My dad rested on the peach picnic sheet, a queen-sized sheet taken from a set used to cover his bed, his old bed, the one he used to sleep in with mom before they made room for the hospital bed. It was early spring and the first warm day of the season, and it was a good day for him. Few days were good for him now.
I was seven. I skipped around the sheet mom had lain over the grass in the backyard. Dad watched me but lacked the strength to turn his head. When I passed in front, he strained his eyes to follow me. I skipped faster when out of view but slowed when I saw his eyes watching me through his brown-rimmed glasses. The glasses looked comically oversized on his vanishing face.
When I tired I sat cross legged before him. He reached over and held my hand. His hand was still huge but his wedding band slipped loosely on his finger. Thin blue veins crisscrossed his hand.
“I can explain everything,” he said. His voice was always deep and strong. No matter how sick he became, his voice never weakened.
“What?” I said, measuring his hand against mine and wondering when mine would grow.
“Life, sweetheart, life is coming for you and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I want you to welcome it because life is wonderful, every moment precious. Some more than others . . . don’t bother grading moments because you can’t until much later, and by the time you can the grades become irrelevant.”
I didn’t understand him. He talked like this to me sometimes. For as long as I remember he never talked as if I was a child. He spoke to me as he spoke to mom or Uncle Ben. I didn’t say anything because I was too busy memorizing everything he said.
“Ask me things. I have so much to tell you and I don’t even know where to begin.” He coughed weakly and I looked back at mom who sat on the stoop leading to the house. She waved and dad continued to cough. He squeezed my hand and didn’t let go as he turned his head away from me and spit onto the sheet.
I didn’t know what to do, so I asked, “Why is the grass green?”
He turned his head toward me and smiled showing his discolored teeth. “You might as well ask why the sky is blue.”
“Then why is the sky blue?”
“The sky is blue to look beautiful before the grass.”
“And the grass?”
“To look beautiful before the sky.”
“Now you’re being silly.”
He laughed and his laughter turned into another bout of coughing. He held my hand tight when all I wanted to do was to run away. I forced myself to study his shirt, pinstriped and button-downed. The shirt was huge on him, and the buttons were all wrong. He missed one of the top buttons. I felt his body convulse slightly as he coughed and I swallowed and silently prayed, promising my comic book collection and never to miss a day of school and to give up my computer, I promised everything and anything to make my dad’s sickness go away.
He stopped coughing and looked away from me toward the sky.
“The sky, the grass, they’re both beautiful before the other. All things have beauty. The trick is to really look for it. Just like you’re beautiful.”
I knew I wasn’t beautiful. My mom was beautiful, and my sisters were beautiful, but I was a skinny kid with skinned knees and dirty braces. But I didn’t argue. “And you?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess that makes me beautiful, too, in my own way.”
I looked at his face for what I think was the first time. I really looked. I didn’t realize at the time that I was trying to engrave his face onto my mind. I saw how his eyes didn’t rotate together, and how his stubble was grayer than I remembered. His chin looked pointed, and his jowl was all but gone, replaced by a deep indentation under his chin. But I looked more and I saw that he had my younger sister’s beautiful eyes, and my older sister’s beautiful cheeks.
My dad coughed again and my mom cam over and helped him sit up. I retreated to the corner of the yard and watched them. She walked with him up the stairs and I sat and watched. I stared at the closed door until she returned, sticking her head out the screen door.
“You coming in?”
“In a bit.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I started to cry and she came to me. She bent down and wrapped her arms around me and held me. I didn’t make much noise because my dad’s window was open and I didn’t want him to hear me. Instead I cried softly and shook.
“It’s very hard for him,” mom said. “You have no idea how hard this is for him.”
I couldn’t talk. Tears stole my voice and I sat there holding my mother and crying silently. I couldn’t say anything. All I could think was how beautiful my dad was.