You are here

The Breath

At just shy of 40 years old my father died quietly in his sleep. I was 10, but still too young to understand death. For weeks I kept asking when daddy was coming home. My mother couldn't do anything but cry in response. Today, as an adult, I still couldn't understand death. It was vulgar and random and seemed to impose itself at all the wrong times. I hated it, and yet I sat here waiting eagerly for it to visit once again and take then man I had grown to love as a father.

It was eight years ago that my life had been turned upside down. My father had died and my mother was destroyed. She sat sobbing day after day, disheveled and puffy eyed. If it hadn't been for my older sister making mac-n-cheese for dinners and packing our lunches we might have starved. Or so I had convinced myself way back then.

The reality was that people came and went. My father's family came by to clean and keep the house up and bring flowers. My mother's family visited with food and groceries and took away flowers past their prime. My sisters and I got the occasional squeeze from an uncle or an aunt, coloring books from the grandparents, condolences from neighbors and church members. So the days went for what felt like forever.

Then a man knocked on the door one day, the man who now lay dieing next to me. His eyes were like my fathers, warm and dark with the hint of a smile at the edges. He called me by name and introduced himself more politely than I ever remember anyone introducing themselves before or since. It was with that same ease and calm that he entered the house and over the next week carefully packed each book, toy and piece of clothing and put it in the back of a moving truck. We followed that truck from our home in Arizona all the way to a new home in Pennsylvania.

My older sister, Anna, didn't adjust well to the change. At 14 she had just started her freshman year of high school and along with that had to leave behind a new boyfriend and friends she had known since kindergarten. In the first month in our new little apartment the only conversations between her and my mother always started angrily and ended with a slamming door.

Nissa, my younger sister, cried a little the first couple of days here and there, but otherwise didn't seem to mind. She was only 2 so she didn't understand the significance of the recent events. She still asked for "dada" though and at each mention my mother sobbed anew. Eventually she would hand Nissa off to Anna and hide away in her room until the crying stopped.

Hiding was her coping mechanism. Mom would hide when her crying got out of control or when a favorite movie came on or when Thomas visited, which was daily. At first he would come by quietly and drop some food off, a movie, a board game or some coloring books. Coloring books were my staple. Each coloring book became a rich fantasy world for me to escape into when Anna wasn't being very agreeable or when I just needed some me time. Each time he came mom would excuse herself and hide away again.

As time went by Thomas would stay a little longer. He would play games with us like Operation or dominoes or give Nissa horsey rides. He would talk to Anna about her artwork and talk to me about my books. Eventually he'd stay for an hour sometimes a little more. After some time mom would come out of hiding and politely shoe him back to his own home and family. Anna would tease mom about Thomas being her boyfriend, but mom just set her jaw and said nothing. I knew better though. My television education on relationships said that boyfriends were invited to dinner and sometimes even stayed the night. Thomas was never offered either as an option. He came, he played, and then he left.

We did this routine for almost 3 years, until the night that Anna was hit by a drunk driver while coming back from her Junior prom. The driver died instantly and the car Anna was in was almost torn in two, killing two of her best friends, paralyzing a another, breaking Anna's hip and left leg, her right arm, a few fingers on her right hand and breaking her jaw in two places. My mother frantically piled us into the car and sped to the hospital, my sister and I crying the whole way, not knowing if Anna was dead or alive.

Then when we got to the hospital there was Thomas arms ushering us towards the waiting room, patting each of us as we passed and reassuring that Anna would be fine. My mother fell into Thomas, burying her face into his shoulder and sobbing uncontrollably. He moved her to a seat and rocked her like you would rock an upset infant softly shushing her until she was soothed to a dull moan and sniffling.

That night was notable because it was also the first night we met Thomas' family. Kell was 21 then, a tall well built blond who looked like a football player more than the architect he was studying to become. He was a watcher, piercing eyes looking over everyone and everything, always keeping an eye out for the doctor, always handy with a tissue when ours become too wet or torn for use. His sister Janet was the same age as Anna and they went to school together. Janet was still in her prom dress with a pimply faced boyfriend in tow who kept eyeballing the exit like he'd break for it at any moment.

Janet was horrified, pale and listless. She had been friends with the driver of Anna's car that night. He had been her boyfriend a few years back and it could have easily been her in Anna's seat. As it was Janet had witnessed the whole scene because the car she was in was only three car lengths back when the drunk driver struck. It was really because of Janet that everyone was here tonight. Who knows what would have happened without her.

