On my forty-first birthday, I paddled my way back into my father’s life. It was the last place I wanted to be. I maneuvered my kayak around the peeling fishing boats and patched up houseboats that made up the floating shantytown, known to the local villagers derisively as “the dogpatch,” and headed towards my father’s faded red-trimmed home. I knew it was his from the CBC story about the eviction notices the residents had received. The local council had decided poor people anchoring in the bay was bad for tourism — and then there was my dad on the eleven o’clock news, standing on his boat boldly saying the folks of this floating community had just as much right to be using the public anchorage as anyone, and more right than some. Whatever else you can say about my dad, he was always a union man.
“Dad!” I called from the side of his boat. I heard shuffling, and then silence. “Peter John Murray!” I shouted in my most authoritative voice.
“Who’s calling?” he growled cautiously, poking his nose out, and then his face opened faster than the door. “Jellybean!?”
“Julie, Dad. Don’t call me Jellybean,” I said, colder than I had intended.
“Come in, come in!” He offered his hand, shrunken, veined and wrinkled, so different from the hands I had known, and helped me onto his porch. The houseboat sank a bit with my step. “You look tired,” he said, and then, looking around: “Did you bring your brother and sister?”
“You live on a boat, Dad, in the middle of nowhere. I had to come here by kayak.” He looked up, hurt in his eyes. “No. I didn’t bring them.”
“You kids always rallied around your mother,” he said, ushering me past his kitchenette to a cluttered wooden table where he started clearing away the crusted dishes, the room swaying under his step. “When your mother had a cold, all you kids would be there making her soup. You’d make a big deal about it, like she was dying. How long did you all stay at the hospital back when I had my lung surgery? When I’m sick, where are you all?”
I sat down.
“Are you sick, Dad?” I asked, tired already.
“No,” he said.
“Why do you think that is? Why do you think we looked after Mom?” I said tersely. I didn’t expect we’d get into it so quickly.
He reached down beside him and pulled out a plastic bag and his old tobacco pouch.
“Oh my god, are you smoking!?” This had been a bad idea.
“No, no. I keep my knitting in here. It keeps it organized and dry.” To my astonishment he took out some knitting needles and navy yarn and began deftly twisting the yarn around the needles adding to a row of stitches. “Viv taught me when I came out of the hospital and we first got the boat. It helped me quit smoking.”
I looked at this man who used to loom so large. He had been a giant in a darkened doorway and the sound of shattering glass. His feelings, his rages, his absences, were what our world revolved around; a twisted carousel we couldn’t get off no matter how sick it made us. Now he was shrunken, deflated, like someone had let most of the air out of him. This stranger in blue flannel, with a concave chest, missing teeth, and lonely eyes, was knitting a sweater.
I took the folded envelope from my pocket, the reason I had come, and slid it across the table. “It’s from mom,” I said.
His eyes lit up. “One of her letters!” he said, getting to his feet and shuffling to another room. After much thumping he returned with a dusty, crumpled box and started rummaging inside it. “Your mother used to write me when I was on the road. She’d send them to the truck stop if she knew where I was headed.” He opened a letter and pulled out a yellowed Polaroid picture and passed it to me, something like a broken child’s bracelet falling onto the table. The picture was of a baby covered in chocolate icing. “It’s your first birthday, Jellybean. She said you saw the cake and smashed your face right into it.” He picked up the bit of broken string. “It’s your first birthday candle. I kept it.” He grinned, shaking the pieces of wax still attached, and tried to pass it to me as though it were a treat.
“Don’t,” I said, turning away. “Don’t pretend like we were a normal family. Don’t pretend like you gave a shit.”
“I had to work,” he said defensively, the old edge rising in his voice.
He had changed, but not enough. Years of being the good one, the only one he didn’t kick like a dog, boiled over and spilled on the floor. “You had to work, yes, but did you have to drink? Did you have to disappear so we couldn’t find you? Did you have to throw mom?”
“She was difficult….”
His words were a match on long-dried ground. “Was Jimmy difficult too? Was he a particularly hard baby? What about Rebecca; was Becca a terrible toddler? Is that what we do with difficult things? We break them?”
“I thought we got along, Jellybean. You were always helping out with the truck…”
“I helped out,” I said, voice rising, “because I was the only one who could stand you long enough to pretend. I wanted to keep them safe. They don’t want anything to do with you.”
“Your mother,” he said, looking desperate and small, “your mother forgives me. She sent me a letter, after all this time.”
“Tell her that I love her.”
“I’m the executor of the will, Dad,” I said. “Mom’s dead.”
Like birthday candles, I watched the hope in his eyes go out.
Jo Farrall is a PhD Student in Communication who lives in Ottawa, Canada. She can do a lot of things, and she does.