I am at the 80th birthday party of my dad’s best friend. On a table are photos. I see one of my father, one I have never seen before. I would like to ask my dad about this. But I can’t.
He died 12 years ago.
The photo is black and white. Taken in the 1950s. In a world untouched by the pain of terrorists and Ebola – a black and white Beaver Cleaver world where no one gets sick, or has an eating disorder and commits suicide, or is homeless.
I see my dad. He is slightly slumped over, sitting at a dining room table amidst a flurry of young, fresh-scrubbed, happy folks. Virgins, they probably are, living in bliss without any venereal diseases or bullying. My dad is turning shyly, wryly to the camera, frozen in a position of wonder and sadness, something that he held deep within his heart all his life. His grey eyes, those I always looked to for courage, are just black pen dots in the small photo. I see his soul here. I see him looking into eternity with hope.
The picture is so beautiful – unfettered and unknowing what the future will hold, what tragedies await. No one in this captured moment knows how they will die. Who they will betray. What dreams will be shattered.
My dad is still. Stuck. Like a bust of a great orator in the Louvre. His face, his brows, his cheek bones are aching with epic beauty and softly spilling over with the gushes and glories of grace and youth – the sweet dew still moist on their petals. Like the first morning of time when God gave us day.
In the photo my dad knows not of the day he will drop to one knee in praise of my delicate mother, or his string of business failures and subsequent stroke. He has no imagining of the afternoon he will kick me in the shins for arguing with him or even, of our summer ritual of catching fireflies in the pink of the near night sky.
I see in him my inheritance of sloped saucer eyes and pouty lips – my DNA reflection, his face, one I used to look up to with toddler arms outstretched, begging him to pick me up and twirl me around in endless circles.
Oh, to live in a black and white world with little to no grey, no shifting sands. How comforting. The black and white colors feel definite. Safe – like I did with my father. They seal in the normal and contain not a shred of the uncertainty and heartbreak my life knows now.
I want to melt into the photo. I want to meet my dad there, in his shaky, tender youth, to tell him I will be there for him at his bedside when he dies in the cold, fluorescent light of the grey hospital. And not to worry. Everything will be fine. I will outlive you and miss you every day with every cell in my body.
Suddenly, I realize that someone is tugging at my elbow.
“I SAID, would you like a piece of cake?” said an unknown, nameless person at the party. A human woman, older and greying, in a prim, burnt orange pantsuit. I look up and offer a slight smile, which implies “yes.” Her tortoise shell bracelets clack together as she sets the red velvet cake down in front of me. Everything around me is electrically bright. Garish. Full of ugly blues, greens, yellows, and reds. The sound of the off-key singing of “Happy Birthday” clogs my ears. Lights flash from phones taking photos like signals from a lighthouse beckoning wayward ship captains home.
I want to go home, too, back to the black and white world, where my dad is, where I am loved.
Instead, I pierce the blaringly white icing atop the ruby, red velvet cake with my fork, hoping that the sweetness will erase my soul ache and soothe my way back to the demanding colors of the party – to life, where things, I’ve found, are rarely ever black and white.