When the accident happened her boyfriend stopped along side the road while she called 911 and then her dad. When her dad arrived he must have recognized Anna or the car or something because before anyone knew it he was in the ambulance with Anna and whisked away. Janet was left to drive his car to the hospital, boyfriend following along. Thomas called our mom from the ambulance and after that she packed us up and then there we were at the hospital.

It was terrifying just sitting and waiting for someone to bring word of Anna. My mother paced and cried while Thomas did his best to calm and console her. Kell and Janet had found paper and pens and played different drawn games with Nissa and I. It was a good distraction interrupted only when Kell looked toward the hallway at passing doctors and nurses and then again when Kell's mother arrived.

She looked like a female version of Kell, tall and blond and athletic. She didn't match what I had imagined. I had imagined someone more like my mother, softer and shorter and heavier set. Instead she was tall and sharp and moved with purpose as soon as she walked through the door. She went straight to my mother, smiled that smile you use in sad situations, and shook my mothers hand with one hand on her upper arm. They spoke for a little while just out of the range of my hearing until the doctor came.

They stepped into the hallway to discuss Anna's injuries. I watched while playing tic-tac-toe with Kell. The doctor looked pained as he spoke and my mother would alternate between paying attention and crying into Thomas' shoulder. I should have been more focused on Anna, on what was happening to her, but all I could see was this connection between Thomas and my mother. How he sheltered and protected her and how she was open to and engaged that comfort without any hesitation. It was a very different appearance from the stand offish attitude she normally took toward Thomas.

It was also about then that I started to question who Thomas was, where he'd come from, and why he had come to help us after my father died. He had been such an easy addition to our life, showing up right at the moment we needed him most and ever present for the last three years. Here he was again just at the right time, just in the right place.

It was only after that night when I started questioning things that my mother started talking about my father again without breaking down. It was like this traumatic event had taken the place of the other, my father's death, and she only had room for one sadness at a time. So she explained what had happened, why we moved, Thomas' place in all of it. The explanation always felt somewhat incomplete.

My father had died just two months before his 40th birthday. What I didn't know was that he had been sick for years. He had a form of liver cancer that required monthly injections to keep the tumor from growing. It was costing $60,000 a year to keep the cancer at bay. Luckily insurance covered the costs, that is, until my father lost his job due to downsizing. It hadn't been the cancer that killed him though, he had only been unemployed for a couple of weeks when he died. No a sudden heart attack had killed him, quiet, simple, painless.

The unemployment affected us in other ways. First was the fact that we were already living paycheck to paycheck and the loss of even one paycheck wiped out what little savings there had been. The second effect was that his company sponsored life insurance cancelled almost immediately after his termination. We got nothing when he died and a collection had to be taken up to help cover the cost of burial in a grave with no headstone. The third effect was that it left us without income.

My mother had always been a stay at home mom. My father had discouraged her from furthering her education and wanted her to focus completely on the family. So her total work experience after high school consisted of a few Tea Light parties to pick up spending money here and there. Not enough to go out and find a job in a down economy. Without an income mortgage payments couldn't be made, or utilities, or groceries. Family chipped in to help where they could, but none of them were on any better footing. Almost everyone was affected in some way by the economy at the time. So all together, with all the help, my mom figured they had given us about an extra month in the house.

She was a wreck those first couple of weeks but somehow she pulled it together enough to get to the welfare office and start the mound of paperwork needed to get on assistance. That got us food and some money for utilities, but there wouldn't be any money for the mortgage. They only gave rent for public housing. Even if she sold the house we would have owed another $10,000, because the house was "up-side-down". A term I learned meaning that more was owed than the house was worth.

That's when Thomas intervened on our behalf. Mom said that he had been a friend from before she married my dad. Someone she hadn't seen in a long time, since she was a kid. He wasn't rich but made enough to help and had a little savings. He was also a pragmatist. He knew that trying to help us where we were would bankrupt him. My mom wouldn't be able to find work in Arizona's economy, especially when so many college graduates with experience were not even able to get jobs at burger joints.

So he offered to move us close. The cost of living was much less near where he lived. He would pay for the moving expenses, find a decent apartment for us, one near a good school. Everything would be taken care of. So it was. He fulfilled every offer exactly as he had stated it. He made sure that we were well taken care of and that mom could remain a stay at home mom a little while longer.

