It wasn’t his favorite day of the year. In fact, it was quite common for him to disappear when visitors filled the house and loud, overlapping chatter spilled onto the porch and into the yard. He made sure to greet everyone with his toothless grin and a calloused hand on the shoulder before slipping away for an adventure more his pace. He never wanted cards, gifts, trips, or big backyard barbeques. A quiet walk in the woods was enough to excite him, to awaken his inner conversationalist. But I didn’t always understand or appreciate this.
Growing up, his frequent absences felt troublesome, personal. Whether he left the dinner table early to sit outside with the dogs, stood in the doorway of the school gymnasium during my recitals and left midway through, never called during his weekend trips, or showed up late for my birthday, staying just long enough to wave at the guests before climbing back into his truck and driving away, I wondered why.
“Where’s Daddy?” I asked my mother.
“He’s here,” she said. “Look around you…”
“No he’s not,” I argued.
“Yes,” she said and shooed me out of the kitchen.
I walked away, angry that she had lied to me, that she was hiding something from me. He wasn’t there. And when he was home, he was also somewhere else. His eyes were always red, his face, hands, and clothes blackened with soot, stains that never left. Preferring his own company, he sat outside until the mosquitos started to bite and then came inside. Some nights, after going to the bathroom, I peeked inside their room where he lay on top of the covers and listened to his labored breathing, his cough that seemed benign at first and later felt menacing, like it might overtake him.
By the time I was sixteen, he needed oxygen, but he didn’t want the oxygen. The silver tank went unused while an average cough lasted several minutes. I grabbed a wet cloth, and my mother rubbed his back until the coughing spell was over because she didn’t know what else to do. The hacking was replaced with wheezing, and he struggled to catch his breath.
“Use this,” I pulled the tank to him and wrapped the soft tube around his ears, securing the prongs inside his nostrils.
He sat this way for a while, the sound of his breathing getting softer and softer.
“I think that’s good,” he pulled the tube out and headed for the woods.
I followed him, dragging the tank behind me. I called him stubborn, asked him if he was trying to kill himself, but he didn’t answer. We kept walking like this, me a few paces behind him. He maneuvered through the dense trees like we were on a marked road, not really looking for anything, just looking, being.
“How’s school?” he asked, once we had passed the Charleston’s property.
“Fine,” I said, shocked he had asked.
“Are you still interested in that red-headed fella?” the wheezing was back.
“How do you know about that?” I blushed.
“You walk home with him every day,” he blurted. “Have you thought about Mrs. Perry’s offer?”
“To work at the boutique?”
“Yeah,” he said. “What other offers do you have?” he laughed and the coughing returned.
“Let’s stop so you can catch your breath,” I said, but it was a plea.
We found a spot overlooking the lake, and I wrapped the tube around his ears, slid the prongs in his nose. He smiled, patted my shoulder as I sat next to him, and breathed in. I answered all his questions, asked some of my own when the wheezing faded. He told me about his own youth, his dad, who was a man of few words, and that he wished there had been other opportunities besides working in the mines.
“If I would have known,” he reflected, succumbing to an uncontrollable cough, one that ripped through his body, leaving him defenseless as it ran its course.
“You’re my breath,” he said, his voice raspy, a whisper I might not have heard if I wasn’t sitting right next to him.