that I knew only in my mind. I began to feel it. So, I started looking for something of his to steal.
I wanted to take something from the house he shared with his wife, but it had to be something meaningful. I considered taking one of the small framed 4×6 paintings from over the staircase. There was a trio I especially liked because the three images were all very Caribbean in my mind: two of the vibrant pieces pictured Black women in headwraps, and one featured a couple dancing belly-to-belly. The way they were positioned meant I’d have to take all or none, and I worried that my stepmother would notice they were missing.
I walked into his home office and considered taking a book, but that was nothing new. I had taken books from Dad’s shelves many times––sociology books, books on Caribbean history, novels. Sometimes I returned them. Then, my eyes landed on the seashells. A large conch shell sat on the desk by itself, while the smaller shells were stored together in what looked like a fishbowl. I imagined they were from a beach in St. Kitts where Dad was born, but they could just as easily have been from the dollar store craft section. I took a small one anyway––along with the Kittitian flag pin sitting on a filing cabinet.
When I returned to the hospital that evening, I took to watching Dad’s chest and throat for movement.
I saw Dad cry twice more in the hospital that February. Once, when his brother, whom he hadn’t seen in years, walked into the room. He was the youngest and my dad’s last living brother out of four. Those were happy tears.
I saw him cry again for the last time on a random day during those first two weeks of February. He was completely aware that he would not be visiting me in Colombia later that year, or any year. Those tears were the saddest.
I told my brother our dad had died via a WhatsApp message.
I arrived in St. Kitts for Dad’s memorial in April, two months after he died. My first thought was that everything looked so dry. It looked nothing like the lush, green island of my memories, nor the tourism photos the “authority” posted on Instagram. I took and posted a million photos online but tried to downplay all the brown. I shifted from taking photos of land to making water my focus. That, at least, hadn’t changed. It was as beautiful as ever with shades of blue and green only the Caribbean produces. The sea never fails.
Death must encourage nostalgia because I made a thousand “used to” statements during the few days I was in St. Kitts. For some reason, I remembered the “toast and cheese and marmalade” sandwiches Dad used to make, and the soggy tuna sandwiches we had at Caribana because he never used to buy food out. As a kid, I thought he was cheap. It never occurred to me that Dad was saving and sending money back “home.” Everyone who came by the house after the memorial had a story to tell of something funny Dad had said, or of the times his hands became the devil’s workshop when he had nothing better to do as a young man on a small island. I learned a lot about Dad after he died.
My bedroom in Dad’s St. Kitts home had this smell I always associated with the aged. It smelled like cloth that had been sitting cooped up for too long. I smelled it around Aunt Mary, Dad’s aunt who raised all five boys when my grandmother died too early. It was also around Miss Jules, our old babysitter who I thought was a century old. I considered the smell might have been the furniture that came from the old house where Dad grew up. Did old wood have an odor?
The door to my bedroom was rarely closed and the windows were open as wide as they could be. The ceiling fan hadn’t been turned off since I arrived, and still, I wondered briefly if the smell could mean something, like the ancestors making their presence known. I wanted to think there was something supernatural at play, but I wasn’t able to convince myself. I was always mildly superstitious, but true belief was a bridge too far. I left it at “who knows.”
My brother and stepmother flew back to Canada two days before I was to return to Colombia. It was nice to be alone again. I had never minded a quiet house. I walked into the master bedroom and let my eyes wash over the things Dad had left behind: pictures of family members who had passed on before he did, pens he had collected from conferences, and four half-used notebooks. On my way out, I found the unassembled bookshelf in Dad’s closet. It was worse than unassembled. It was still in the box.
I laughed and thought of how life was like a Science Fiction novel. How odd that someone who had been there all my life was no longer, and never would be again. Were there other worlds we moved on to when we die? How could he greet the new year in good health and be gone by Valentine’s Day? I found it unbearably sad to think of how Dad had left so unexpectedly, that he hadn’t had time to set up his bookshelf.
Then, I cried.