On Wednesday nights, Dad would pull up the driveway in his Carolina blue Mercedes and honk the horn, cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth, hairy forearm hanging from the car window. My brothers and I would run down the front steps shouting, “Shotgun!” tugging at each other’s collars, attempting to hold the other one back.
He would take us to the Village Inn Pizza Parlor on Battleground Road, where they played silent films on a canvas in a dimly lit, wood paneled dining room. By the flickering light of some bygone silver screen stars, we’d devour a large cheese pizza and drink pitchers of Coca-Cola with crushed ice and talk about nothing in particular and everything in general.
“All these youngins yours, sugar?” the waitress would ask, surveying me and my three brothers like we were a certain sign of his virility.
“They sure are, honey,” Dad would reply.
That was the year language changed. “Our home” became “The house.” Possessive adjectives were too hefty to place into a sentence. Dad left Mom for a woman who was all of the things that she was not, blonde, young and childless. But, Wednesday nights and alternating weekends were ours, possessive. If he wanted to flirt, he could do it on his time, singular.
“I look just like my mother,” I said to the waitress.
The midweek meals and weekend sleepovers dwindled when my older brother went off to college. The last time we participated in a Wednesday night dinner, a Formica table divided the space between us at a McDonalds, while Dad drew down a cigarette. We spoke of nothing at all until he asked, “You about done?” and I replied “No, but we can go now.”
When Dad became ill, there was a sense deep down in my marrow that I needed to say something to him. The old, if you need to say anything, you better say it now, feeling. We’d be sitting in the afternoon sun on the brick patio, just the two of us and I’d rack my brain trying to fish up something worthy to say. Some timeless version of I love you, or I forgive you. I’d look over at his chemo withered frame and hairless head, but the words I was trying to push out would be sucked back in by a tide of embarrassment too strong to ford.
Funny, the things you remember when someone up and leaves; a cluster of red and yellow petals swirling in the sunlight on the front porch, the stench of stale breath and sweat soaked linens, a pair of skinny, pale legs twitching a death jig in a rental hospital bed and a smoke colored moon drifting through an inky black sky.
The last time I said anything to Dad was moments before he left. I sat in the coveted spot by his head and my brothers at his feet, as we counted the seconds between his final breaths.
“It’s OK, Dad, you can go now.”
That’s all I said.
Because the most important words I could think of to say were the ones my father was waiting to hear.