Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Our father who art on Earth, still

Peter Sullivan
Rochester, New York, United States


She didn’t like the way he just stood there, staring. First it was at the sink, looking out the window, holding a just-lathered dish midair with the water running. Then later in the evening he’d sat in the LazyBoy, which faced the living room TV. From time to time, not knowing if she should worry, she would poke her head in from around the corner. She thought he was keeping the sound low on the TV. Eventually she walked in to see what he was watching on the tube. The television was off. Coming for the weekend, he had driven five hours on a Friday afternoon in autumn to her apartment in the city. It had been surprising at first to hear that he wanted to spend some time with her. He had suggested that maybe he could help her out, do some fixing up, or chores—as if she were the one who still lived in a four-thousand-square-foot village house with a large backyard and a garage that had once been a barn of sorts. She lived, however, in a one-bedroom, third-floor walk up. The anniversary of her mother’s death was coming up, and she had been thinking of arranging a special Mass in her mother’s memory. She was walking toward the phone to call her dad when the phone rang. It was him, this time, calling her instead.

Her dad had always been … her dad. Strong, a bit aloof, in command. He had retired early as a mid‑to‑senior level manager, never quite getting to the top in the way he might have hoped. As a sign of former times, he had stayed with the same company for 36 years before retiring with a handsome settlement.

Retirement meant among other things getting the rider mower he had always wanted and joining two additional boards, the United Way and the Mental Health Association. It also meant going into “consulting,” like so many of his corporate retiree peers. When he would look for the car keys to head out on some mission, her mother would ask where he was going. Mother would attempt to muffle the ear piece of the phone with her hand, inadvertently amplifying the sound so that the daughter would hear her father indicate that he was attending to some consulting work. Mother, being of that generation where women were complementary, but not quite “head of the household,” would never question her spouse.

Her friends, in their wishes to offer consolation over the last year, had spoken of how it was more difficult to have the mom pass first. But her father was the strong one—capable, worldly, able to fend for himself. Maybe they meant which parent they would miss the most.

And so on Saturday morning, at the conclusion of their breakfast of grapefruit, bacon, eggs, and hazelnut-flavored coffee, he said, wiping his mouth with the napkin she pushed in his direction, “Daughter, you will certainly make some man happy some day.”

Molly was 32, single, and employed by a large firm as an “account representative.” She had been there for three years. She had been trained in college as a systems engineer, but had taken a first job, two jobs ago, with a business that had wanted her in sales and there she remained. She had not kept up with any of her professional journals after the first year or two out of school. As a result, virtually everything she had learned about technology was now obsolete. Now eleven years from her college graduation, the diploma today served more as proof that she could be fairly organized, think, and interact reasonably well with fellow college graduates.

She didn’t want to hear from her dad about men. As she got up to remove the breakfast dishes, she was startled with a sense of how long this weekend might prove to be. She began to breathe rapidly, and there was a slight panic that threatened to cross a boundary she maintained with her dad. She had worked hard at maintaining her own distance. Maybe she stood up too quickly; she had to put a hand on the back of her chair to steady herself. He asked if she was alright, and she quickly told him that she had pulled out a lot of old photos to show him. She would get them out of her bedroom in just a jiff.

A half hour later, she was getting around to a series of pictures from the spring trip their family took to Myrtle Beach when she was 15. “And do you remember,” she was asking, “that time we played miniature golf and the storm came up?”  He saw the picture of his teenage daughter, his wife, a younger edition of a man who seemed long gone.

“God it rained like crazy.”

His wife was holding up her hands helplessly, laughing. Molly was still trying to take her putt. He was looking for the car keys, annoyed, sodden. Another fellow had come along and taken the picture for them. Who would have thought that one day he’d be sitting in his daughter’s cramped little apartment in the city, looking at this old picture again? Who would have thought that his wife would be the first to die, that crazy, zany, fun-loving, affectionately incompetent woman? It was the serious worker bees who had survived, his daughter and himself. But stress was supposed to kill you. It was an unspoken thing about stress, and he had been secretly counting on some kind of an involuntary vacation, when God would say “Okay, time out, take a rest” in that authoritative way of His.

“Oh, look at this!” Molly began yet again.
She looked up at her dad.
“I can’t. … I don’t want to do this just now.” Then he started to cry.

Molly had never seen her father cry. Her father didn’t cry. She took a deep breath. She asked, “Are you alright?” and, as if to confirm that this wasn’t her father at all, the man said, simply, “No.” He just sat there and started to tremble, at first just a little, but then a little bit more. The photograph slipped from her fingers like a leaf, silently, to the hardwood floor of her apartment.

What in the world was he thinking when he had cooked up this idea of coming to see this woman, his daughter, who had the uncanny, effortless way of reminding him of his wife? There was the way she turned in the light of a window. He had seen it again when she’d brought the bacon to him at breakfast, the frying pan teetering at the edge of the table—just as he had seen his wife do, hundreds of times, over the course of 40 some years.

