When you grow up in New England, life revolves around the seasons. Memorial Day kicked off summer, even though it was still too cold to swim. Labor Day meant back to school, even though it was still too hot for turtlenecks. Halloween nights you wore your costume over your coat and jumped into piles of colorful, crackling leaves. But at least you knew what holiday was next.
Moving to Florida was everything I’d hoped for. The soothing rustle of palm fronds, tropical breezes filled with scents of orange blossoms, the warm Gulf waters. The cookie-cutter forecast on the television screen a far cry from weather that could start out as snow, change to drizzle, freeze to ice, then melt all in the same day. Good-bye Nor’easters, hello hurricanes.
I thought the distance between the north and south, past and present, living and dead would be enough. That somehow I could leave my baggage behind once and for all. So I ran. Fast and far. But I couldn’t outrun it. The massive gray baggage showed up every where I turned. So many bags. All shapes and sizes. Weighing me down until I collapsed.
“Your father’s gone to Heaven to be with God.”
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t understand.
“Because God needed him. He had a special job for him to do.”
“But I need him here.” God is good? God is great? I hate God.
“Stand up now, pull your shoulders back and wipe those tears off your face. You have to be a big girl for your mother,” my grandmother said. I didn’t know how to be any bigger than ten.
No Daddy. Don’t be dead. Wake up! I shake his arm. It’s cold as ice.
The smell of flowers make me sick. Make me dizzy. I need air.
Please don’t let them put him in the ground Mommy. Please don’t put dirt on him. It’s too dark. He won’t be able to breathe. I can’t breathe. I don’t want to.
Time stops. Taps plays. The soldiers fold the flag. I stare into space.
In my room in the dark, alone and scared, I’m afraid to close my eyes. He loved you very much. He went peacefully. He died in his sleep, they said. For days, weeks, months I fight to stay awake because I know if I close my eyes and sleep, I too would die. My tears fall silently on the pillow. Mustn’t be a baby. Mustn’t make anyone sad. Mustn’t get in the way.
I take my tears and pain and stuff-stuff-stuff them way down to the bottom of a giant gray bag. I tie it up, roll it into the closet and slam the door shut. I will put my feelings away in storage and forget all about them. But something inside the bag stirs. Images I don’t want to see. Sounds I don’t want to hear. I hurry to fill my head up with mindless chatter. Quick-quick-quick my mind works. Pieces of this, thoughts of that, nursery rhymes or knock-knock jokes.
I sing songs from the Top 40 countdown over and over again until my head becomes a radio. I can turn the volume up and change songs anytime. Every waking hour I think-think-think so I don’t have to hear the unbuckling of Daddy’s belt or the slap-smack-slap of leather on skin. I drown out the muffled groans of my brothers as they fought to hold their breaths. One sound, one gasp and the beating got worse. The belt now hangs on my brother’s wall like a crucifix with the ghost of our father nailed to it.
Crackle. Hiss. Static. Noise. Soldiers play Taps. Daddy says he loves me. Chairs crashing, glass smashing, I search for a song to sing and turn up the volume. I blast away the good memories, the bad memories and the mixed messages of Daddy and pack them back up in my secret baggage, carefully hidden under lyrics and chatter.