To that end he set up a checking account for her and taught her how to create a budget and balance a checkbook. Both things my dad had always taken care of. Every two weeks he would put money into the account to pay for rent, food, and expenses. It wasn't a lot, but it meant that we ate and had clothes when we needed them. My mother became a coupon clipper extraordinaire allowing some of that money to go into a savings account for emergencies.

But there weren't ever any emergencies that Thomas wasn't there to resolve. When I broke a tooth falling off of playground equipment Thomas was there, getting me into a dentist who did the work for free as a favor to Thomas. When mom got the flu and couldn't get out of bed, it was Thomas who packed us all up in the car and took her to the emergency room. My mother never saw a bill for that. He was always there, ever present, an hour after school each day, school plays, birthdays, any chance he got.

My newly cynical teenage mind began to wonder what was in it for him. Did my mother have something on him, some dirt from when she was younger. Exactly how old was she and how old was he when they met? Could that be it? Or was there something more? Had they been having an affair this whole time? Did he poison my dad and try to take over his life? My mind went to every conceivable corner of misadventure and every episode of 48 Hours I had ever seen to come up with a reason why this man would go through the effort he did to support our family. Each story fell apart at some point.

There couldn't have been an affair because Thomas was in Pennsylvania and my mom was in Arizona. If there had been an affair then it would have begun again in earnest after our move, but if anything my mom was less than amorous to Thomas, seeming to avoid him or shoe him away when he came around. Then it hit me... he was a pedophile and he was after us girls. The only problem with that was he'd never touched me inappropriately, never a lingering hug, or a request to sit on his lap. I thought then that maybe I was just the ugly one and he was really more interested in my sisters. Anna would have spoken out though.

She and Thomas were like oil and water. Any attempt at conversation on his part would constitute eye-rolling on her part. A great many of those attempted conversations ended in "YOU'RE NOT MY FATHER!" To which Thomas would apologize for having forced the conversation and then go on to other business. It didn't stop him from helping her in any way he could, like taking fundraisers to work when she decided to get into cheer-leading, or finding a flute tutor when she dropped cheer-leading and got into orchestra, or scaring off a boyfriend or two who didn't quite meet up to mom's standards.

This night changed all of that. This horrible accident that wrecked my sisters body must have broken something loose in her heart. Because from this point on Anna never said Thomas' name again. She only ever referred to him as dad. I was there when it first happened, two days after the accident. Thomas, my mother and I had been allowed to see her. Nissa stayed with the rest of the Palmetier family in the waiting room. My mother had already visited once before, but this was my first time and I was terrified.

Here was Anna in a hospital bed with wires protruding from everywhere at once and machines buzzing away in the background. Her face unrecognizable because of the swelling and bandages. Her arm and legs in a cast because of the damage. But she was alive, thank God she was still alive.

Someone had given her a pad of paper and a pencil to communicate with since her mouth was wired shut. The first thing she wrote and Thomas read off was "don't stare!" It caught me off guard because I assumed with as swollen as her face and eyes were that she couldn't see me. Which was clarified almost immediately with the next thing she wrote, "I can see you, stop staring!" So I looked at my mom instead as she cried quietly.

Anna continued to hold conversation via the note pad furiously scribbling messages with her good hand. She was still Anna, defiant, smart-aleck to the core. She kept reassuring mom that everything would be okay and that while she'd never be an underwear model she might be able to land a well paying job at an amusement park as Quasimodo. We sat and talked for awhile and I gave her sips of water from a cup with a bendy straw. She was angry that she'd be on a liquid diet for the foreseeable future, but she would survive. No one had told her about her friends yet.

Then she shocked us all with one little word on that pad, "Dad", Thomas stammered over the word. Mom leaned closer and stroked her shoulder. "No sweety, dad's not going to be here."

Anna wrote again "No" and "Dad".

Mom repeated, tears welling in her eyes, "dad's not going to be here. Don't you remember, he passed away, sweety?"

Tears flowed from Anna's swollen eyes and she grunted through her teeth. It was a grunt of frustration that I knew all too well. She drew an arrow pointing to Thomas. Thomas looked nervous and looked to my mother like "what do I do?" To which my mother responded, "No Anna, that's Thomas. My friend Thomas. You remember."

