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The vibrations of my phone made a sound penetrating my sleep. The sound entered a dream where the sound became a boat motor trolling along Torch Lake in hopes of a pike striking at my Red Devil lure. Just as the pike struck my leg kicked and I climbed out of the fogginess of my antihistamine laden sleep, only to realize that it wasn’t a trolling motor but my phone dancing on the nightstand that pulled me awake. Without putting on my glasses, and not being able to focus on the time, I flipped open my phone and answered.
“Hello”, the illuminated screen identified the caller as my sister Evelyn.
“Ben…. its dad”, I could hear her breaths being forced out rapidly, swallowing and drowning in tears; “he’s failing to live”. Evelyn’s word choice had always amazed me, the clear understanding of,” failing to live”, simply meant that our father was dying. “Please come, I can’t do this.” It wasn’t I can’t do this alone, it wasn’t I won’t do this, it was a true statement; Evelyn just couldn’t face watching our father die alone.
“I’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll drive up.” Up being the correct word. The local airport had limited flights so driving the 400 miles was the easiest way to get home. “Home”, it’s funny when you think a word and then speak it aloud and how different if feels. When I think of home I think of a misspent youth, a dead mother, and now it seems, a soon to be dead father; I’ll be parentless, a forty-five year old orphan.
It had been five years since my last visit. I had forgotten how brilliant the colors of the leaves on the trees were. How the oranges and reds collided with the crusty brown of the bark. I was thankful too that some of the leaves were down, allowing me to see deeper into the forest; deep enough to see the deer contemplating a suicide run across the lanes of traffic. After eight hours on the road I made my familiar left turn onto Eddie Street. I drove up the hill to the house and turned into the driveway. It had been years since the house was last painted. I had painted it with my father on the visit prior to my last visit. Had it really been only two visits in ten years? The windows had been replaced, a new door, the garbage that had accumulated over the years removed when scrap metal prices soared. Gone were my $150 Escort Station Wagon and the bush-beater Chevy Blazer. Both were mine but my father had told me to just leave them, he would take care of them. The driveway now empty, except for my VW Bug and my sister’s van; my father hadn’t driven in years. Soon the house and driveway will be empty.
“Ben it’s good that you came”, my sister embraced me the way you hug the bride at a wedding, stiff enough not to wrinkle the gown but soft enough to be genuine. “He’s been asking for you, wanting you, well really us, to put together a memory board”. Ah yes, the Freemont memory board. We had made one for my mother when she died of what my father would say was “woman’s cancer” when really it was brown bottle cancer. It took a long sleepless night to find pictures that didn’t show a bottle or glass in her hand or her crooked little three-sheets-to-the-wind grin in them. Ultimately the board had wedding photos, ones of my sister’s birth, and my birth just hours after we were delivered; only two years and two months apart. My eyes focused from my recollection to that of seeing my sister staring at me wondering where I had gone.
“Eve, how long does he have? What are we looking at? Days? Weeks?”
“Hospice is coming in twice daily. They figure a week; but one never really knows for sure.” My mother died on a Tuesday, two days after they said she had a “good couple weeks left”.
“It’s funny Ben, he keeps calling me Eevi, and when he says it’s as if he’s looking through me.”
“Your name is Evelyn, I call you Eve, sometimes Eevi, why is it funny?”
“He says it with an accent, I think it’s a Finnish accent, and the last time I checked father isn’t Finnish.” The puzzled look on her face along with her pale skin saved her from my joke about; well obviously, we’re not Finnish either. “Come in, see for yourself.”
My father’s lung cancer was progressing quickly, so quickly that the upstairs lost its use a few months back. He was in a hospital bed. They placed it in the spot where his worn and tattered recliner had sat for years. My mother’s chair stood in memoriam next to the bed, the doilies covering the worn arms now covered in dust and fur from our long dead cats. “Hi dad”, I said it as if he was deaf, not dying. He awoke from his morphine induced nap.
“Ben, is that you?” His voice held that dryness that only a moisture robbed throat could produce.
“Yes it’s me, how are you?” I chuckled under my breath at the irony of asking a man on his death bed the question we use whenever we see an old friend on the street. “Evelyn is concerned about you; she called me and told me to come.”
“That’s a lie, I told her to get you here, and I doubt that she’s concerned about anything more than what she gets when I croak.” Evelyn flinched as if she had been struck again, but this time not by our mother.
“Dad, she says that you been using a nickname when you talk to her, Eevi, and that you stare at her, and why are you so sure she’s taking care of you just for the Freemont mansion?”
“Don’t sass me boy! Evelyn is not Eevi and never will be!” His shouting caught us both off guard and the coughing the followed lasted a minute with both of us waiting for it to end to find out what he was talking about. “Eevi, she was the one”.
“Dad what are you talking about?” Evelyn went from the flinching meek little girl who never raised her voice to a cold chill clone of our mother. “You were married to mom for twenty-five years, who, what, Eevi? Dad, who the hell is Eevi?” I stood between my sister and my father, both who minutes ago were both pale, Evelyn from the exhaustion of taking care of a sick old man, and our father pale with death’s breath on his neck. Now both were flushed and panting as if they had just finished the father-daughter potato sack race at the church picnic.
“Dad, Eve, both of you shut up. Dad you’re dying, we don’t need to speed it up with yelling at each other. Eve, does it really matter at this point? Let’s do what we came here for; search for some photos that will make it look like we’ve had a happy life.” I had just joined the race. The silence that followed was unbearable. It was as if we were already at his grave wondering if we should speak. The silence was broken by my father’s voice.
