Essay Non-Fiction posted January 16, 2015


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An old yearbook unlocks a son's grief.

Ninety to One

by Sis Cat


I counted ninety signatures in my father's high school yearbook compared to one in mine. Ninety signatures! Only April Packard signed the blank pages of my yearbook while my father, Fred Robert Wilson, averaged fifteen signatures per page on the front and back ends of his. Silver letters embossed on the green cover read "Joshua Tree '51" above an embossed image of a Joshua tree. Its arms raised pom-poms in the air.

In between those scrawled pages, my father grinned from every other page in football, the Chess Club, basketball, the Spanish Club, and the Block V, an elite campus organization composed of athletes who earned varsity letters in multiple sports. My father, in old black and white yearbook photos, grinned at me as if to say, "Try to top this."

In April 2012, I staggered into my father's empty bedroom at his Albuquerque home. He lay dying of prostate cancer and pneumonia on a hospice bed erected in his living room. A lifetime of awards surrounded him. From every wall and shelf, dusty trophies and yellowed "Certificate of Recognitions" held vigil before his wife boxed and gave them to me.

My hands shook as I held my father's yearbook. Letters from his old high school chums crammed the pages. He had attended many class reunions while I avoided mine. Unathletic and unpopular, in high school I dreamt I bought a letterman jacket, attached varsity letters, and impersonated an athlete. The real deal, my father beat me ninety to one in the yearbook signature race. A blowout.

The gap between my father and myself widened when I gazed at his yearbook. Neither the divorce, nor the distance, nor his death surpassed the chasm I felt. I counted his life accomplishments and thought of myself, "My, this apple sure fell far from the tree."

I left my father's bedroom and shared his yearbook with his two grief stricken friends, Eva and Judy. They had exited his living room to rest from the vigil. I held the pages open and said, "Look at all of these pictures of him." I convulsed, sobbed, and then burst into tears.

The women group hugged me and cooed, "We know losing a father is difficult."

I stammered, unable to confide I cried for my stillborn life instead of for my dying father. I grieved for my funeral instead of for his. I fell short of my father's example. His accomplishments dwarfed mine. Even his shoes swamped my feet. Sandwiched between two hugging women, I extended my father's yearbook away from my body. My tears missed the pages where he smiled.



Two years later, just before Christmas, my stepmother, Kristen, drove me to the Albuquerque Airport. She planned a move to Abilene, Texas, hired a realtor to sell my father's house, and gave away his things. I stuffed so many of my father's awards into my carry-on bag, the handle broke.

As she drove my father's green van with the cracked windshield, I turned to her and asked, "Kristen, if Dad were alive today, what would he say about me doing all of this storytelling?"

Kristen smiled like Santa Claus and gave me this one gift: "Oh, Andre, your father would be really, really proud of you. He would brag to all of his friends, 'That's my son!'"

I blinked and stared at the road ahead.

My father's last words haunted me for years. I had rushed halfway across country to Albuquerque's Lovelace Medical Center before his family moved him home for hospice. I burst into his hospital room. Family and friends, huddled around my father's bed, turned their faces towards mine, like sunflowers turned their faces towards the sun--the son. His wife, Kristen, leaned over his semi-conscious body, which protruded tubes and wires. She tapped his hospital gowned shoulder, smiled, and announced, "Fred, Andre's here. He'll help you with your papers."

His body shuddered, but his eyes remained closed. He whispered, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

At the time, his words resembled a borrowed line from an old Al Jolson movie when the world first heard a "talkie." I attributed the comment to the morphine-induced delirium of a man who reported he witnessed fireflies sparkle at the foot of his bed. I thought he talked about angels. As I reflect on the stories I wrote and performed since he passed, I realized my father talked about me.



Recognized


I composed "Ninety to One" for an oral storytelling contest known as the Moth StorySlam. I performed this story once from memory before an audience. I revised and added more details and stronger verbs than my crammed five minute performance. I plan to submit this story for publication.

I scanned a page from my father's yearbook. He is in the center.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.


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