To that Anna grunted again, tears flowing more steadily. She tried tearing the paper to get to a clean sheet and almost threw the pad and pencil off the bed. Thomas looked at her and put a hand on her shoulder, "take it easy. Just take your time and we'll get it. There's no rush. We're listening." I picked up the pad and folded the paper over for her and set it and the pencil within reach. Meanwhile mom dabbed Anna's face with a tissue and brushed a little loose hair across her forehead.

Anna picked up the pencil and began writing again, more slowly this time and as she wrote Thomas' eyes got wide and he grew pale and then blushed and looked to my mother again with that "what do I do" look. He didn't, or wouldn't read what she wrote out loud. So my mother came around and did it for him.

My sister had said "I know dad is dead. I know this is Thomas. I want Thomas to be my dad from now on." It was a shock. I could see it on everyone's face. I went from being terrified and worrying about my sister to hating her. How could she abandon my dad and replace him with someone else? How could she so easily forget about everything our dad had been to us and how great he was and find some cheap substitute. I fumed and screamed at them and when the nurses opened the door to see what had happened I stormed out and back to the waiting room.

So it happened that in the weeks and months to come I switched places with my sister. I became the eye roller and the one who screamed "YOU'RE NOT MY DAD!" My sister and I became adversaries in every way with her constantly wanting to support Thomas' side in the matter. Nissa ignored the arguments. To her Thomas was the only father she'd ever known and she transitioned to calling him dad without any question or hesitation, but it would be years before I would.

I watched the relationship for years. His fawning over her as she went through surgery after surgery to repair her body. Watched as he encouraged her through her physical therapy. I hated him as he walked her down the isle in a wedding I swore I wouldn't go to. Until the day I realized that I wasn't just mad anymore at the thought of him replacing my dad, I was jealous of her. I was jealous of the love she had found and the courage she'd shown to embrace it. I had liked Thomas up until that day in the hospital. There had been numerous times I had wanted to call him dad, but hadn't.

Part of the reason I hadn't back then was because of her. I didn't want her mad at me. I didn't want to cause even more conflict between the two of them. So I held off and held off until it was too late. I had said and done so many mean things between that day and today that there couldn't be any redemption for me. I had wasted all that time being angry and pushing him away and now there was no time left.

Anna came into the room as I sat watching Thomas and reminiscing.

"You look tired," she said. "How long have you been here?"

"I couldn't sleep last night so I came up about one."

She looked at me over her shoulder with a wry smile. "Really?" Then she continue to look over the wires and tubes that monitored Thomas and helped him stay comfortable in his last days. She looked like a doctor as she did it. Checking each line, following the routes to and from the equipment. It was her chosen profession now, probably sparked by the accident and escalated by Thomas' bout with cancer. A bout he couldn't win.

Her brow furrowed as she brushed a sweaty lock of hair off of his cheek. He stirred only a little, the morphine keeping him below the pain. She paused, watched him settle back in to his slumber. Something kept her lingering just a moment longer and then she snapped around again.

"You should get some rest. If you want, that chair you're in reclines and I'm sure there's a blanket in this closet over here. Or I can run you home once mom gets here."

"I'm fine. I just couldn't think of anywhere else to go at 1 in the morning so I landed here."

"Suit yourself. Mom should be out of school in about an hour if you change your mind." She smiled again with that hint of smugness. "I'm going to the cafeteria to spend some time with my husband before his shift starts. Do you need anything?"

"Nope. I'm fine. Tell Mark I said 'hi'."

And she walked away still smiling to herself. Some internal joke that was lost to me. I was in my bubble dwelling on how much time I had lost and what a mess I had made of things. I just didn't ever get what had happened exactly that had turned the switch for Anna, for her to go from hating Thomas to loving him. Worse was what happened to me to go from loving him to hating him in the same instant.

So here I sat brooding over the state of things, the black sheep of the family. The last hold out. The last Williams' daughter. Thomas had adopted Anna a year after the accident and Nissa a year or so after that. I had stuck firm that I would remain a Williams until my dying breath. Or as the case my be now, his dying breath.

I stood over his bed now, smoothing down the wrinkles on his pained brow thinking about that moment. Thinking about that horrible moment to come where all my chances would be lost. It crushed me and the tears just started flowing, like they had never flowed before. My dad's death, Anna's accident, Thomas' dying, just came crashing down at once and I couldn't hold it back any more.

Through the sobs I heard Thomas wake up "hey, hey." he said weakly, tugging at the sleeve of my jacket. "What's all this about? You'd think someone was dying."