“In the garage, in my toolbox, the red one, there are letters, pictures, Eevi”. My sister steadied herself on the rail of my father’s bed. I left the house and walked out towards the garage. The garage, the one place we were never to go into unless ordered. It had been twenty years since I last went into that building. I last went in to take my cat’s last litter of kittens, (to save them from my mother), and to take Misty to the vet to stop the breeding. I knew where the toolbox was. It sat on top of a grime covered workbench that at one end held a vice and the other end an anvil. I went in and walked straight up to it and stared at it like I was getting ready to open the Ark of the Covenant, not knowing if I would turn into dust or have the power of the Heavens bestowed unto me. I opened the top and found tools. I opened the first drawer, more tools. The bottom drawer held a stack of letters bound together with string and another string held together another bundle of photos; Eevi.
I carried both bundles into the house, back to the man who never cared for anything or anyone. My sister raised her finger to her lips to silence me as I began to speak.
“He’s sleeping”, she said in a whisper. Evelyn’s eyes followed mine back to what I was holding. “What are those?”
“Letters to Eevi, and pictures, they must be of her.” The pictures were old Polaroid’s that held dates; dates that showed they were taken before our parents were married. A strange feeling came over me, a feeling of thankfulness that whatever these letters and photos meant to my father, happened before our history.
“Should we wait?” Evelyn asked, and before I had answered she removed the bundle of photos from my left hand. She looked at each picture closely, perhaps hoping that the thousand words would fall out and tell the story. I slowly untied the letters and realized that they didn’t hold postage, they had never been mailed. I opened one and began to read.
Eevi My Love,
I miss you with every passing day. Remember the beach? I’m looking at the photo of you in the dying light of the day, the photo in which you are dancing to the music of my heart. Your face is hidden by your long auburn hair, as you always wore it, down and curved, framing your beautiful face. Your smile is peeking out between the strands, your soft lips cradling your teeth. You always had your hair down; you were so beautiful, why did you hide behind it? You would brush your hair out of yours eyes and I would have to catch my breath and then remember to breathe again as your blue eyes came into view. In this photo I can’t see your eyes but I can see so much more. The curve of your hip that, oh dear, I’m blushing just thinking of that curve! I’m holding the picture up to my face wishing that I could smell your skin, that freshness, that purity that I miss so dearly. One picture is all I can look at today, my heart breaks with every glance, rest well my love.
I carefully folded the letter and took the stack of photos from Evelyn. I found the beach photo and I too blushed at the curve of her hip. She was beautiful, the hair, the smile, and now I ached to see those eyes that my father once lost his breath too. There were only six photos and each one was out of frame. Eevi stood left, right, cropped off legs, but her head was never cropped off. I held tight to the letters that outnumbered the photos two to one. Twelve letters, eleven more than I thought I could bear. Evelyn shook my arm, my father was awake.
“I found them dad. I found the letters and photos.” I stared at my father as his features softened and tears began to form in his eyes.
“Show me the pictures….please”. Please? This was a word I had never heard spoken from my father. I held each photo in front of my father. The tears slowly rolled down his cheeks, “next” he would say and I would hold up the next photo.
“Dad, do you want me to read you the letters?” The sound of my own voice offering to do something nice for the man who had never been nice to me shocked me.
“No, I know them all by heart, I wrote them”. I now saw what Evelyn had seen; he was staring through me. “Eevi was my one true love. I blame my love for her for why your mother drank so much. She could never live up to my love for Eevi. When I named you Evelyn, and insisted that your name stay that, no nicknames, in tribute, well….your mother, she gave up. I worked, we then had you Ben, I worked, she drank, I smoked, now, well, this is where we are.”
“Dad, what happened, who is Eevi?” Evelyn stood to my left, ashen, ashamed that she was named after someone her father had loved so much, yet had failed to love her.
“I met Eevi at a 4th of July dance. I was charming then, believe it or not, I talked her into dancing with me. I joked and smiled and it all seemed so right as the fireworks went off in the sky; at the same time they going off in my heart. We dated all of that summer, the pictures, they’re from that summer. I loved her with all of my heart. What we didn’t know was that she was sick, Leukemia”, my father’s voice cracked as his lower lip began to quiver. “I loved her with all of my heart. That’s why when she died I died with her. Don’t get me wrong, I loved your mother, but it wasn’t, it couldn’t be the same. My Finnish beauty was gone and so was my soul. Thank you Benjamin, thank you for getting the pictures for me, and Evelyn, you, you’re what kept me going, knowing that at least in my heart a piece of her lived on. Now both of you, go away, I need my rest”, and with that my father, this stranger, drifted off to sleep with the campfire photo in his hand.
“Why didn’t he ever tell us?” Evelyn shook her head in disbelief that this secret, this past life was completely hidden from us. I had assumed that my father’s bloodshot eyes were from the beer he drank in the garage. I would have never imagined that he was in there crying, my father, my big greasy mechanic of a father, crying? Unconsciously I was opening the letters one by one, looking, not sure for what, but looking. I found what was the final letter and read it.
Eevi My Love,
Your pictures are becoming stained with the tears of my heart. My soul aches for you daily but it’s been a year since you left me. I’m young yet, and you told me, you told me! “Live your life, I’ll meet you on the other side”. My Love, it’s time for me to follow your orders. Every time I see a woman brush her hair out of her eyes I’ll think of you. Every time I light a campfire I’ll think of you. Every time the wind blows I’ll think of you. I love you, now and forever.
The other letters were similar. They all held a man that I never knew but think that I would have liked. My father died with his Eevi in his hands, two days after I had arrived. His features never hardened in those two days, it was as if this weight was lifted that he kept hidden and now he could relax. Maybe when he was looking through us he was seeing her?
The picture board at the funeral had some of the same photos, our parents wedding, our births, and Eevi. When asked who she was we simply said “someone special” and smiled at each other. We placed the letters and the pictures plucked from the board inside his casket. We both agreed and hoped that she really was waiting for him on the other side.