If he could have had his way at that very instant, he would have simply vanished. He was ashamed of what he felt. What he felt was … helplessness. It wasn’t his nature. It wasn’t him. But here he sat, trying to control the shaking. He sat back, gripped the edge of the sofa which they shared.

“Whew boy,” he said, blowing out air, whistling with a little last bit of breath. He saw her smile fondly at him.

He wanted to explain something to her about the grief, and he attempted to start, but was unable to make a sound. It was as if he had suffered a stroke. He looked at his daughter, who continued to return his gaze. He felt caught in this unblinking exchange of eye contact. He knew she felt the same way; he saw her start to flinch, as if the intimacy had become unbearable. He too jerked his head slightly, but all the while watched her face.

Finally, somewhere deep inside, he felt a fluttering of some invisible grace, and this allowed him his only possible escape: to close his eyes. In so doing, he felt his body fall. It was a release, and he was surprised when, like a man waking from a deep sleep, he felt a hand on his shoulder, now shaking him gently. He opened his eyes. It was then that he realized that his daughter’s love was one more layer of a gift he had been given long ago.

For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Finally she said, knowing the answer already, “Are you okay?”

They had planned to rent a movie in the evening. She had voted for Pride and Prejudice. He said he had stopped seeing “art films” long ago. She said it wasn’t an art film. He’d asked if there were any car chases or explosions. They compromised on All the Presidents Men, which they both had seen. It was reassuring to watch the same movie over again. While noticing some new things, you would be comforted by the familiar unfolding of events. Knowing the ending especially helped one through the tough spots of the story. That’s what he liked about being a lifelong Catholic. He was sometimes concerned about his daughter’s seeming lack of faith, her apparent disregard for a religious tradition at this time in her life. What did she believe in? Microsoft?

He asked her, scooping his hand for the last remains of popcorn, “So you’re not going to Mass in the morning?” They had argued politely about her non-attendance earlier that afternoon.

The next scene was where Redford meets up with Deep Throat in the parking ramp. She didn’t answer about Mass. She commented instead on Redford’s Volvo. It was similar to one the family had once owned. He reminded her, as Redford spoke insistently to a much younger looking Dustin Hoffman, that the Volvo was their first foreign car.

“First non-Ford,” she clarified.
“Ford,” he said. “Now there was a president.”
She inspected the empty bowl.
He said, “You’re very talented,” pointing to the empty bowl.
“At making popcorn?”

He turned to her, leaning forward as if he was to impart the coaching advice of a lifetime, something no one else should ever overhear. In a slightly lowered voice he said, “Next time use a little more butter. Butter, not margarine.”

“Is that all?”
“One more thing. Salt.”

On Sunday morning before brunch, he had gone to church while she stayed home and read the book section of the New York Times. When he’d arrived back at the apartment, he told her all about the nearby parish she never once attended. Good parking. Met some nice people. Got into this long conversation with a widow who was just back from visiting her grandchildren—two of them, Amy and Amiel—who now live in North Carolina. Her son-in-law had taken a job with Accutech.

“Very nice people. You might meet someone. A good Catholic boy.”

She answered in a low voice, looking back at the paper distractedly, “I’m glad you had a nice time.” Now noticing an interesting article, her voice growing ever more absentminded, she added “at your meeting.”

After the brunch, they took a drive in her car out to a county park that she liked. It was a warm and sunny afternoon. He noticed her cell phone which was plugged into the cigarette lighter. It glowed with a little green light. He reached over where it lay sitting between the two front seats, alongside the emergency brake lever. He picked it up and looked at it.

She looked over at her father holding her phone, taking her eyes off the road for an instant, and returned her gaze to the road ahead. Neither of them spoke for a couple of minutes. She was aware that he was still holding onto the phone.

Finally she said, “Do you need to make a call?”

Aroused from his stupor, he asked, “Is that what this is? A telephone? I thought it was the remote for the garage door.”

She started to say she didn’t have a garage, but, remembering who she was talking to, she stopped herself.

“Oh wait,” he said.
“Yes, I know, I don’t have a garage.”

The sun was brilliantly full now, and she knew that they were approaching the park. This October light gave the impression that the fields and trees would reveal themselves again as a vision of summer. But it was only one last memory of that time and light, a memory of the thing rather than the thing itself.

They were almost at the park. She was driving. Her dad, now, the passenger.

After a moment, seeing the sign for the park ahead and feeling the car slowing to turn in, he said slowly, stretching out his words as if for a nap, “Today … this is a really nice day.”

She would have looked over at him, but she was beginning to make the turn. She simply nodded her head. They had arrived, so far, at this point together.



PETER SULLIVAN, LCSW, CGP, is a social worker in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where he works as a primary therapist in Faculty Practice and in the outpatient clinic. He has previously published short fiction in Innisfree, The Agincourt Irregular, Imprint, and Turtlequill journals. He is the recipient of the University of Rochester Human Values in Health Care Award Best Creative Work, 2008.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2011 – Volume 3, Issue 2
Spring 2011   |  Sections  |  Fiction

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